Aug 22, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Biden recess plan omits Afghanistan

President Biden.

Photo: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images

The White House is downplaying Afghanistan in outside-the-Beltway events during the August congressional recess, hoping voters will pay more attention to President Biden's big spending plans.

Why it matters: Democrats privately fear political blowback, even though the White House insists voters aren't talking about the Kabul calamity.

What they're saying: White House senior adviser Neera Tanden didn't mention Afghanistan once when Axios asked her how much the events of the past week will affect what Biden can accomplish on the Hill.

  • "We developed our plan around August recess in July," she said. "We planned for a cadence of multiple events a week around 'Build Back Better' and infrastructure and we have been operationalizing that plan and will continue to do so."
  • "So we’re going to continue that work, and this agenda is important to the public."

Between the lines: The Atlantic's Peter Nicholas argued in a piece published Friday titled, "Biden Is Betting Americans Will Forget About Afghanistan," that the White House is "relying on Americans’ notoriously short-term memory."

  • The White House insists that Democratic lawmakers are excited to have Cabinet members hosting events in their districts around infrastructure, climate and energy, health care and the economy.
  • But communications strategies can only do so much amid the reality and images emerging from Afghanistan.

Behind the scenes: Since joining the White House in May as senior adviser to Biden, Tanden has kept a low profile. But her role, after losing a confirmation fight to be Biden's budget director, is setting her up to have outsized power in helping sell the president's agenda.

  • When Tanden helped create the White House plan for selling Democrats' agenda during the August recess, Afghanistan wasn't among the policy priorities to discuss with voters. It still isn't.

Aides are tracking whether opposition surfaces at vulnerable House Democrats' town halls and district events this month.

  • "There are numerous components of 'Build Back Better' that are incredibly popular amongst Republicans," Tanden told Axios.
  • "It’s challenging for them to create the kind of energy they did in past eras," she added, pointing out that the White House is seeing nothing like the emotionalism around the Affordable Care Act during former President Obama's first term.

According to internal White House documents obtained by Axios, aides have tracked 18 town halls or events with Democratic lawmakers this month.

  • At least six were virtual or by phone. So while the White House says there's been "no organized opposition" from angry Republicans, as seen in past August recesses, that would be hard to know.
  • An event with Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) allowed only written questions — and those weren’t documented. Instead, a White House document notes that the senator "discussed infrastructure."
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