Aug 15, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Afghanistan withdrawal began Biden's political slide

President Biden's job approval rating, by party
Correction: The Fall of Kabul date was fixed to show it happened in 2021, not 2022. Data: Gallup; Chart: Jacque Schrag/Axios

The fall of Kabul to the Taliban a year ago sparked a new crisis for the Afghan people and a sobering reality check about what two decades of western intervention couldn't accomplish. It also coincided with a political drop for President Biden.

Why it matters: The economy, not foreign policy, is the biggest driver of presidential approval ratings in the U.S., pollsters and political scientists say. But a year later, it's impossible to deny that aspects of the Afghanistan exit affected Americans' views of Biden's ability to deliver on his promises.

  • The chaotic scenes from Kabul also damaged Biden's relations with allies overseas — though his handling this year of the Ukraine crisis has restored much of the lost confidence, diplomats told Axios.
  • The exit of U.S. forces from Afghanistan after more than two decades was set in motion by former President Trump and completed on President Biden's watch.

By the numbers Biden's approval rating was 49% at the start of August 2021, according to Gallup polling. A month later, after the completion of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, it was 43%. Today, it is 38%.

"Yes, kind of," is the best answer to whether the U.S. exit from Afghanistan hurt Biden's standing with Americans in a lasting way, Mohamed Younis, editor-in-chief of Gallup News, told Axios.

  • "Historically, what we’ve found is that the economy is always really the driving factor of how Americans rate the president," he said. "When we ask people, 'What are you going to vote on,' foreign affairs is almost never mentioned.
  • "The presidential approval rating definitely dipped after Afghanistan, and it’s hard to argue that it had no impact," Younis said. At the same time, "It’s hard to solidly conclude everything fell apart because of Afghanistan."
  • "It’s not like things dropped and held where they were. They kept falling. A lot of other things we know are historically way more important to Americans were also unfolding."

Between the lines: Republicans' already very low approval of Biden, and independents' divided approval, dropped during the withdrawal from Afghanistan, the polling shows, and hasn't rebounded.

  • Democrats' very high approval of Biden also declined during the withdrawal, then rebounded, only to begin a longer slide since the fourth quarter of last year as inflation took off.
  • The Delta variant of COVID and rising inflation were also beginning to take off right around the same time as the withdrawal, and those trends also hurt Biden.

What we're hearing: The chaotic scenes from Kabul also damaged Biden's relations with allies overseas, some of which were dismayed by what they saw as a lack of coordination and preparation from Biden's team.

  • "It was a shock and it will remain a shock. There was also kind of brutality in leaving that way, and in the fall," one diplomat from a close ally told Axios, describing the decision as "another version of America First."
  • Consultation with coalition partners about the withdrawal had been "more cosmetic than profound," the diplomat added.
  • "We were very surprised, but I don't think we ever thought, 'These people are incompetent,'" another diplomat from a close ally says. "I think sometimes they come with a know-it-all approach that leads them to make mistakes."

Both diplomats say confidence in Biden has grown significantly since the fall of Kabul, particularly due to his handling of the Ukraine crisis.

  • "You could see the difference in the approach, in the messaging. It was much more coordinated and it was easier to speak with one voice [as allies]," the first diplomat says.
  • "Definitely we saw an improvement of the U.S. image over the past year, and it definitely starts with Ukraine," the second diplomat says. "We see that the U.S. is not withdrawing from the world."

What they're saying:

  • White House National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said in a statement that the Intelligence Community has assessed that “al-Qa’ida has not reconstituted its presence in Afghanistan since the U.S. departure in August 2021 – and that Ayman al-Zawahiri was the only key al-Qa’ida figure who attempted to reestablish their presence in country."
  • Biden “has rebuilt our alliances and restored our credibility on the world stage after four years of former President Trump’s presidency damaged America’s reputation and left us increasingly isolated internationally and from our allies and partners,” Watson said.
  • “ Look no further than our response to Russia’s war on Ukraine and how President Biden has rallied the world and built a coalition of countries to support Ukraine and support measures to hold Russia accountable.”

Editor's note: This story was updated to add that the exit of U.S. forces from Afghanistan was set in motion by former President Trump and completed on President Biden's watch.

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