Until last week, Biden’s Afghan policy had been framed as strict adherence to his withdrawal deadline. And that insistence opened him to a wave of criticism for his short-sightedness and political motivation – the pullout was timed to mark the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks that effectively started the war.
Biden’s resolve appeared to fade a bit on Sunday night when, in response to two back-to-back questions about his August 31 deadline, he said his “hope” was “not to have to extend it.”
“But,” he added, “there are going to be discussions, I suspect how far along we are in the process.” Administration officials cite the thousands of evacuations that have taken place in recent days as an example of their agility.
It wouldn’t be the first time in recent months that the White House has passed a major deadline of its own creation: the administration missed its July 4 benchmark to vaccinate 70% of American adults against Covid-19 with at least one stroke. This miss has since become a symbol of the bigger problems the administration has faced in containing Covid.
The president’s setbacks in Afghanistan and in the fight against the coronavirus were due, in part, to intelligence failures and unforeseen variables. The rapid pace with which the Taliban took control of Afghanistan has challenged many of the predictions from top Biden officials. And the growing cases of the Delta variant – alongside the reluctance of much of the public to be vaccinated – have also imposed themselves much faster and more forcefully than officials anticipated.
Yet, in close succession, they pose threats to Biden’s reputation as a steady hand with institutional wisdom that helps him see around corners. And they complicated his carefully planned agenda and forced him to answer for failing.
For days, the White House has sought to contain the fallout on Afghanistan, with administration officials saying they are focusing intensely on extracting vulnerable Americans and Afghans from the country. On Sunday, Biden said the US military had extended access around Kabul International Airport and adopted a somewhat softer tone in acknowledging the humanitarian consequences of the US withdrawal. “There is no way to evacuate so many people without pain or loss, heartbreaking images that you see on television,” he said. “It’s just a fact. My heart is aching for these people you see.
Biden’s aides complained to the media sensationalized the issues in Afghanistan and too focused on the process, including setting dates. They said some of the coverage was out of step with most Americans, who support a withdrawal from the 20 Years War.
A new NBC poll, however, complicates this argument. In the survey, the majority of those interviewed said they were in favor of leaving Afghanistan. But only 25% approved of Biden’s handling of the withdrawal. This is yet another politically worrying sign for the president, whose approval had fallen below 50 percent before the Afghan turmoil erupted.
Biden’s deadlines have become a hallmark of his tenure and campaign. After spending more than three decades on Capitol Hill, where deadlines – more than any other motivator – determine action, an explicit focus on timing is ingrained in almost everything the President does.
A White House official said the July deadline was used to speed up vaccinations, contributing to a marked increase in the number of shots fired. The official added that Biden had previously expressed the need for a timeline for Afghanistan. The idea was that if the United States had not set that deadline, the Taliban would have launched another offensive, requiring an increase of thousands more American troops at risk.
In the end, the United States had to increase its troops anyway, to help ensure the safety of a hasty evacuation the administration had not considered. And they can still be there indefinitely after August 31.
Biden’s White House had a very different experience with the first major deadline for his presidency, which Biden set even before he was sworn in – promising that under his administration 100 million vaccines would be administered in his first 100 mandate days. He encountered that and then some, in March, announcing a new benchmark – doubling it to 200 million – that the administration again encountered before it even hit the 100-day mark.
“Today we hit 200 million hits on the 92nd day in office,” said a triumphant Biden on April 21. “Two hundred million hits in 100 days – in less than 100 days, in fact. It’s an incredible achievement for the nation.
This bravado has set expectations for its next major deadline – getting at least one bullet in the arms of 70% of adults 18 and over by July 4. As the date approached, it was clear that the pace of the vaccinations would not keep up and meet the target. While the administration has made significant progress – reaching 67% of adults – their failure to meet their own goal portended a grim turning point for the pandemic and gave an opening for criticism.
“The attitude of that administration was, ‘We have this. We will have the vaccinations done by July 4th. Everything is going to be normal, ”said Karl Rove, the veteran Republican strategist who worked for George W. Bush. “It was a big mistake. In reality, no one knows if it could happen or not, but the fact that he said it would cause people to raise their expectations. “
Indeed, Biden last month trumpeted that the country “is emerging from one of the darkest years in our country’s history in a summer of hope and joy.” But then he added: “I hope,” admitting that his words reflected his optimism more than the reality.
Now, the rapid spread of the delta variant is casting doubt on another of its big goals: to open schools for 100% in-person instruction this fall.
Deadlines aren’t always so bad, especially when the stakes are lower. In the vice-presidential draw, Biden missed at least two major deadlines before choosing his running mate. He let so much time pass that close allies of several of the women were able to circulate negative information designed to tarnish the image of their rivals, creating the precise public spectacle that Biden had tried to avoid.
Biden urged Congress to pass police reform by May 25, the anniversary of George Floyd’s murder by police in Minnesota. This deadline has come and gone. He missed the deadline to impose the sanctions required on Russia for the poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny. There were also deadlines on climate, commissions and mask standards. And he reset the May 1 target to withdraw from Afghanistan to September 11, before finally moving it to August 31, acknowledging in the July 8 remarks on the planned withdrawal of US forces that the Taliban were at their most. strong since 2001.
“The worst deadline you can set is ‘ASAP’,” said Christopher Cox, author of “The Deadline Effect,” a new book about the power of deadlines. “Because he’s the one who is pushed the most. It sounds very urgent, but actually has the effect of making things so abstract that you don’t make concrete progress towards your goals.
Cox, who has followed Biden’s biggest deadlines, said it was much wiser for the president to “keep setting goals and deadlines that they then miss to keep things more open and take even more. delay”.
White House deadlines designed to spur progress on Capitol Hill on infrastructure negotiations ultimately helped forge a breakthrough on a massive bipartisan package. The urgent push called on Biden to move from the first group of Republican senators to a second to close the deal.
In other areas, Biden’s own deadlines have clashed with other branches of government or his own bureaucracy, hampering his ability to meet them. Indeed, administration officials in areas involving the Department of Justice and Public Health emphasize its promises to let subject matter experts determine the best course of action as the reason for slower action.
The president’s desire to publish public expiration dates contrasts with his predecessor, President Donald Trump, who didn’t set deadlines so much as he proposed arbitrary dates and then worked his way through them . Trump’s “Infrastructure Week” quickly became a running joke; he repeatedly pledged a Republican health plan to replace Obamacare and a tax cut for the GOP’s middle class ahead of the 2018 midterm elections, which never materialized. Even when he gave a timeline, such as for decisions on the Paris agreement on climate, infrastructure and a plan to confront ISIS, Trump resorted to a throwaway line: “I would say in the course of two or three next weeks.” And, as Biden’s advisers repeatedly note, it was Trump’s own Afghanistan deadline that sparked the rocky pullback that is now occurring under Biden’s watch.
Defenders of Biden’s Afghan policy insist he was placed in an almost impossible position and they don’t blame him for trying to stick to his schedule, despite the dawning reality that some aspects of the mission will take longer. of time.
“We probably lost this war 15 years ago. And yet, no one was prepared to make the difficult choice of actually withdrawing the troops. He could have extended the deadline until 2050 and you would have seen, I think, the same collapse and the same chaos, ”said Paul Begala, the Democratic strategist and veteran of the White House. “I know I’m part of a distinct minority here of experts, but I think I’m part of the solid majority of Americans who think he’s doing exactly what it takes to screw us up.”
But many Democrats point out that equating support for a full troop withdrawal from Afghanistan and wanting to avoid the dangerous scenario playing out today on the ground essentially obscures the issue.
“It’s not about the actual delays per se. It’s about getting out and doing the job well. And the chaos that everyone has witnessed has shown anything but doing a good job, ”said Mary Anne Marsh, a Democratic strategist. “So the deadline shouldn’t determine what Biden does – the way he does it should determine the deadline. Whatever he has to do to get the job done in terms of timing, he should take it – but get the job done and do it well. Everyone supports this. “