President Joe Biden is carrying out some of Donald Trump’s biggest campaign promises by leaving America’s longest war, targeting economic aid at forgotten Americans and building an infrastructure plan that may actually happen.
The current White House is, of course, a sharp political and behavioral reaction to the previous one. And Biden is never going to finish his predecessor’s border wall, berate allies or set a mob on the US Capitol.
But the 45th and 46th presidents do share an understanding of several key economic and societal forces driving modern life outside Washington. And both, in different ways, shaped their appeal by convincing ordinary Americans who feel left behind that they were committed to working for them.
With his new vow Wednesday to get troops home from Afghanistan and his big legislative proposals that elevate the working class, including a $2 trillion infrastructure bill, Biden is eying achievements his predecessor talked up but failed to accomplish.
Biden, like Trump and President Barack Obama before him, ran for office on a platform of extricating Americans from quagmires, spending the trillions such wars cost here at home and restoring economic fairness.
While the previous two presidents made progress in various ways toward those goals, the current commander-in-chief has put them at the heart of everything he does. Political and outside factors could still frustrate Biden — not least a wafer-thin margin of error in a 50-50 Senate. And the world has a habit of disregarding American presidents and their big foreign policy pronouncements.
But so far, Biden is not being distracted. Indeed he is turning his plans to beat the pandemic into a double purposed quest to lift up everyday Americans — one reason why his $1.9 trillion Covid relief plan was quite popular with Republican voters, if not their representatives. And he and national security adviser Jake Sullivan envisage a foreign policy built around the needs of US workers — Americans First, rather than Trump’s “America First” philosophy.
Biden’s decision to wind down America’s longest war drew ample criticism Wednesday from prominent military figures and hawkish Republicans. South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, for example, said Biden was canceling “an insurance policy” that “would prevent another 9/11.” But the President’s action was largely aligned with public sentiment nearly 20 years after the 9/11 attacks. The White House acknowledged on Wednesday that there was disagreement among some of Biden’s military and national security advisers. Ultimately the President was guided in part by his popular campaign promise to voters that he would end “forever wars.”
Trump made a similar promise, but never followed through. In harsh terms before he ran for the White House, Trump called the war in Afghanistan “a complete waste” on Twitter and voiced his disapproval for “wasted lives” in the conflict. Pledging to halt “endless wars,” Trump often said America ought to “rebuild the US first,” a line that drew applause at his rallies and made many of his working-class supporters believe that he would put their needs first — even though many of his economic policies ultimately ended up favoring the wealthy and big corporations.
Biden never demeaned the lives that were lost in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, but — like Trump — he argued in his own way that those “forever wars” distracted from more pressing issues at home. On the campaign trail in 2020, he often noted with pride that he had argued against Obama’s surge of troops to Afghanistan in favor of a smaller, more nimble footprint focused on counterterrorism, and said he strongly opposed the “nation-building” strategy that the US had adopted in Afghanistan.
Never losing sight of the audience that he needed to win the presidency, he also spoke of shaping a foreign policy that aimed to bolster America’s middle class by sharpening the competitive edge of the US against China and other foreign powers. “Staying entrenched in unwinnable conflicts drains our capacity to lead on other issues that require our attention,” Biden wrote in the March/April 2020 issue of “Foreign Affairs,” “and it prevents us from rebuilding the other instruments of American power.”
Biden’s Afghanistan decision carries risk
When he stood on exactly the spot Wednesday in the White House Treaty Room where President George W. Bush announced the start of the country’s longest conflict, Biden announced it was time to leave. He made a point that contradicted much Beltway foreign policy doctrine but that has long occurred to that minority of citizens who send their children to fight America’s wars.
“We went to Afghanistan because of a horrific attack that happened 20 years ago. That cannot explain why we should remain there in 2021,” Biden said.
A majority of Americans agree with Biden’s sentiments. During the two most recent presidential elections, voters often said that US goals for remaining in Afghanistan were increasingly unclear and support for the conflict has waned over time, even among Republicans. By 2018, about half of adults (49%) said the US had mostly failed in achieving its goals in Afghanistan, and only about a third (35%) said America had mostly succeeded, according to a Pew Research Center survey that year. A 2019 Pew survey found that 59% of American adults said the war in Afghanistan was not worth fighting, and a stunning 58% of US veterans said the same.
On Wednesday, the President announced that all US and allied troops will leave by the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks in five months time. To show his admiration for the valor of American troops who fought in that part of the world, he paired his announcement with a visit to Arlington National Cemetery. He stood somberly in Section 60, the sacred grave sites of post-9/11 war dead — the total of which outnumbers the toll from the al-Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington.
The visit underscored the gravity of his announcement Wednesday. There are many foreign policy and national security reasons why Biden’s decision to defy the advice of his generals could turn out to be a mistake.
Kabul could fall to the Taliban, ushering a new dark age for Afghan women and girls. Terrorists could again use the country as a haven that threatens the US — though militants have footings in plenty of other failed states.
Obama and Trump flinched at a withdrawal from Afghanistan for many of those same reasons. But Biden, after watching new war plans, troops surges, partial withdrawals and talks with Taliban all fail to pave the way home for US forces while serving as a senator and vice president, has made his decision.
“When will it be the right moment to leave? One more year? Two more years? Ten more years? Ten, 20, 30 billion dollars more than the trillion we have already spent? ‘Not now?’ — that’s how we got here,” Biden said.
He emphasized that the US will not conduct a “hasty rush to the exit,” but rather would draw down troops “responsibly, deliberately and safely” and focus on reorganizing the nation’s counterterrorism capabilities and assets in the region to “prevent reemergence of terrorists — of the threat to our homeland from over the horizon.”
But Biden argued that it is time to “focus on the challenges that are in front of us,” at a time when “terrorist networks and operations have spread far beyond Afghanistan since 9/11.” Part of that work, he said, is shoring up “American competitiveness to meet the stiff competition we’re facing from an increasingly assertive China.”
“We’ll be much more formidable to our adversaries and competitors over the long term if we fight the battles for the next 20 years, not the last 20,” the President said.
Those arguments about strengthening and repositioning America to lead on the world stage have been at the center of Biden’s agenda throughout his brief presidency, particularly in the Covid relief package and his $2 trillion infrastructure bill.
Trump also talked about the need for a sharper competitive edge, and his supporters would argue that he handsomely honored his campaign promise to alleviate the suffering of many of the Midwestern Americans whose jobs disappeared in decades of post-industrial globalization. The US economy roared under Trump — until the pandemic that he ignored and denied shredded growth and millions of jobs. But even when things were going well, the President’s signature legislative achievement — tax reform — did more to direct wealth toward the wealthy and corporations than the forgotten Americans that he so often addressed in his remarks.
Biden has maintained an approval rating above 50% in part by focusing on the nation’s most urgent issues, like accelerating the nation’s Covid-19 vaccination program and pouring funding into initiatives aimed at helping schools reopen, a critical step in getting the economy back on stronger footing. He has already made good on his campaign promise to deliver stimulus checks to middle and working-class Americans, adding another payment of up to $1,400 to the $600 that was part of a December package passed before he took office. He has expanded the definition of “infrastructure” beyond crumbling roads and bridges to proposals like payments for elderly and poorer Americans who need home health care.
While the power of cultural conservatism and Trump-style populism may prevent Biden from ever winning over the former President’s voters, many of the Democrat’s policies are aimed to help working class Republican voters as much as they do Democrats. Americans clearly aren’t sold yet on Biden’s infrastructure proposal — a Quinnipiac poll on Wednesday said a plurality (44%) support it and 38% do not — but a sizable portion of voters (19%) said they were still making up their minds.
By contrast, “Infrastructure week” was a perennial punchline in Trump’s chaotic White House as the ex-President never managed to stay sufficiently focused to make progress on the one issue on which Democrats might have joined him.
So far, the difference between the last administration and this one has been the ability to execute. Biden has yet to win the bipartisan cooperation he longs for, but he is attempting to show Americans that he is focused on crossing off his campaign promises, one at a time, without distractions — and that may go a long way in building the trust he needs to succeed.