The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness
The Daily 202

A lunchtime newsletter featuring political analysis on the stories driving the day.

No, Afghanistan wasn’t Biden’s polling Waterloo

The Daily 202

A lunchtime newsletter featuring political analysis on the stories driving the day.

Welcome to The Daily 202! Tell your friends to sign up here. Happy birthday to actor Danny Glover. And if you’re Gen X, you know the “Lethal Weapon” quote I have in mind. He was in his early 40s when he said it.

The big idea

No, Afghanistan wasn’t Biden’s polling Waterloo

Some commentators from very different places on the ideological spectrum appear to be having a meeting of the minds on President Biden’s terrible job approval rating: It all started with the media coverage of the withdrawal from Afghanistan. There are reasons to treat this diagnosis with intense skepticism.

My colleague Perry Bacon got the ball rolling with a column on Monday looking at Biden’s job approval rating, which has sunk since he took office from 57 percent to 41 percent according to Gallup, and from 54 percent to 37 percent in a Washington Post average of public polls.

“What caused Biden’s dip was the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan — or, rather, the media’s 24/7, highly negative coverage of it,” Perry wrote.

  • “To be clear, Biden deserved criticism,” he noted. “But for much of August, the homepages of major newspapers and cable news programs were dominated by Afghanistan coverage, as if the chaotic withdrawal was the only thing happening in the world.

The “media hysteria,” Perry said, “drove down Biden’s popularity with the public, giving the media justification for even more coverage that cast the president as struggling.”

There’s a lot more to Perry’s column that I can't get into here, and you should read it. And when you’re done, have a look at this rebuttal from Charlie Sykes in the Bulwark.

“In Bacon’s telling, Biden’s problem wasn’t just the shambolic, chaotic, disastrous pull-out, but the ‘highly negative’ coverage,” wrote Sykes, who pointed out it wasn’t the first time we’d seen this genre of defense of Biden, and criticism of the media, since January 2021.

Sykes — who noted the deaths of 13 U.S. service members in a suicide attack at the airport in Kabul and the U.S. drone attack ultimately revealed to have killed 10 civilians, including seven children — seems to basically agree with Perry about the importance of the withdrawal to Biden’s polling journey. But he argues the coverage was tough-but-fair.

The withdrawal clearly didn’t help the president. Heartbreaking images of Afghans clinging to departing American military jets, some falling to their deaths after takeoff, didn’t help. Top generals contradicting Biden’s claim no one advised him to leave a residual military force didn’t help. 

The administration’s day-to-day inability or unwillingness to say how many Americans had been evacuated, and how many remained on the ground, didn’t exactly project an image of unimpeachable competence. Nor did leaving behind Afghans who aided the war effort.

The turmoil in Afghanistan also forced the White House to postpone a domestic PR blitz to showcase Biden’s domestic successes.

When Biden’s polling slide began

But both Perry and Sykes attach too much importance to the withdrawal’s impact on Biden’s poll numbers.

How so? 

First, let’s go back to Gallup. In June 2021, Biden was at 56 percent job approval. By early August — crucially, in polling mostly conducted before the Afghanistan withdrawalBiden had slipped to 49 percent. So the slide began well before the pull-out.

Second, let’s look at summer 2021 more broadly in terms of what Americans were seeing and reading.

  • At CNN, Betsy Klein had this rundown: The withdrawal, yes. But also “surging cases, hospitalizations and deaths driven by the Delta variant” of the coronavirus. Solid job growth but worrisome inflation numbers. Supply chain problems. Democratic infighting over Biden’s domestic agenda (infighting the White House would later blame for hurting the president’s standing!). And a sharp rise in migrants attempting to cross the southern border, including “the highest monthly number of migrants detained at the US-Mexico border in two decades.”

So covid was raging and the economy wasn’t back to normal, confounding two of Biden’s core campaign promises, and there were many other issues.

Global problems, local pain

Another problem that The Daily 202 has repeatedly flagged, but it really matters in this discussion: Covid, inflation, gas prices are global phenomena that become local news stories, experienced at schools and on commutes, far from the green rooms of inside-the-Beltway media. 

Biden also has a polling worry Trump never really endured: Losing support from his base. Trump famously boasted he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and not lose any voters. Going by Gallup, Trump had 88 percent approval from GOP voters on his 11th day in office but by Day 527 he was at … 88 percent.

Biden had 98 percent approval from Democrats on his 13th day in office, but had fallen to 85 percent on Day 516. And that is one of Biden's best polls, with four other surveys finding his ratings among Democrats have fallen into the 70s. He has struggled to deliver on liberal priorities — think “voting rights,” climate policy, or the once-expansive agenda of Build Back Better, now much whittled down. Even many Democrats say the country is going in the wrong direction.

That, too, weighs on Biden’s numbers.

Polling wiz Emily Guskin contributed to this report.

What’s happening now

Trump, Pence make dueling appearances in Arizona, as both eye 2024

“Today, former president Donald Trump and former vice president Mike Pence plan appearances in Arizona with rival Republican gubernatorial candidates. It’s the latest sign that Pence is distancing himself from his former boss as they both eye potential 2024 White House bids. Trump’s rally will provide a platform for him to respond to Thursday’s prime-time hearing of the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection. The panel featured dramatic testimony about how little Trump did to quell the violence that day,” John Wagner and Mariana Alfaro report.

Closing arguments underway in Steve Bannon contempt trial

“U.S. District Judge Carl J. Nichols has said he will wait until jurors return a verdict or are discharged before ruling on a defense motion challenging two issues: whether prosecutors have met their burden of proof, and the judge’s rejection of a defense request to call as a witness Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.), the chairman of the House Jan. 6 committee,” Devlin Barrett and Spencer S. Hsu report.

Russia and Ukraine agree to release blockaded grain exports

“Russia and Ukraine agreed Friday to restart shipments of blockaded grain, in a step toward easing a global crisis that has exposed tens of millions of people, especially in Africa and the Middle East, to the threat of acute hunger, the United Nations secretary general announced,” Kareem Fahim reports.

Twitter posts surprise drop in revenue amid battle with Elon Musk

“Twitter on Friday reported a surprise revenue decline and steep losses in the second quarter, citing the tough economic environment and its battles with Elon Musk,” Aaron Gregg reports.

Lunchtime reads from The Post

‘I don’t want to say the election’s over.’ Trump dug in after Jan. 6 attack.

In outtakes from President Trump’s address to the nation on Jan. 7, 2021, he went off script and refused to say “the election is over.” (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Tom Brenner/The Washington Post)

“ ‘I don’t want to say the election’s over,’ ” Trump said as he recorded the statement on Jan. 7. “ ‘I just want to say Congress has certified the results without saying the election is over. ’”

“Outtakes of the taping played Thursday evening by the House committee investigating the attack on the Capitol revealed the former president’s frustration and pique at struggling through his script. He clenched his jaw. He slammed his right palm on the lectern. His daughter Ivanka Trump coached him from the sidelines,” Rosalind S. Helderman and Josh Dawsey report.

Frantic Secret Service radio traffic show how close Pence was to danger

“For 13 minutes on Jan. 6, 2021, as smoke clouded the air and Vice President Mike Pence hid from rioters in his office adjacent to the Senate chamber, his Secret Service detail scrambled — in increasingly frantic radio messages — to clear a path for Pence to flee the Capitol,” Ashley Parker, Isaac Stanley-Becker and Carol D. Leonnig report.

Kagan says questions of legitimacy risky for Supreme Court

“Liberal Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan said Thursday that it would be a ‘dangerous thing’ for the court and for democracy if the justices stray too far from public sentiment and lose the confidence of Americans,” Nick Ehli and Robert Barnes report.

… and beyond

DHS watchdog has launched criminal probe into destruction of Jan. 6 Secret Service text messages

“The Department of Homeland Security’s Inspector General has launched a criminal investigation into the circumstances surrounding the destruction of Secret Service text messages that may have been relevant to inquiries about the Jan. 6 Capitol riot,” two sources familiar with the matter told NBC News's Pete Williams and Julia Ainsley.

U.S. to seek dispute settlement talks with Mexico over energy policy

“The United States will request dispute settlement consultations with Mexico under a regional trade deal over what it considers discriminatory Mexican energy policies, according to two Mexican sources and a draft announcement reviewed by Reuters on Tuesday,” Dave Graham and Anthony Esposito report.

The one time Trump couldn’t lie his way out of a crisis

“Trump had known for a while that COVID-19 was poised to spark a pandemic unlike the globe had seen in a hundred years. After he and other top aides, among them Mike Pence and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, initially downplayed warnings coming from elsewhere in the administration — including from national security aide Matt Pottinger and trade adviser Peter Navarro — the president had grown convinced of the danger posed by what he often dubbed ‘the plague.’ He confided in the journalist Bob Woodward as far back as February 7 that he knew the virus was deadly,” Politico's Jonathan Lemire reports. (This is an excerpt from Lemire's upcoming book, “The Big Lie.”)

“But publicly, Trump lied.”

The Biden agenda

White House clash with Pelosi over Taiwan spills into the open

“Behind the scenes, White House and Defense Department officials have already been quietly relaying the risks of a potential trip to Pelosi’s office, according to three people with knowledge of the discussions. But since news of the trip emerged on Tuesday, the president’s public comments have ramped up pressure on the speaker to address those concerns,” Politico’s Lara Seligman and Andrew Desiderio report.

Noteworthy: “As the Biden administration raises concerns about the trip, Republicans are backing up Pelosi, noting that she has a long track record of pushing back against China.”

Biden’s bout with covid tests his return-to-normal strategy

“If Biden emerges quickly from his bout with covid-19, it will be a high-profile demonstration of his broader vow: A return to normalcy is possible thanks to vaccines and treatments, despite surging cases and the ongoing pandemic,” Dan Diamond reports.

"But if the president should be sick for an extended period or, worse, fall gravely ill, he’ll join many other Americans who have struggled to remain healthy in a world with scant mask-wearing and social distancing, and fuel further criticism that his virus strategy falls short, especially for the most vulnerable.”

Supreme Court won’t reinstate Biden policy limiting immigration arrests

“The court instead said it will hear the merits of the case in December. The practical result is that the administration will not be able to implement its strategy for the rest of the year. The Biden administration had protested that it was unfair to allow a single district judge to disrupt the executive branch’s immigration priorities on a nationwide basis,” Maria Sacchetti and Robert Barnes report.

Democrats' fundraising v. Republicans', visualized

“Despite the GOP’s apparent momentum in the midterms, Democratic Senate candidates as a whole are far outpacing Republicans in many key races when it comes to campaign money, as we learned last week," Aaron Blake and Chris Zubak-Skees report.

Hot on the left

Democrats are fumbling their chance to make insulin more affordable

“Congress has proposed legislation that would help address this crisis by limiting annual increases in drugs’ list prices to the rate of inflation, capping patients’ out-of-pocket costs, and allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices, including for insulin. These reforms are popular and a core component of President Joe Biden’s plan to address inflation. But the window to enact them is rapidly closing,” Matt McConnell writes for the Nation.

“This urgency is not lost on Senate Democrats, who are moving forward with plans to enact these comprehensive drug price reforms through the budget reconciliation process, which only requires 50 votes in the Senate. But in a sudden — and unexplained — policy shift, when the draft version of this reform package was submitted to the Senate parliamentarian on July 6, it removed previously uncontroversial provisions that included all insulin products in Medicare negotiation and capped health insurance copays for insulin at $35.”

Hot on the right

Democrats’ ‘contraception’ bill overrides religious-freedom law and protects abortion

“By including the same poison-pill language about RFRA in their ‘Right to Contraception Act,’ Democrats appear to be taking a page from their 2012 playbook: picking a fight over religious liberty in order to portray Republicans as opposing the legal right to contraception,” John McCormack writes for the National Review.

Today in Washington

At 3 p.m., press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre and covid-19 coordinator Ashish Jha will brief.

In closing

Can anyone confirm?

Thanks for reading. See you next week.