Biden seeks to shift focus to domestic issues after Afghanistan exit

White House plans to spend September pushing for passage of the president’s agenda, as he faces falling poll numbers

President Biden is seeking to press his legislative agenda and redouble efforts to combat the Covid-19 pandemic after Labor Day but the tumultuous withdrawal from Afghanistan may cast a long shadow over the fall.

Mr. Biden has sought to place the spotlight on domestic issues, including Friday’s underwhelming jobs report and recovery from Hurricane Ida, visiting New Orleans Friday and making plans to travel to the New York metropolitan area on Tuesday to assess storm damage. He is expected to focus heavily on his infrastructure and antipoverty legislation in the coming weeks, as Congress returns to Washington, as well as travel to California to campaign for Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat facing a recall election.


The packed calendar comes as Mr. Biden takes bipartisan heat for the chaotic exit from Afghanistan. A few Republicans have said the president should be impeached, and Mr. Biden’s poll numbers have taken a hit. Mr. Biden defended his approach in remarks to the nation and said he would bring remaining Americans in Afghanistan home.

The president said from the White House Friday that two tasks ahead in September are combating the Delta variant of Covid-19 and working with Congress to pass his agenda, saying the country is "not where we need to be in our economic recovery."

The administration will continue to face scrutiny of his handling of Afghanistan—possibly including congressional hearings or investigations.

"President Biden desperately wants to talk about anything but Afghanistan, but Americans who are hiding from the Taliban, ISIS, and the Haqqani network don’t give a damn about news cycles, long weekends, and polling—they want out," Sen. Ben Sasse (R., Neb.) said in a statement.

Polls show Mr. Biden’s standing has eroded as he has grappled with issues that are difficult to control: the Afghanistan withdrawal and the pandemic. An ABC News/Washington Post poll released Friday showed Mr. Biden’s approval rating had fallen to 44%, with 51% disapproving of his job performance, a shift from late June when 50% approved and 42% disapproved.

To move forward with his agenda, the president will need to navigate tripwires in a narrowly divided Congress.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D., W.Va.), an influential moderate vote, has injected fresh uncertainty into the future of the Democrats’ $3.5 trillion spending plan with calls for a timeout on the effort.


"Instead of rushing to spend trillions on new government programs and additional stimulus funding, Congress should hit a strategic pause," Mr. Manchin said in an opinion article in The Wall Street Journal.

White House chief of staff Ron Klain expressed optimism for the bill on CNN Sunday, saying, "If I had a nickel for every time someone’s told me this package has been dead, I would be a very, very rich person. It was dead back in May, when there was initial opposition to it. It was dead in June, the day the president went to Europe. It was dead in July again. All I have heard is how this package is going to be dead. And yet, amazingly, it continues to advance."

Mr. Biden and Democrats are trying to pass the $3.5 trillion package of child care, education, climate provisions and tax hikes on a party-line vote, following a bipartisan agreement on a $1 trillion infrastructure bill. White House officials said they spent much of August on behind-the scenes preparation and work has begun in some congressional committees, with lawmakers returning to session later in September. Progressives and moderates in the party have clashed over timing of the bills and further conflict is likely over the policy, the size of the $3.5 trillion package and the tax components.

The White House will also contend with looming deadlines to raise the federal borrowing limit, called the debt limit, and the expiration of the government’s current funding by the end of September.

The White House and congressional Democrats believe that the infrastructure and the broader legislative package are widely popular and see passage of those proposals as key to solidifying support ahead of the midterm elections. Democrats hold a narrow majority in the House and control the evenly divided Senate, but are at risk of losing power in next year’s elections.

"Going forward, what is going to matter for his approval rating is Covid and the economy, and that’s where his focus should be. If anything, Afghanistan makes it more likely Democrats will be aligned in wanting to pass these bills [infrastructure and reconciliation] because they know their collective survival in midterms depends on it," said Jennifer Palmieri, a former White House communications director under President Barack Obama.

Only a handful of Republicans have called for Mr. Biden’s impeachment over his handling of Afghanistan, but they have been harshly critical of the president on the issue.


Sen. Bill Cassidy (R., La.), who was among a group of Louisiana officials who greeted the president after his arrival in New Orleans Friday, said Mr. Biden handled Afghanistan "extremely poorly." But he praised the administration’s response to the hurricane in his state, saying, "They are working very hard to meet the needs of the people." Mr. Cassidy, who backed the infrastructure deal but opposes the antipoverty plan, also said he would continue to work with the president if their interests align.

"I can’t speak for all Republicans, for this Republican, it’s good for our country, good for my state, I’m going to work with the president in full cooperation," he said. "And if I think he’s doing a bad job for my state, for my country, then that is a separate issue."

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