At the heart of Joe Biden’s 2020 presidential campaign was a single word: competence.
After four years of Donald Trump’s incompetence in, well, everything, the Biden argument was that the country badly needed a steady hand on the tiller – someone who had been there and done that. Someone who didn’t need training to do the job. Someone who was exactly the opposite of the guy currently in office.
And it worked. Rather than see Biden’s age – he’s 78 – as a negative, plenty of voters believed his decades of experience were what the country needed in the post-Trump era. Knowing how the federal bureaucracy worked mattered. So did having good relationships with world leaders. And having seen everything there was to see on both the domestic and foreign policy fronts.
Seven months into his first term, however, Biden is faced with nothing short of a crisis of that competence, beset on a number of fronts with developments that it appears all of his experience and know-how didn’t prevent.
The glaring example is, of course, the rapid takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban in the wake of Biden’s decision to pull American troops out of the country.
In announcing the end of the American military commitment in Afghanistan just over a month ago, Biden had proclaimed that “there’s going to be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of an embassy of the United States in Afghanistan.”
Except that over the weekend, images were beamed back to the United States of helicopters airlifting people from the parking lot of the US Embassy in Kabul. And on Monday morning came even more devastating images: Afghans clinging to an American plane as it took off from the country.
The overwhelming message? The situation was totally and completely out of control – and neither Biden nor his top foreign policy advisers could stop it.
While the crisis in Afghanistan is front and center in this reexamining of Biden’s competence argument, it’s far from the only data point in that conversation.
Remember back in May, Biden announced that the CDC had said vaccinated people no longer needed to wear masks indoors – a development he described as a “great milestone?” Just two months later, however, Biden was forced to reverse himself amid a surge in cases caused by the Delta variant.
And while Biden was congratulating himself and the country this spring on the number of people who had been vaccinated against Covid-19, his administration came up short of its oft-stated goal of 70% of eligible adults with at least one shot of the vaccine by July 4.
To be clear: The rise of the Delta variant – fueled by the still-unvaccinated and by many Republican governors refusing to follow guidance to mitigate the continued spread – can’t be laid entirely (or even mostly) at Biden’s feet.
But there’s no question that the dominant narrative of the late spring – the Biden administration’s competent management of a nationwide vaccine program and the retreat of the virus – has taken a major hit.
Then there is the border. Arrests of those attempting to cross illegally at the US’s southern border hit a two-decade high last month. Alejandro Mayorkas, the head of the Department of Homeland Security, admitted late last week that the US is facing a “serious challenge” at the border.
While Mayorkas blamed at least part of the crisis on the Trump administration, which, he said “dismantled our asylum system,” there’s also no question that the Biden administration is nowhere near where it wants or needs to be when it comes to its handling of the border crisis.
“The Biden administration has been caught between expressing compassion toward migrants and relying heavily on deterring those journeying to the US southern border. As a result, the border situation remains a political liability for the White House that is drawing criticism from both the left and the right.”
Given all of that, it’s no surprise that Biden’s poll numbers have taken a hit of late. Biden’s 50% job approval at the end of last month was the lowest of his presidency – as measured by Gallup. And that was before the disaster in Afghanistan, which is dominating national news coverage, and the full scope of the surge in Covid-19 was apparent.
Biden’s promise to the American people was that his years in public life had best prepared him to avoid the chaos that defined the Trump era. But at the moment, chaos is winning over competence. And that is a major problem for Biden and his administration.