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The First Treacherous Moment of the Biden Presidency Has Arrived

The president must master a period fraught with fear, doubt, cynicism, and uncertainty to keep his ambitious plans alive.

A close-up of President Joe Biden clasping his fist to his mouth.
Jim Watson/Getty Images

Joe Biden has suddenly entered a danger zone. It’s partly of his making, because of the Afghanistan withdrawal and dangers that dog that task. It’s partly fate, in the forms of the messes that have been handed to him to deal with. But it’s also partly the fault of some insanely irresponsible people on the other end of the political spectrum, for whose sins Biden is paying the political price.

In that third point lies a broader, and infuriating, lesson about the era in which this country has found itself, teetering on the edge of post-democracy: The anti-Democrats will almost always defeat the Democrats by fomenting the four horsemen of the democratic apocalypse: fear, doubt, cynicism, and—the ever-underrated horseman of the four—uncertainty.

First, let’s acknowledge what Biden got wrong himself in the Afghanistan withdrawal. Yeah, I agree with the recently forming liberal consensus that there probably was no clean way to get out of that two-decade mess. But the misjudgment about the Afghan government and its security forces being sound enough to stand was pretty cosmic. Better preparation, and a stronger contingency plan accounting for the possibility of collapse, could surely have averted some of this madness.

It seems obvious Biden is going to be pressed to extend the deadline for withdrawal. And in light of Thursday morning’s bombing that left scores dead, including 13 American service members, an already terrifying situation could get a lot worse over these next few fraught days. A visibly shaken Biden vowed retaliation, which any president would do but which may lock the United States into prolonging the conflict that he pledged to commit to ending at that same press conference. Afghanistan could swallow this White House, potentially consuming Biden’s time and energy at a time when the administration really needs to focus everything it has on passing the two domestic bills that form the core of the president’s agenda.

This is where fate comes in. It just so happens that fate handed Biden a 50-50 Senate and a superslim House majority, made up in part of a handful of centrists who still labor under the view that in their districts, their success depends on differentiating themselves from their party’s national brand. That may have made sense in the 2000s and early 2010s, but in the age of post-Trump polarization, their success depends more on their party’s brand, which they can’t run away from.

Fate has also handed Biden a cruel September in which he and congressional Democrats are going to have to find a way to pass the infrastructure bill and finalize the reconciliation bill, but also increase the debt ceiling and pass resolutions to keep the government from shutting down on September 30. I’d still guess that the Democrats will get all these done, because they don’t have much choice in the matter; but it’s going to be a draining and enervating five weeks. The press will declare the Democrats dead more times than Rasputin.

But finally and most of all there are those anti-Democrats, lurking in the weeds. As you may have noticed, Biden has slipped in the polls, to below 50 percent for the first time. Since this drop began just as Afghanistan was collapsing, I doubt that those events are baked into the numbers. And people really seem to be of two minds on Biden and Afghanistan—they sure don’t like what they’re seeing on TV, but they still like the idea that he’s getting us out. So I don’t think his recent decline is attributable to events in Kabul. What’s more, there are fewer Americans who can tell you what a budget reconciliation bill is than can correctly tell you who was behind the Gadsden Purchase. So I don’t think Congress is complicit in the president’s turn in fortunes.

The delta variant is the most likely culprit. Just a few sunny weeks ago, things were looking up on the pandemic front. People were planning vacations and family reunions; restaurants were starting to fill up. Now, we’re back to mask mandates and lockdowns, the nervy reopening of schools, and people acknowledging that they might have to stay home again at Thanksgiving.

It’s the virus: the one thing that is in almost no way, shape, or form his fault. Biden has been the one for months, more than a year now, urging responsible, civic, patriotic behavior. The surge is entirely the fault of the people on the other side. Like Texas Governor Greg Abbott, who, incredibly, is taking people to court to tell them they can’t take steps to ward off an illness that he himself just contracted, and for which he received a level of treatment that we can be sure 98 percent of the schoolchildren of Harris County will never come close to receiving. And Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, also at war with the citizens of his state, who are trying to follow the president’s admonitions and lead responsible lives. And let’s throw in the rank-and-file idiots who refuse to mask up because it impinges upon their alleged freedom to go around getting other people sick.

These are the people who are making this country sick and extending the life and reach of the virus that’s bringing Biden down. Abbott has fallen in the polls, as has DeSantis, but neither has tumbled as far in his state as Biden has. In Florida, for example, DeSantis is at 43 percent, but Biden is at 40, 13 points underwater.

This is the old trick of demagogues and liars from time immemorial. They don’t care if they lose ground, as long as they’re making their opponent lose even more ground. Joe Biden, while neither a perfect man nor a perfect president, is at least trying to tell people the truth about the virus and how they should behave, as well as trying to get them more money to care for their children. The liars, from Abbott and DeSantis to the right-wing media disinfo-sphere—of which Tucker Carlson, at this point, is arguably a more benign manifestation than the malevolent actors who went on Facebook to tell Idiot America that it should ingest a livestock dewormer—will ride those aforementioned four horsemen as hard and fast as they have to, trampling truth and civic decency and democracy every step of the way. It’s what they do.

Biden can’t control that. All the more reason he must control what he can. Do what needs to be done to save lives in Afghanistan, pass the bills, and answer the demagogues, and hope 52 percent of the people see. They did last time.