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Biden's approval ratings haven't recovered since the U.S. withdrawal in Afghanistan

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Later this month, the White House plans to mark the anniversary of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. President Biden wants to recognize and honor U.S. service members and allies who served during two decades of war. But the withdrawal also marks an inflection point for Biden's presidency - the moment when his popularity fell and never fully recovered. NPR's White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez has more. And just a warning to listeners - you're going to hear the sounds of gunfire.

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FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Last August, the world was shocked as Afghans crowded the Kabul airport amid gunfire...

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ORDOÑEZ: ...Desperate people chasing a U.S. Air Force plane, some even hanging on as it took off and then tragically falling to their deaths. At the White House, President Biden was defiant.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: American troops cannot and should not be fighting in a war and dying in a war that Afghan forces are not willing to fight for themselves.

ORDOÑEZ: He had promised to bring U.S. troops home. Biden said it would be a responsible and safe exit. But the way it happened was chaotic and tragic. Thirteen U.S. service members were killed in a suicide bombing, and thousands of Afghan nationals who had helped the U.S. fight the Taliban were left behind. It was a pivotal moment for Biden's presidency.

JOHN GANS: Every president has a crisis early in their terms.

ORDOÑEZ: That's John Gans, a former Pentagon official who has written about White Houses during times of war. He compares the political fallout for Biden to what former President John F. Kennedy saw after the Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba.

GANS: Every president since has had something that has helped sort of puncture, you know, the momentum, the appeal, the whatever sort of capture they have of the American imagination.

ORDOÑEZ: During the withdrawal, Biden's approval ratings plunged and his polls have remained negative ever since. Doug Sosnik, a former adviser to President Bill Clinton, says it wasn't just Afghanistan that started Biden's fall from grace. COVID-19 was surging, and inflation was beginning to accelerate. But Sosnik says the bungled withdrawal from Afghanistan really hurt Biden because it undercut the president's image.

DOUG SOSNIK: If bringing competence back to government is one of the kind of hallmarks of a candidacy, then I think the optics of the Afghanistan withdrawal go completely against the sort of rationale of why you should have voted for Biden.

ORDOÑEZ: The White House promised a full account of what went wrong. Those reports are still not complete. John Kirby, the National Security Council spokesman, told NPR that no military operation is flawless. He said Biden never concerned himself with approval ratings but strongly believed that ending the war was in the U.S. national interest.

JOHN KIRBY: I would argue that the events of the last year bear that out, that we were able to focus on other threats and challenges, not keeping a couple of thousand or perhaps even more troops on the ground in Afghanistan.

ORDOÑEZ: Instead, the White House is focused on Russia's invasion of Ukraine and ongoing challenges with China. And last month, Biden approved a drone strike to kill al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. While the withdrawal helped start Biden's slide in the polls, now voters are more concerned about the economy, says Mohamed Younis, Gallup's editor in chief.

MOHAMED YOUNIS: All I'm saying is it's really been a very long time since foreign policy has been the factor in a presidency sort of turning sour.

ORDOÑEZ: These days, Afghanistan doesn't even come up in focus groups with voters, says Celinda Lake, a Democratic strategist.

CELINDA LAKE: Nobody raises it at all anymore. People are completely focused on domestic economy right now.

ORDOÑEZ: More recently, Biden has had a string of victories on domestic issues, but so far, it's only given him a small bump in the polls. Doug Sosnik, the Clinton adviser, says it's too early to know whether Biden can change the political tides.

SOSNIK: When you have a narrative that's starting to become negative and events occur to reinforce that negative narrative, it creates even more negative momentum.

ORDOÑEZ: Biden himself remains optimistic, telling those who will listen that momentum is shifting, but it will take time to see.

Franco Ordoñez, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Franco Ordoñez is a White House Correspondent for NPR's Washington Desk. Before he came to NPR in 2019, Ordoñez covered the White House for McClatchy. He has also written about diplomatic affairs, foreign policy and immigration, and has been a correspondent in Cuba, Colombia, Mexico and Haiti.