Submarine deal, drone error, pandemic: Multiple challenges test Biden

A defense pact with Australia draws ire from France. The Pentagon acknowledges drone strike killed Afghan civilians. And President Biden faces tests on his domestic agenda.

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP/File
Gen. Frank McKenzie, Commander of U.S. Central Command, appears on screen as he speaks about Afghanistan from MacDill Air Force Base in Florida during a briefing moderated by Pentagon spokesman John Kirby in Washington, on Aug. 30, 2021. General McKenzie told a Pentagon news conference on Sept. 17 that an August U.S. drone strike in Afghanistan had killed only civilians and had been a "tragic mistake."

It was an hour President Joe Biden would no doubt like to forget.

On Friday, the Pentagon acknowledged that a drone strike in Afghanistan killed 10 civilians including seven children, not terrorists. A panel advising the Food and Drug Administration voted to not recommend COVID-19 booster shots for all Americans over age 16, dashing an administration hope. And France announced it was recalling its ambassador to the United States out of anger for being cut out of a secret nuclear submarine deal President Biden had struck with the United Kingdom and Australia.

The headlines, all within an hour, underscored the perils for any president from situations that can define a term in office.

Already, Mr. Biden has seen public approval numbers trend downward as the pandemic has deepened and Americans cast blame for the flawed U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.

The administration had hoped to roll out tougher vaccine guidelines, a new international alliance to thwart China and a recommitment to what Mr. Biden has done best: drawing on his years on Capitol Hill and knowledge of the legislative process to cajole fellow Democrats to pass the two far-reaching spending bills that make up the heart of his agenda.

Those ambitions are now more difficult to achieve.

Mr. Biden has proclaimed defeating the pandemic to be the central mission of his presidency. With COVID-19 cases running at a much higher daily rate than three months ago, his aides had hoped for full FDA approval for the vaccine booster shots, yet the agency’s advisory panel only recommended them for those over age 65 or with underlying health conditions or special circumstances.

Biden aides in recent days had quietly expressed relief that the Afghanistan withdrawal — like the war itself for much of its nearly two decades — has receded from headlines. That feeling was shattered Friday afternoon when the Pentagon revealed the errant target for what was believed to be the final American drone strike of the war.

Mr. Biden had long advocated leaving Afghanistan. Even after a suicide bombing killed 13 American service members, he told advisers the withdrawal decision was correct. He is known for his certitude, a stubbornness that flashed when he dismissed suggestions that he express regret for how the withdrawal occurred.

Aides have since been quick to note that more than 120,000 people have been successfully evacuated and they say U.S. efforts are securing the steady departure of others from under Taliban rule.

The end in Afghanistan was part of an effort to refocus foreign policy on China, an aim that accelerated with the surprise announcement of the agreement between the United States, Britain, and Australia to supply Australia with nuclear-powered submarines.

But not only did Beijing balk, so did Paris, as France angrily accused the U.S. of cutting France out of the alliance and scuttling its own submarine deal with Australia.

And then France recalled its ambassador after its officials expressed dismay that, in their estimation, Mr. Biden had proven to be as unreliable a partner as his predecessor Donald Trump. 

The strain with France came just as Mr. Biden had hoped to pivot to his ambitious domestic agenda.

But there are ideological divides among the Democrats on Capitol Hill about the $3.5 trillion spending package meant to be passed in tandem with the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill. And all of Congress will be forced to juggle the White House’s legislation while being swamped with imminent deadlines on the debt ceiling and government funding.

The West Wing is re-creating a legislative strategy that worked to secure passage of the $1.9 trillion COVID relief in March and pushed the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill through the Senate in August, according to a half dozen White House aides and outside advisers who were not authorized to publicly discuss internal deliberations and spoke on condition of anonymity.

With Mr. Biden cajoling lawmakers, the infrastructure bill is to be passed through the House along with the $3.5 trillion spending bill that contains many of the president’s priorities, such as climate change and child care, and would pass the Senate along party lines.

Because the Senate is in a 50-50 tie and Democrats’ margin in the House is only a handful of seats, few votes can be lost. It could be a formidable task to unite Democratic moderates such as Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, who want a far smaller spending bill, with liberals including Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who has steadfastly said it could not shrink.

The White House also has begun filling the president’s schedule again with events meant to highlight the need to pass the bills, including linking visits to the sites of natural disasters — fires in California and Idaho, hurricane damage in Louisiana and the Northeast — to the climate change funding in the legislation.

This past Thursday, on what had previously been tentatively planned as a down day for Mr. Biden, the White House scheduled him to give a speech from the East Room during which he zeroed in on how tax enforcement to get big corporations and wealthy Americans to pay more would help fund his plan, without offering any new details.

But there are roadblocks. Senator Manchin told Mr. Biden he could not support $3.5 trillion and White House aides have begun signaling that they would settle for a smaller package, even if it raises the ire of progressives.

Mr. Biden’s advisers believe that, even if there is some unhappiness with the package, no Democratic lawmaker would want to be perceived as undermining the centerpiece of the agenda of a president from their own party.

The White House is also scaling back the president’s travel so he can support the agenda on Capitol Hill, but it’s led to concerns among some Democratic lawmakers that Mr. Biden isn't doing enough to personally sell the legislation to their constituents across the country. Mr. Biden did not get a summer vacation. His plan to spend time at his Delaware home in August was scuttled by the Afghanistan crisis.

Aides had finally scheduled a break for the president, a long weekend at his house in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware.. He reached his home Friday just after 1:30 p.m. Ninety minutes later, any hope for a quiet weekend vanished.

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