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First-term mistakes are common for presidents. For some, those mistakes define their legacy, while others’ errors cling to the historical record as a footnote. President Joe Biden and his advisers reportedly believe their Afghanistan mess will fade from public memory, but that is a gamble.
Reasonable people can disagree with the decision to pull out of Afghanistan, but the way in which it was handled was replete with errors. First was the date of the withdrawal on Sept. 11. The Biden team may have thought it was a good idea to have the “end” of the war coincide with the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks, but all it did was hand the Taliban and jihadists in general a symbolic victory. Then, there was the announcement of the pullout, coming at the beginning of the summer fighting season, which gave the Taliban a clear path to taking over the country. In addition to this was the poor decision to abandon Bagram Airfield, which took away a key strategic asset and overloaded Kabul airport, making the withdrawal more chaotic than it needed to be. Compounding all of this was a flawed national security decision-making process, in which Joe Biden’s mind appeared to be made up about things and his political advisers did not want to challenge the president’s predispositions.
The result of all this was a precipitous drop in Biden’s approval. An NPR/PBS/Marist poll showed Biden’s approval rating dropping to 43% in early September; 56% disapproved of his handling of foreign policy, and 61% disapproved of his withdrawal from Afghanistan. Gallup also had him under 50% in his approval ratings following the Afghanistan news.
These early problems are not unprecedented. The first year of a presidency is always fraught with peril. A new president must learn the role of his office as domestic politics bear down on him. Foreign adversaries test him and his team. And first impressions begin to harden into insights, expectations, even legacy. Going forward, Biden needs to be aware of this larger dynamic as he assesses how to recover his footing.
Sometimes, a disaster comes through no fault of one’s own. This was the case with Herbert Hoover and the stock market crash of 1929. Hoover was caught unawares, though, and his response to the worsening economic situation certainly counted as a mistake, one with lasting consequences.
Hoover’s problematic responses to the crisis came on both the policy and public relations fronts. On the policy side, increasing farm subsidies, hiking taxes, and signing the Smoot-Hawley tariff were the wrong prescriptions for a reeling economy. And on the communications front, he tried without success to help buck up the public. He had poor relations with the press corps, in part because he would only accept questions that had been submitted to press assistant George Akerson in advance. He spoke on the radio often, likely too often. His successor Franklin Roosevelt’s famous fireside chats were carefully interspersed so as to prevent overexposure. And Hoover’s appearances in newsreels were ineffective, as he seemed both old and stiff on camera. Finally, Hoover’s predictions that the worst was over and recovery was coming were off-base and undermined his credibility.
The result was terrible for Hoover. Before becoming president, he was widely viewed as a national hero and able administrator for how he had handled immense challenges such as hunger in Europe during and after World War I and the 1927 Mississippi flood. Afterward, his reputation for being ineffective was so complete that President George W. Bush, a fellow Republican, once warned his team during the 2007-2008 financial crisis that “if we’re really looking at another Great Depression, you can be damn sure I’m going to be Roosevelt, not Hoover.”
Another president who faced a first-year crisis not entirely of his own making was John F. Kennedy. Kennedy had inherited a plan from the Eisenhower administration to overthrow the communist government of Cuba with a group of Cuban exiles. Despite the fact that the plan was not even secret — the New York Times had written a story in advance of the invasion titled “Anti-Castro Units Trained to Fight at Florida Bases”— neither Kennedy nor anyone in his administration questioned it as they should have.
The new president gave the scheme his go-ahead with disastrous consequences. The anti-communist Cuban exiles were killed or captured, and the United States was thoroughly humiliated. Kennedy decided to rethink his national security processes carefully. In response, he created the EXCOMM, a new body that could debate national security issues in a more open and questioning way. He also had trusted advisers Robert F. Kennedy and Ted Sorensen get more involved with national security issues. And Kennedy even met with his former 1960 election opponent Richard Nixon after the fiasco to brief him and get his insights. As Kennedy told the press after the meeting, “Mr. Nixon and I discussed matters of national concern, and it was done in a wholly nonpolitical way, and Mr. Nixon’s response was most helpful.”
One president who knowingly stepped on a land mine early on was Gerald Ford. Ford, who took over following Nixon’s resignation, knew that he needed to get the nation past his predecessor’s Watergate scandal. One way to do this was to pardon Nixon so that the nation would not go through a protracted and divisive trial. The idea, however, was controversial and hotly debated inside the Ford White House. Ford’s close aide Robert Hartmann, in particular, adamantly opposed the idea. When Hartmann learned that Ford was planning to pardon Nixon, he pushed back, asking the president, “What’s the rush? Why must it be tomorrow? Why not Christmas Eve, or a year from now?”
Ford went ahead with the pardon on Sept. 8, 1974, less than a month after taking office. Hartmann was right to have worried about the decision. Ford’s political standing took a hit, and he lost a close election to Jimmy Carter in 1976, an election he might have won had he not issued the pardon. But Ford was right as well. The nation did need to move past Watergate, and the pardon was an important step in the process. From time to time, presidents have to take a hit for the good of the nation. Although Ford lost his election, history has vindicated his difficult decision.
Sometimes, a rookie president can make multiple mistakes. When a young Bill Clinton won the presidency in 1992, Democrats had been out of power for 12 years, and the previous Democratic president, Carter, was out of favor among much of the party’s new leadership. As a result, Clinton had a largely inexperienced team. The Clinton transition was “downright chaotic,” in the words of presidential expert Stephen Hess, in large part because the decision to have it in Little Rock instead of Washington, D.C., made operational security a challenge.
Whenever a well-known Democrat showed up at the small Little Rock airport, journalists produced scoops about which Cabinet post was about to be filled. Clinton also erred in promising to have a female attorney general, and giving himself no wiggle room on the pledge. The first two candidates he considered, Zoe Baird and Kimba Wood, had to pull out because of “nanny tax” problems. Clinton was still saddled with the promise and lacked an obvious backup. He ended up selecting Janet Reno. Not only was she unknown to the nation, but she was also unknown to Clinton, and they never developed a close relationship during their long eight years together.
The unforced errors continued once Clinton became president. His first choice for chief of staff, Thomas “Mack” McLarty, was a talented man and childhood friend of Clinton’s, but he lacked Washington experience and was seen as too nice for the job. In his own memoir, Clinton acknowledged that McLarty was an imperfect choice, writing, “In the first months of our tenure, both he and I would suffer from some of our tone deafness about Washington’s political and press culture.” Then there were the rookie mistakes, including Hair Force One, in which Clinton delayed flights at Los Angeles International Airport while getting a $200 haircut, and Travelgate, in which they alienated the permanent White House staff by firing people in the White House travel office. All of these incidents contributed to a sense that the Clinton White House was not ready for prime time.
Clinton addressed these problems with staff shake-ups, first bringing in White House veteran David Gergen to help out with communications and strategy. The Republican Gergen, who had worked for Nixon, Ford, and Reagan, helped give the sense that there were some adults in charge, but he also feuded constantly with the younger and more liberal Clinton campaign veterans in the White House. Clinton also replaced McLarty after a year and a half, promoting OMB Director Leon Panetta to the chief of staff position. Both of these moves helped stabilize things after a shaky start, and Clinton went on to get reelected in 1996. Following his impeachment in 1998 for obstruction of justice and perjury in the wake of his affair with then-intern Monica Lewinsky, Clinton finished out his second term serviceably, which was not an obvious outcome in the wake of such a scandal.
Joe Biden may have trouble learning some of these lessons from his predecessors. He has already said there will not be any staff shake-ups, and he also seems loath to admit that anything went wrong in Afghanistan. He certainly seems unlikely to invite his election opponent to the White House for a briefing, as Kennedy did, and it’s not clear that would help in this case. But Biden does need to do something if he wants to get past the mistakes of the Afghanistan pullout and not repeat them.
On the other hand, there is a limit to what he can do. Biden is and has long been a self-proclaimed “gaffe machine.” His former boss, Barack Obama, once reportedly said, “Don’t underestimate Joe’s ability to f*** things up.” Of course, Americans have long been a forgiving people. So, if Biden can acknowledge his mistakes, something he has been unwilling to do throughout his career, he could potentially get past this. If he can’t, change is less likely. That would mean more foreign policy chaos and conflict going forward. In this dire case, the Afghanistan debacle would only be the first line in a longer, sadder paragraph in the history books.
Tevi Troy is a senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center and a former White House aide. His latest book is Fight House: Rivalries in the White House From Truman to Trump.
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