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Biden forges ahead where Trump and Obama failed on infrastructure and Afghanistan

Published on August 12, 2021 1:23 AM

by Stephen Collinson, CNN

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Every president since George W. Bush has said it's time to leave Afghanistan and turn to nation building at home.

But only Joe Biden is getting it done. His huge gamble on more than $4.5 trillion in infrastructure spending and an exit from America's longest war, which threatens to trigger a foreign policy disaster, are both unfolding in a dramatic August that could define his presidency. Alongside these twin historic pushes, the story of Biden's administration is also being shaped by a resurgence of the pandemic that he thought he had beaten and is deepening the national political estrangement he vowed to heal. These simultaneous high-wire moments reflect extreme times, but also show the 78-year-old commander in chief carving a bold path and implementing the personal goals he harbored over decades in Washington. The Senate passage of a bipartisan $1.2 trillion traditional infrastructure package was a huge win for Biden on Tuesday and validated his promise to try to heal bitter divides and mistrust in a nation that is politically at war with itself. A companion $3.5 trillion budget resolution focused on "human" infrastructure muscled through the Senate with only Democratic votes early Wednesday morning and could reshape the economy and American society by funding home health care, community college and climate initiatives.

The bills still face a complicated future in Congress before they become law. But they represent Biden's biggest statement of his lifelong creed that the power of government can be wielded to help working Americans. The spending, one of the most significant government efforts to alleviate poverty and economic pain in decades, are also an attempt to drain the sense that the country had failed millions of heartland Americans, a feeling that helped fuel the populist outburst that led to the election of Donald Trump in 2016.

"I am committed to making sure that our historic economic recovery ... this time reaches everyone and eases the burden on working families -- not just this year, but for the years to come," Biden said Wednesday. But as with his Afghanistan policy, Biden is also courting significant risks. Republicans are already seizing on the burst of spending to portray Democrats as profligate and dedicated to "socialism-style" deficit busting in a bid to weaken their foes in next year's congressional elections. Dire news from Afghanistan Biden's triumph in the Senate unfolded as the news from Afghanistan becomes ever more alarming and increases the likelihood of a Taliban takeover, which will be seen as the direct consequence of Biden's decision to get all US troops home. It may also be seen by foreign foes as a humiliation and a sign of weakening US power. The lightning advance of the Taliban, routed by US troops 20 years ago for harboring Osama bin Laden, has shocked everyone in Washington. It has now seized nine provincial capitals, including the country's second largest city, Kandahar. Foreign embassies are discussing draw downs and there are signs that the capital Kabul could tumble, ending a democratic dream bought with the blood of thousands of Americans. Any equivalent pictures of US helicopters leaving the roof of the US embassy in Saigon in the retreat from the Vietnam War could become emblematic of Biden's presidency, just as much as a possible future bipartisan signing ceremony with Republicans at the White House for the infrastructure bill. The potential downsides of an Afghan withdrawal help explain why former Presidents Barack Obama and Trump eventually decided they couldn't fulfill their ambitions to end that war. "America, it is time to focus on nation building here at home," Obama said in a speech from the White House in June 2011, when he announced that he would pull 10,000 troops from Afghanistan by the end of that year. But at the end of his second term, the former President trimmed his own last effort to wind down the war when he decided that he could keep 8,400 troops there until he left office. He justified his decision by saying the security situation was precarious amid Taliban gains and that the Afghan government needed more time to build its forces. Trump was no less enthusiastic about ordering American forces home, having seized on US exhaustion with a decade-and-a-half of foreign wars to help drive his 2016 election campaign. For years, he had criticized the Afghan deployment...