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Between Ida, Afghanistan and COVID, Biden Has A Lot On His Plate


President Biden is traveling to New Orleans tomorrow to assess the damage after Hurricane Ida. His response to this literal storm comes amid other political storms that threaten to define his presidency. NPR White House correspondent Ayesha Rascoe reports on what's at stake.

AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: President Biden has spent a lot of his time this week focused on the hurricane. He started out on Sunday with a visit to FEMA to assure Americans the federal government was ready. But that wasn't the only crisis on his mind.


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Joan and I are just getting back from Dover Air Force Base.

RASCOE: He had just met with the families of troops who died in a terrorist attack in Kabul.


BIDEN: While we're praying for the best in Louisiana, let's keep them in our prayers as well.

RASCOE: Biden is dealing with multiple crises all at the same time - the global pandemic, the chaotic end of the war and now the aftermath of a storm that has wreaked havoc from the Gulf Coast to the Northeast. Polls are already showing that Biden's approval ratings have taken a hit as people question his leadership. That leaves Biden with no room for error with the hurricane.

ELAINE KAMARCK: They've got to have as much going right as they can possibly have going right.

RASCOE: That's Elaine Kamarck of the Brookings Institution. She wrote a book about why presidents fail. In Biden's case, he needs to show he's on top of this.

KAMARCK: When reality comes along, they can't message their way out of it. You know, you simply cannot talk your way out of something that is on the television all the time. You can try to explain it better, but really, what you got to do is you got to correct it.

RASCOE: Thad Allen has experience with disasters. The former Coast Guard admiral stepped in after the initial failures with Hurricane Katrina. A few years later, he oversaw response to the BP oil spill. Allen says all of these disasters piling up is a real test. The president has to be able to delegate while also being the public face.

THAD ALLEN: There's no doubt that the first thing any president has to do when they show up is exhibit empathy, an understanding for how this - there's a real human impact to all this stuff and be able to connect with people as their leader.

RASCOE: In Louisiana, Biden can point to government action that worked. There has been catastrophic flooding, but the levees held. Robert Stein of Rice University has researched how voters assign blame after a natural disaster. He says even though politicians pay a price when things go wrong, they don't necessarily get a big boost when things go right.

ROBERT STEIN: When government works well, it does what people expect it to do, nobody stands up and cheers. Nobody hands out bonus checks. No one gives them Academy Awards.

RASCOE: As the White House tackled all of these challenges, Republicans have zeroed in on Afghanistan. They're blasting Biden's leadership. Even some Democrats are critical. White House press secretary Jen Psaki defended his performance.


JEN PSAKI: We would argue this is actually government working to do our best to function as best as we can. Is it tough? Yes. Are the days long? Yes. Is it always going to be perfect? No. But this is exactly what government is supposed to be doing.

RASCOE: As Biden gets closer to the midterm elections next year, the stakes will only get higher. Mo Elleithee was a longtime Democratic strategist. He says the White House has to be careful not to let things spin out of control.

MO ELLEITHEE: It is rare that a bad moment defines a presidency. It is a series of bad moments, and that's what they're guarding against.

RASCOE: Even though Biden is facing a lot of headwinds, it's still really early. Elleithee points out that Bill Clinton had a rough start before he went on to be reelected, while George H.W. Bush didn't win a second term after doing well early on.

Ayesha Roscoe, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.