ANALYSIS — “I’ve instructed the military, whatever they need — if they need additional force — I will grant it.”
That was President Joe Biden, speaking to reporters in the East Room of the White House, on Aug. 26, hours after violent extremists killed 170 Afghans and 13 U.S. troops outside Kabul’s airport. It was his presidency’s darkest moment to date.
“Every day, when I talk to our commanders, I ask them what they need — what more do they need, if anything, to get the job done,” he said moments earlier during prepared remarks amid the chaotic withdrawal he ordered. “As they will tell you, I granted every request.”
Biden is famously loyal. But that can be a negative trait for any president — and an allergy to firing Cabinet officials and senior aides can become a drag on any presidency.
He did set the stage early, entering office with a warning to his team.
“I’m not joking when I say this: If you’re ever working with me and I hear you treat another with disrespect, talk down to someone, I promise you I will fire you on the spot,” Biden said during his first day in office. “On the spot. No if, ands or buts.”
Since, he has ordered what The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board in July dubbed a “firing spree.” But that is a reference to his ongoing purge of Donald Trump appointees from some plum federal government positions.
Biden, notably, has yet to relieve any Cabinet official or senior adviser of their duties when things have gone poorly. And over the past few months, plenty has gone poorly.
Perhaps the best example came in Kabul. Days after the airport attack, administration officials carried out a drone strike that killed seven children — but not the extremist operatives they targeted. The president responded defensively and has yet to punish anyone involved. The Pentagon is reviewing the strike. But when coupled with the chaotic U.S. exit that left behind hundreds of Americans and even more Afghan allies, the president could have sent a message by firing someone involved.
While it is understandable Biden wants to avoid the revolving door that was the Trump administration Cabinet and senior staff, accountability still matters. His administration could use the wake-up call a firing or two would bring. If a president doesn’t run his national security apparatus, it will run him. See: Bush, George W.
“Any president’s first year is rife with optimism but often fraught with missteps,” said Kathryn Dunn Tenpas, a presidential scholar at The Brookings Institution and the University of Virginia.
“Over the course of the first year, it is not unusual for presidents to fire poor performing or ethically compromised staff members,” according to Tenpas, who calls some terminations “expected and possibly beneficial.”
One former White House official who served in a Democratic administration puts it another way — and in less academic prose. “Always fire a general,” the former official said. “A new president has to get the attention of the national security agencies.” The official asked that their name not be used in order to speak candidly.
This administration’s avoidable miscues are not limited to how it exited the so-called “Graveyard of Empires.” It also is struggling to negotiate a social safety net package with its fellow Democrats — despite Senate moderates warning for months that they had demands to get their votes. If that continues to stall, it also could sink a bipartisan infrastructure package.
Regarding the COVID-19 pandemic response, Biden and his senior health and other advisers frequently are out of sync in their public messaging, leading to confusion about big topics like the rationale behind vaccine boosters.
Then there is the situation at the southern border, which seemed to catch the president and his team flat-footed and for which the Republicans have focused ample messaging of their own.
Nowhere along the way has anyone in the public eye gotten their walking papers.
It’s not too late to make an example out of someone, which might go a ways toward changing the narrative that is starting to take hold of an administration that is starting to look adrift. And it could help in addressing another burgeoning issue that is developing in plain sight and could spell electoral chaos in the years to come.
Republicans in Congress continue to block any legislative attempt to shore up voting access rights, even as former President Donald Trump and his allies have installed laws and other tools in key states that some experts warn could allow them to interfere with the 2024 White House contest — or even overturn a potential Democratic win.
Despite pressure from voting rights advocates and key constituencies, it’s not clear what move the administration can make to ensure that people have the right to vote freely.
But if no one in the administration has any need to worry about being handed a pink slip for falling down on the job, what’s the incentive to scramble folks to head off another disaster in the making?
The president’s approval rating is now about 10 points underwater, according to FiveThirtyEight's polling aggregation. That is a 10-point drop since mid-August.
Although it may cut against his nature and also conjure images of his predecessor’s trademark “Apprentice” line, Biden could trot out his predecessor’s reality TV catchphrase — “You’re fired!” — to help reverse his team’s recent slide. He can’t afford many more major miscues.
John T. Bennett is a contributing editor and writer at CQ Roll Call.