YAMICHE ALCINDOR: Welcome to the Washington Week Extra. I’m Yamiche Alcindor.
We’re continuing our conversation on crises at home. There is a surge in COVID cases, natural disasters ravaging states. There’s the new Texas abortion ban and worries about domestic terrorism – a whole lot to get through. How is the Biden administration prioritizing problems at home? Joining us tonight in studio: Courtney Kube, Pentagon correspondent for NBC News; Anita Kumar, White House correspondent and associate editor for Politico; and Susan Page, Washington bureau chief for USA Today. Thank you so much for being here.
In thinking about this week, the overarching theme was really, like, challenges. And it was – it was, is the world ending, at times. (Laughs.) I wonder what you make of the way that the president has balanced all this? What your reporting, rather, has revealed about how he’s been rising to this, and not rising according to his critics, and what it means about – what it says about his decision making?
SUSAN PAGE: Of course, Joe Biden took over at a very difficult time for the country. And he got high marks, I think, for the first hundred days of acting in a pretty sure-footed manner and tackling the economy and COVID, really the two biggest challenges on his plate. But he’s looked less – I think less sure-footed the last couple weeks. And I think the reason that this Afghanistan pullout has been so damaging to him politically is that Biden’s selling point to the country was that he would be a steadier, more knowledgeable, wiser leader than President Trump had been, the tumult of the Trump years. And yet his – not his decision to pull out of Afghanistan, but a failure of the administration to do so in a way that looked orderly, and safe, and took care of the people who had helped us during our 20 years of war there, that raised questions about his competence that he’s going to need to address as this – as these challenges go on.
MS. ALCINDOR: And, Courtney, you’re nodding your head, so I want to bring you in. Talk a bit about what your reporting says about this.
COURTNEY KUBE: It’s not just the competence; it’s also compassion. And I think that’s what was really surprising to a lot of people over these last few weeks, was he was the compassionate one. He was the consoler in chief after having, you know, President Trump, where there was maybe not so much compassion. And so I think that’s what was particularly surprising to people who I was talking to about it, is that President Biden, his Cabinet, his, you know, State Department and others didn’t make a plan to take care of these people who had cared for so many American men and women for two decades. And so it was seen as very – as very heartless and thoughtless.
And then in addition to that, there was the story that comes out about him being at Dover and one of the families having this contentious engagement. Jared Schmitz, who was one of the Marines who was killed, his father had this contentious engagement with President Biden. And that, you know, really broke down this consoler in chief, you know, where President Biden always talks about his son who was – who died of cancer. And here we had a father who was grieving over his son who was killed who called him out for it and said: No, I want you to know my son’s name. I want you to know their story. This isn’t about you and it’s not about your story. That was another one that I saw as particularly damaging to the president this week.
MS. ALCINDOR: Yeah, yeah, how damaging, if at all, do you think that this will be long term? Again, when I talk to the White House they say, look, he knows that he had – that this was a tough decision. He knows that he had to do this. But they really do lean in on the idea that history will judge him as being right.
ANITA KUMAR: Yeah, I do think that it’s all about the – you know, people supported him getting out of Afghanistan. It’s the question of how he did it. And this week was a week where he was juggling so many different things. You know, so we saw him go to Louisiana. We saw him dealing with these storms. I think we’ll see how will – how will people look back and judge him? It will be on all of these different things happening at once. And, you know, the biggest thing right now really at home is COVID. It’s still come – it’s back, if it ever really went away. And he did get some really high marks in the beginning. And then I think after he didn’t make his own self-imposed deadline of having people vaccinated in July, it really hasn’t gone well since then. We’ve seen things raging. We’ve seen states push back on restrictions. And it’s – if you look at certain states, Texas and Florida, it’s right up there. They’re having record numbers, so.
MS. ALCINDOR: Yeah, yeah, we’re going to talk about COVID in a minute, but I also want to mark the fact that it’s been 16 years since Hurricane Katrina tore through Louisiana, leaving many homeless and distraught. And this week more people lost their homes to Hurricane Ida.
THEOPHILUS CHARLES: (From video.) I was born here. We went through all the major hurricanes here. So I figured I would stay here, you know, and ride this one out, but I couldn’t.
MS. ALCINDOR: It’s a devastating look, Anita, at just someone losing everything that they have. But what impact will a – might an image like that have on the political process and climate change legislation?
MS. KUMAR: Yeah, I think that people are going to look at this – I mean, I think Democrats will look at this and say: Look, we’ve got to push through this reconciliation, this budget package with all these different things in there to help combat climate change. I don’t know that we’re going to see that from Republicans. You know, obviously we don’t – the Democrats don’t need Republicans to push this through. They need every single Democrat. It’s only going to be a partisan bill if it passes through.
But I think that you will see Republicans talking about these storms, and what happened up and down the East Coast and in Louisiana as well. And they’re going to say: Look, we need to shore up our infrastructure, we need to deal with other issues. They may not talk about climate change, but they’ll talk about other things. So I do think that there’s going to be a push now on some of these ways to combat it.
MS. ALCINDOR: Yeah, and then there’s COVID, which is just the thing that we’ve all lived through. You alluded to it being back, because sometimes I think we had that moment where we were, like, oh, we can taste it. We can go to a store and not have masks on and then –
MS. KUMAR: Well, to be clear, it never went away – even though I said it was back. (Laughs.)
MS. ALCINDOR: Of course. But everybody felt that way, right?
MS. KUMAR: Yeah.
MS. ALCINDOR: It’s a human thing to feel like, OK, maybe I’m almost seeing the light at the tunnel, and then it’s gone. President Biden today, Susan, talked about the idea that this disappointing jobs report, that it was tied to the Delta variant. Talk a bit about what your reporting is just telling you about the hurdle that is COVID and what they’re thinking in the White House.
MS. PAGE: Well, job one for President Biden is COVID. That was the biggest single reason that Donald Trump did not win a second term. It’s the biggest reason Joe Biden is living in the White House now. And so he has this imperative to get control of it. And we’re now to really difficult part because we’re down to that fraction of Americans who are really resistant to getting vaccines. And how do we get rid of COVID if enough Americans won’t get vaccinated? We probably can’t. So we’re now in a situation where people are beginning to get booster shots, where we’re seeing a new variant come up.
And you look at this jobs report on Friday morning, really disappointing, very – 200-and-some-thousand jobs created. We thought maybe 750,000 jobs were going to be created. And it’s because some of the industries that were coming back, like restaurants, have fallen back again because people, once again, are cautious about going out in public where they’re going to be around other people.
MS. ALCINDOR: And, Anita, amid that, there’s also this sort of benefits cliff. I’ve been thinking about the eviction moratorium. There’s the aid that’s going – that’s going out. I was talking to a woman who uses her SNAP benefits to grow food. She’s very worried about whether or not she’s going to have the extra money to do some of the things to get healthy food to her children. I wonder what your reporting says about just how worried people on Capitol Hill and at the White House are about a lot of these extra things that have been helping people ending.
MS. KUMAR: Yeah. I mean, I definitely think there is worry. But I think there’s a different political environment for these benefits now. It doesn’t feel the same. And when you talk to the White House and people on Capitol Hill, it certainly doesn’t feel like it felt last year, where there was all this emphasis on we must get these benefits passed again, we must keep them. I just am not feeling that anymore. I mean, there are people for sure, politicians, who believe that these should go on. But I don’t see a great effort to do that. I mean, some of these things can end, and this might be the end of it.
I think one of the reasons is that half the states in this country have Republican governors, and they’ve already said they don’t want the benefits. They’ve cut them off themselves because they think this is keeping people out of work. So it’s become a little bit more partisan – well, everything’s partisan – but it’s benefits for half of America or half the states. And I don’t see a lot of push from the White House to really say: Let’s go ahead and get these benefits extended.
MS. ALCINDOR: That’s critical reporting. Critical reporting, because so many people are looking at this and thinking: How are they going to help me?
Courtney, there’s another topic that is kind of the thing that is continuing to influence what happens in D.C., and that s is January 6th. And there’s coming – there’s another rally for people that were supporters of the people who attacked our Capitol on September 18th. I wonder, how worried, concerned are military officials? And what are they thinking when it comes to the threat of a new round of people possibly attacking the Capitol or other places in D.C.?
MS. KUBE: So it’s less that they’re worried or concerned about it, and more that there’s a recognition that there was so much scrutiny about how January 6th was handled, both in advance and that day and the aftermath. And so I’m hearing and seeing a lot more preparation. There’s a lot more talking about what needs to be done, what could possibly happen. Is it possible that there will be this large rally in D.C. again with the Proud Boys? Is it possible it will go to other places? There is a lot more planning going into it than – certainly than we saw before the January 5th – or, January 6th. And I think that is, again, in large part due to the fact that there’s still so much continuing scrutiny to the way that January 6th was handled.
MS. PAGE: You know, you really get the sense January 6th is not over.
MS. KUBE: No.
MS. PAGE: You know, it’s not over in that this September 18th rally, who knows what will happen with that. Six hundred people have now been indicted for the role they played in January 6th. Those court cases are going forward. And the January 6th special committee that Nancy Pelosi established in the House, they’re just in the beginning stages of their work trying to make sense about what led up to January 6th, and what happened on that day. There’s so much we still don’t know.
MS. ALCINDOR: We still don’t know all of the details. And we’re clearly going to be really looking at the work of the commission to see what’s going on.
Courtney, one last question for you. Officials have talked about White supremacy as a real domestic terror threat. What are officials saying? I know there’s a lot going on, but I’m sure obviously they’re also thinking about White supremacy still, thinking about that as a domestic threat.
MS. KUBE: Oh, absolutely. In fact, there was a bulletin that came out just a couple of weeks ago that warned about, in advance of the September 11th anniversary – the 20th anniversary, of course is coming up – all of the possibilities for things that the FBI was going to be watching out for, and Department of Homeland Security be watching out for. And it was not just the concern about some sort of a transnational attack, or an attack emanating from overseas. They talked about the potential for domestic terrorism. They talked about how they’re going to, you know, work with local authorities to root out any potential threats and any problems. But for the first time that I can recall, we have a September 11th anniversary coming up where there is the same amount, if not more, concern about some sort of a threat emanating from the United States, from inside the U.S., from American citizens, more so than the potential for some sort of a terrorist attack or –
MS. ALCINDOR: That’s remarkable.
MS. KUBE: It is, and that was a warning that was put out by FBI and DHS just a couple of weeks ago. Now we’re – you know, we’re only days out from the September 11th anniversary now.
MS. ALCINDOR: And I said it was the last question, but my producer’s reminding me, of course, there is still – we had a robust conversation about abortion and Texas on the show, but I guess the one thing I’ll say, is there – could you talk a bit more, Anita and Susan – I’ll go to Anita first – about what this means for the Democrats and the fact that the GOP is really having a lot of victory there?
MS. KUMAR: Yeah, I mean, it’s a – it’s a tough thing for them. But I think what you’re going to see, and what we’re already seeing, is this is going to play in these elections that we have coming up. So of course, everyone’s really focused on next year’s elections. There are actually some elections this year, in this very off-off year. So there’s three governors’ races, including the California recall. And it’s so interesting what you’re seeing. In a state like California, where Democrats have huge majorities, they are not going to pass abortion restrictions in that legislature. But Gavin Newsom, the Democratic incumbent, is using this issue, and what happened in Texas, to get his voters energized.
So I think on the Democratic side we don’t know fully what’s going to happen with all these court cases and legislation. But what we do know is that Democrats are going to use this as an issue. Look, elect Democrats or you’re going to see this all over the place. And the fact that you’re seeing that in a place like California really tells us what we’re going to see next year, which is it’s going to play everywhere.
MS. ALCINDOR: And, Susan, could Democrats be as energized about abortion as conservative voters have been? Conservatives have been the one that really have the energy behind the issue. But do you think Texas and the fact that other states are copycatting it, do we see some sign that the Democrats might get as energized?
MS. PAGE: Yeah, of course. Most Americans oppose these blanket bans on abortion. While Americans are comfortable with some restrictions on abortion, in general abortion rights is the majority position in the country. But the energy, as you said, has been with the people who oppose abortion. And I think Roe v. Wade was one reason that they were energized and people who support abortion rights felt more sanguine about it. Does that now flip? Does this energize abortion opponents because they are now very close to the prize they have sought for so long? But does it alarm the supporters of abortion rights in a way they haven’t been before, so it becomes a critical voting issue that gets them out to vote, gets them out to vote for Democrats? That’s going to be a test, I agree, this November, and for all of next year’s midterms.
MS. ALCINDOR: Yeah, well, there’s going to be a lot that we’re going to have to cover. I can feel so many things just building up as we go forward toward the midterms and all the other things that are happening in our country, but we’ll have to leave it there tonight. Thank you to Courtney, Anita, and Susan for joining us and sharing your reporting. And make sure to sign up for the Washington Week newsletter on our website. We will give you a look at all things Washington.
I’m Yamiche Alcindor. Good night.