Biden’s approval drops to its lowest rating yet amid his handling of Afghanistan withdrawal

August 18, 2021, 4:40 PM UTC

The messy withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan may have hurt American perceptions of President Joe Biden’s job performance, but the latest Economist/YouGov poll still finds Americans in support of a troop withdrawal. For many, the United States’ engagement in Afghanistan represented a lengthy war that many now believe was a mistake from the start.

President Biden’s management of the troop withdrawal changed opinion of his handling of the crisis, of his presidency, and his ability to handle crises in general. In this poll — conducted as the Taliban took complete control of the country — more disapprove (42%) of President Biden’s handling of Afghanistan than approve (32%). In April, when President Biden promulgated his withdrawal plan, opinion of the President’s performance handling Afghanistan was different: 41% approved then, 35% did not.  

The President’s image has been hurt in other ways. This week, his overall job approval rating has dropped to 44%, his lowest rating yet. The same percentage (44%) disapprove.  

Even more distressing for the Biden Administration, perhaps, is that only 36% are confident in the President’s ability to handle an international crisis. Nearly half (47%) now are uneasy about his approach. 

But there remains support for the original withdrawal plan. In principle, Americans approve of the goal of withdrawing troops from Afghanistan by September 11, though support has declined as they face the reality of the earlier withdrawal. In April, support for withdrawal outscored opposition by more than two to one (56% approve, 21% disapprove). Now, the margin is closer to three to two (45% approve, 32% disapprove).  

The drop in support is greatest among Republicans — in April, they approved of the withdrawal plan by 44% to 38%, but now they disapprove (29% to 51%). Support among Independents and Democrats has also slipped, though both groups continue to favor the withdrawal plan. 

As for this withdrawal, the public is split on whether it was a mistake. One-third (33%) say it is a mistake, but 36% disagree. 

What more see as a mistake was sending U.S. troops to Afghanistan at all. There is now even more belief that sending troops in the first place was the wrong thing to do. Nearly two in five (38%) say the country made a mistake in sending troops to Afghanistan twenty years ago, while 28% disagree. In April, Americans divided evenly on whether sending troops was a mistake or not. They felt the same way four years ago, six years ago, and ten years ago. 

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Republicans, as they have all along, say sending troops to fight in Afghanistan was not a mistake. Veterans are now narrowly divided (38% now say it was a mistake, 43% say it was not). In April, veterans said sending troops was not a mistake by 50% to 35%. 

Americans tend to believe they are safer from terrorist attacks than in 2001 

Ten years ago, on the tenth anniversary of the start of the war, Americans expected little would come of the effort. Even then people were divided on whether sending troops was a mistake. At that point only 19% thought that the U.S. would win the war in Afghanistan, and nearly two-thirds believed that Afghanistan would never become a stable democracy. Those fears may now be the new reality.  

The resurgence of the Taliban, who accommodated Osama bin-Laden and Al-Qaeda as they planned the attacks of September 11, 2001, may raise fears of additional terrorist attacks. But that hasn’t happened thus far. Two in five (19%) in this week’s poll say the chances of a major terrorist attack on the United States in the next 12 months is greater than 50% - down from 29% in January 2020. 

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At the beginning of last year, two-thirds thought the chances of such an attack were greater than 10%. Now, just under half think that. Democrats and Independents think a terrorist attack is less likely now than they did 19 months ago; Republicans are slightly more likely to think one is likely now.  

A separate question shows that by 32% to 23% Americans believe the U.S. is safer from a terrorist attack today than it was in 2001.  

Related: Perceptions of Biden’s performance are beginning to slide 

See the toplines and crosstabs from this Economist/YouGov poll 

Methodology: The Economist survey was conducted by YouGov using a nationally representative sample of 1,500 US Adult Citizens interviewed online between August 14 - 17, 2021. This sample was weighted according to gender, age, race, and education based on the American Community Survey, conducted by the US Bureau of the Census, as well as 2016 Presidential vote, registration status, geographic region, and news interest. Respondents were selected from YouGov’s opt-in panel to be representative of all US citizens. The margin of error is approximately 2.8% for the overall sample.  

Image: Getty