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If this was 1979, Biden would be wildly popular | Will Bunch Newsletter

U.S. used to rally behind a president when bad things happened abroad. Not any more.

One of the hostages held at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran is shown to the crowd by Iranian students in early November 1979. At home, citizens rallied behind President Jimmy Carter.
One of the hostages held at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran is shown to the crowd by Iranian students in early November 1979. At home, citizens rallied behind President Jimmy Carter.Read moreAP

Thanks to many of you for filling out the survey we sent out last week in place of the newsletter. Before I left for vacation, I wrote explaining I’d be away and added, lamely, “Gosh, I hope nothing happens.” Luckily, my editors took that out, because ... things happened, and they weren’t funny. We’ll break down some of it today.

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U.S. used to rally behind a president when bad things happened abroad. Not any more.

What happened in Tehran on Nov. 4, 1979, was an American president’s worst nightmare — especially when that president already had an approval rating hovering at just 30%, thanks to a lousy economy. An angry mob riled by that year’s Islamist revolution overran the U.S. Embassy in the Iranian capital, and by nightfall more than 50 Americans had been taken hostage. For a nation still reeling from its failure in the Vietnam War that ended just four years earlier, the Iranian hostage crisis made the United States look weak on a global stage.

Then something very strange happened — at least by today’s standards.

President Jimmy Carter’s popularity skyrocketed. Just a month after the embassy takeover, despite little movement on freeing the seized Americans, the New York Times reported the 39th president had seen his approval rating spike by nearly 30 points — the sharpest, fastest rise ever recorded at that time. The Gallup Organization’s president Andrew Kohut called it “amazing.”

And Carter’s Iran bounce lasted for a while — helping him vanquish a primary challenge from Sen. Ted Kennedy, even as a daring desert rescue mission failed and eight U.S. troops died — but it didn’t last forever, as crisis fatigue by 1980′s one-year anniversary fueled Carter’s defeat by Ronald Reagan. Yet the episode still remains an extreme case of something political scientists eventually gave a name: The rally ‘round the flag effect.

Until about 10 years ago, the vast majority of American voters — even independents and many in the opposing party to an incumbent president — looked at a major international conflict and decided that the enemy was our foreign adversary and not the man in our White House, even if the administration had blundered along the way. (In 1979, Carter had shrugged off advice that letting the deposed Shah of Iran into the U.S. for medical treatment would rile the revolutionaries.)

In 1975, then-President Gerald Ford — reeling from the fall of Saigon just 12 days earlier — ordered a military strike aimed at freeing 40 crew members of a merchant ship called the SS Mayaguez that had been seized by Cambodian forces. Even though more American troops died — 41 — than crew members set free, including three Marines left behind and tortured and killed by the Khmer Rouge, Ford saw the only spike in his approval rating during his short, troubled presidency — roughly 10 points.

In 1983, an American peacekeeping mission in Lebanon that critics say was marred by a murky mission and multiple missed warnings exploded in tragedy when a suicide truck bomber killed 241 Marines in their poorly defended Beirut barracks. After a short interval, then-President Ronald Reagan essentially “cut and run” on the Middle East crisis with a middle-of-the-night U.S. withdrawal, yet the Gipper wasn’t criticized by congressional Democrats en route to a landslide 1984 reelection.

I present this history lesson in the context of this week’s news that August’s rapid collapse of the Kabul government as the U.S. implemented its plan to end its massive military intervention in Afghanistan after nearly 20 years has had a significant impact on President Biden’s popularity — but to the downside.

» READ MORE: Afghan exit is a low moment for journalism | Will Bunch Newsletter

The latest NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll released last week showed that the 46th president’s approval rating had dropped six percentage points since July to just 43% — the lowest point of his first year in office. Other things have happened — most notably the spike in COVID-19 cases, largely in states with Republican governors, few health mandates, and low vaccination rates — but the relentlessly negative news coverage from Kabul, scenes of airport chaos, and the bombing that killed 13 Americans have taken a toll on Biden. The facts that most Americans wanted an Afghan withdrawal after the longest war in U.S. history or that Biden’s Pentagon responded to the crisis with the unprecedented airlift of 124,000 people didn’t prevent a solid majority from disapproving of the president’s handling of the situation.

The rally ‘round the flag effect — which was on life support after Republicans held overlapping, hostile investigations seeking to blame Hillary Clinton for the 2011 deaths of four Americans in Benghazi — is officially dead. What happened? Blame what the experts call “negative partisanship” — a worldview that’s more motivated by fear, distrust and eventually hatred of the opposing party than any other factor. In 1983, the first instinct after a terrorist bombing was to blame the terrorists, not look for ways to take down the president. Our brains aren’t wired that way in 2021.

The irony here is that I’m no fan of the rally ‘round the flag effect. We should ask hard questions of our leaders, whether it’s a Republican like Reagan or a Democrat like Carter ... or Biden. (Also, there’s the serious question of whether past presidents launched reckless military adventures for a political boost — the “wag the dog” syndrome.) But we also need a more nuanced view of Afghanistan — whether chaos was the unavoidable side effect of ending a war that should have ended years ago. In a perfect world, Americans would learn to question authority but also retain the honesty to credit leaders for making a politically difficult choice. The United States in the 2020s is not a perfect world.

Yo, do this

  1. The great thing about a vacation is you can finally catch up on things — especially when there’s a long flight involved. That’s where I belatedly saw Carey Mulligan’s tour de force performance in Promising Young Woman, which bottles the moral fervor of the #MeToo movement in a creative thriller that’s never preachy. The shock ending of Mulligan’s life-consuming crusade to avenge her best friend’s med-school rape and unraveling felt like a clap-back to Thelma and Louise, in the best way. If you missed it last winter like I did, go out and find this movie.

  2. As a history buff, I’d always heard that Southern aristocrats maintained power by pitting poor white people against the region’s Black people. But I never learned how calculated this was — codified diabolically by Virginia’s slave codes of the early 1700s — until I recently began listening to the historian Heather Cox Richardson’s 2020 book How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America, which brilliantly mines the Orwellian notion that American concepts of “freedom” have depended on slavery, Indian removal and inequality.

Ask me anything

Question: Mets or Yankees ? Too hard? Okay, Stones or Beatles ? — Via @watergatesummer on Twitter

Answer: Choosing the Mets over the geographically closer Yankees in spring 1968 (until I ditched them in 2002) seemed easy, but your music question is very, very hard. I’m going to maybe surprise people and go with the Rolling Stones. Sure, from their early harmonies to the experimentation of Sgt. Pepper and beyond, the Beatles forever changed music. But the Stones were more in harmony with events in the wider world. Can you name three songs that better captured the youth revolt, anti-conformity and paranoia of the ‘60s better than “Satisfaction,” “Sympathy for the Devil,” or “Gimme Shelter”? The Stones forever changed what music had to say to the world (and RIP to the great Charlie Watts).


After the remnants of Hurricane Ida ravaged the state and killed several of his constituents, the governor was unequivocal in declaring the moral equivalent of war on climate change. “The world is changing, these storms are coming in more frequently,” he pronounced. “We have got to leap forward and get out ahead of this.” Unfortunately if you live in Pennsylvania, the speaker was New Jersey’s chief executive, Phil Murphy, and not our own Gov. Wolf, whose reaction to Ida was more subdued — mirroring his middling approach to global warming throughout his seven years in Harrisburg. David Masur, executive director of PennEnvironment, told the AP last week that Wolf’s long-term legacy will likely be marred by his “willingness to promote fracking infrastructure and plastics.”

» READ MORE: What the ‘death knell’ of fossil fuels means for Pennsylvania | Editorial

The arrival of Labor Day presumably means the race to replace the term-limited Wolf in 2022, with primaries looming in May, will shift to a higher gear. The Trumped-up GOP field is sure to pander to climate denialism, but the challenge for any Democrat — and it’s expected to be Attorney General Josh Shapiro — will be to create a new paradigm to wean Pennsylvania off fracking, and sooner rather than later. But some of the responsibility for changing Harrisburg falls on us, the voters. In recent cycles, too many suburban voters who drive Priuses and faithfully recycle have also re-elected Republicans who do the bidding of Big Oil and Gas, blinding Pennsylvania’s vision for a carbon-free future. Climate action requires climate voting in 2022.

Inquirer reading list

  1. Just like you, I find it very hard to believe that it’s been 20 years since that warm September morning with the royal-blue sky and the terror attacks that literally came out of that blue, killing nearly 3,000 innocent people and changing life in America forever. In my essay published in the Inquirer last Sunday, I argued that that changes wrought by 9/11 have been mostly for the worst — aided by cynical leaders who mined fear and paranoia to launch dumb foreign wars and crack down on immigrants and dissidents in a meaner, crueler United States.

  2. Over the weekend, I tried to make sense of the apocalyptic push alerts over bombings in Kabul, climate-worsened floods and wildfires, a judicial assault on women’s reproductive rights, and more — which made it impossible to take a summer vacation from America’s woes. I argued that the disparate threads all flow from the same cloth — oligarchical manipulation fueled by the worked-up electorate of minority rule. The solid majority of forward-looking Americans need to start fighting back.

  3. Speaking of September 11, 2001, my only major beef with the Philadelphia Daily News in a 26-year-history of working here through its merger with The Inquirer was the edition of September 12, 2001, which was headlined “Blood For Blood” and called for “revenge” — the looming mindset of an immoral “forever war.” One thing about a really good newspaper editorial board is a willingness to reflect and criticize itself. I was really proud of this Inquirer editorial that came down on the two papers’ mistakes of the post-9/11 era, and called for a more thoughtful U.S. role in the world after two decades. A great local news org changes with its community, because we are part of that community. Please support our voice in Philadelphia’s civic conversation by subscribing.