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Biden’s optimism collides with mounting political challenges

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Democrats are going to hold onto the House after November’s midterm elections. They will pick up as many as four seats in the Senate, expanding their majority and overcoming internal dissent that has helped stifle their agenda.

As the challenges confronting President Joe Biden intensify, his predictions of a rosy political future for the Democratic Party are growing bolder. The assessments, delivered in speeches, fundraisers and conversations with friends and allies, seem at odds with a country that he acknowledged this week was “really, really down,” burdened by a pandemic, surging gas prices and spiking inflation.

Biden’s hopeful outlook tracks with a sense of optimism that has coursed through his nearly five-decade career and was at the center of his 2020 presidential campaign, which he said was built around restoring the “soul of America.” In a lengthy Oval Office interview with The Associated Press on Thursday, Biden said part of his job as president is to “be confident.”

“Because I am confident,” he said. “We are better positioned than any country in the world to own the second quarter of the 21st century. That’s not hyperbole. That’s a fact.”

While presidents often try to emphasize the positive, there is a risk in this moment that Biden contributes to a dissonance between Washington and people across the country who are confronting genuine and growing economic pain.

Few of Biden’s closest political advisers are as bullish about the party’s prospects as the president. In interviews with a half-dozen people in and close to the White House, there is a broad sense that Democrats will lose control of Congress and that many of the party’s leading candidates in down-ballot races and contests for governor will be defeated, with Biden unable to offer much help.

The seeming disconnect between Biden’s view and the political reality has some in the party worriedthe White House has not fully grasped just how bad this election year may be for Democrats.

“I don’t expect any president to go out and say, ‘You know what, ‘We’re going to lose the next election,’” said Will Marshall, president and founder of the Progressive Policy Institute, which is in regular contact with the White House’s policy team. What might serve Biden well instead, Marshall said, would be “a sober sense of, ’Look, we’re probably in for a rough night in November and our strategy should be to remind the country what’s at stake.’”

The White House is hardly ignoring the problem.

After years in which Democrats have operated in political silos, there is a greater focus on marshaling resources. Jen O’Malley Dillon, Biden’s 2020 campaign manager who now serves as one of his deputy chiefs of staff, runs the political team from the West Wing along with Emmy Ruiz, a longtime Texas-based Democratic political consultant.

O’Malley Dillon coordinates strategy among the White House, the Democratic National Committee and an array of outside party groups. Cedric Richmond, a former Louisiana congressman who co-chaired Biden’s 2020 campaign and was one of his closest White House advisers, left for a job with the DNC in April. He characterized the move as underscoring the administration’s full grasp of the importance of the midterms.

“We understand that you cannot govern if you can’t win,” Richmond said in an interview. “We are treating it with that sense of urgency.”

The president’s political message is being honed by Mike Donilon, a longtime Biden aide who is a protector of Biden’s public image, and veteran party strategist Anita Dunn, who is returning to the White House for a second stint.

Richmond praised Dunn’s political instincts and said he believes she will team with O’Malley Dillion, White House chief of staff Ron Klain and others to promote messaging that many in their own party may underestimate.

“If I had a penny for every time Democrats counted Joe Biden or Kamala Harris out, I’d be independently wealthy,” Richmond said.

Biden turned to Dunn during an especially low political moment in February 2020, giving her broad control of his then-cash strapped presidential campaign as it appeared on the brink of collapse after a disastrous fourth-place showing in the Iowa caucus.

Barely a week later, Biden left New Hampshire before its primary polls had even closed, ultimately finishing fifth. But he took second in Nevada, won South Carolina handily and saw the Democratic establishment rally around him at breakneck speed in mere days after that. O’Malley Dillon then joined the campaign and oversaw Biden’s general election victory.

A similar reversal of political fortune may be necessary now.

But where White House officials last year harbored hopes that voters could be convinced of Biden’s accomplishments and reverse their dismal outlook on the national direction, aides now acknowledge that such an uphill battle is no longer worth fighting. Instead, they have pushed the president to be more open about his own frustrations — particularly on inflation — to show voters that he shares their concerns and to cast Republicans and their policies as obstacles to addressing these issues.

Though he has increasingly expressed anger about inflation, Biden has publicly betrayed few concerns about his party’s fortunes this fall. opting instead for relentlessly positivity.

“I think there are at least four seats that are up for grabs that we could pick up in the Senate,” the president told a recent gathering of donors in Maryland. “And we’re going to keep the House.”

Biden meant Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, with potential longer shots in North Carolina or Florida possibly representing No. 4. Some aides admit that assessment is too optimistic. They say the president is simply seeking to fire up his base with such predictions. One openly laughed when asked if it was possible that Democrats could pick up four Senate seats.

The party’s chances of maintaining House control may be bleaker. Still, Tim Persico, executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which is charged with defending the party’s narrow majority, said Biden remains an asset.

“We love when the president is speaking to the country,” Persico said. “There’ll always be frustrations. I totally get that. But I think he’s his own best messenger.”

Biden has traveled more since last fall, promoting a $1 trillion public works package that became law in November, including visiting competitive territory in Minnesota, Virginia, Wisconsin, Michigan and New Hampshire. During a trip to Democratic Rep. Cindy Axne’s Iowa swing district, the president declared, “My name is Joe Biden. I work for Congresswoman Axne.”

But Bernie Sanders, the last challenger eliminated as Biden clinched the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, is making his own Iowa trip this weekend to rally striking workers at construction and agriculture equipment plants.

The 80-year-old Vermont senator has not ruled out a third presidential bid in 2024 should Biden not seek reelection. That has revived questions about whether Biden, 79, might opt not to run — speculation that has persisted despite the White House political operation gearing up for the midterms and beyond.

“I do think a lot of folks in the Democratic Party, rightfully, are concerned about what’s going to happen in 2024. That doesn’t have to be mal intent,” said Linn County Supervisor Stacey Walker, whose district includes Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and who was a high-profile Sanders supporter during the last campaign. “I think folks are putting the question to the Democratic Party, ‘Is Joe Biden going to run again? Is he not going to run again?’”

Walker noted that other Democrats who could seek the White House in 2024 if Biden does not, including Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, joined Sanders in signing a letter supporting 1,000-plus plant workers who have been striking for better pay and benefits for more than a month.

“It is responsible, I think, for those folks within the Democratic Party, who have the profile, who have the infrastructure, to make sure it’s all still in good working condition should they have to dust off the playbook,” Walker said.

Asked if Biden was running again in 2024, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the president has responded to such queries repeatedly and “his answer has been pretty simple, which is, yes, he’s running for reelection.”

The more immediate question of Biden’s midterm appeal could be even trickier. He campaigned for Democrat Terry McAuliffe in Virginia last November, after winning the state easily in 2020. McAuliffe lost by 2 percentage points, a potentially bad omen for the 16 governorships Democrats are defending this fall.

“We know there are going to be national headwinds, there always are,” Stacey Abrams, the Democratic candidate for governor in Georgia, said recently. But she insisted she would be happy to campaign with Biden or top members of his administration: “I welcome anyone willing to lift Georgia up, to come to Georgia and help me get it done.”

That was a departure from Democrat Beto O’Rourke, running for governor in Texas, who told reporters, “I’m not interested in any national politician — anyone outside of Texas — coming into this state to help decide the outcome of this race.”

Biden political advisers say a possible Supreme Court ruling overturning the landmark Roe v. Wade decision, as well as recent mass shootings spurring renewed debate over gun violence, could give Democrats two issues that could energize voters. But they also acknowledge that one or both might help party candidates clinch already close races — not remake the political landscape nationwide.

In the meantime, Biden’s overall approval rating hit a new low of 39% last month. Even among his own party, just 33% of respondents said the country is headed in the right direction, down from 49% in April. The president’s approval rating among Democrats stood at 73%, falling sharply from last year, when Biden’s Democratic approval rating never slipped below 82%.

White House political advisers are already playing down the possibility that some of the party’s most vulnerable candidates may carve out identities distinct from the president’s. As a former senator, Biden understands such maneuvers, they say.

The White House also notes that the president and his party are in far better shape now than before the 2010 midterms, when a tea party wave saw Republicans win back Congress. Since taking office, Biden’s political team has invested significantly in the DNC and state parties, and all sides are cooperating.

The DNC says it has never been larger, with 450 staff members on state party payrolls, or sported a more robust ground operation. It also raised $213 million so far, a midterm record. But DNC Chair Jaime Harrison nonetheless appeared to be trying to head off concerns donors’ contributions might be going to waste, saying, “We’re not promoting it all over the place.”

“When you’re in the Super Bowl, do you think the coach puts all their plays up on Twitter, and says, ‘Here’s what we’re going to run?,” Harrison said at a Los Angeles fundraiser with Biden last weekend. “No. We don’t put all of our stuff out there.”

He said the group is building out an operation “to make sure that, when those close elections happen November, we win them.”

Will Weissert And Zeke Miller, The Associated Press

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Afghan rights leader heartbroken after year of Taliban rule

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UNITED NATIONS (AP) — A year after the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, prominent Afghan rights activist Sima Samar is still heartbroken over what happened to her country.

Samar, a former minister of women’s affairs and the first chair of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, left Kabul in July 2021 for the United States on her first trip after the COVID-19 pandemic, never expecting Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to flee the country and the Taliban to take power for the second time soon after on Aug. 15.

“I think it’s a sad anniversary for the majority of people of my country,” Samar said, particularly for the women “who don’t have enough food, who do not know what is the tomorrow for them.”

A visiting scholar at the Carr Center for Human Rights at the Kennedy School at Harvard, she has written the first draft of an autobiography and is working on a policy paper on customary law relating to Afghan women. She is also trying to get a Green Card, but she said, “I honestly cannot orient myself, where I am, and what I’m doing.”

She wishes she could go home — but she can’t.

In an interview Friday with The Associated Press, she recalled a Taliban news conference a few days after they took power when they said if people apologized for past actions they would be forgiven.

“And I said, I should be apologizing because I started schools for the people?” said Samar, a member of Afghanistan’s long persecuted Hazara minority. “I should apologize because I started hospitals and clinics in Afghanistan? I should apologize because I tried to stop torture of the Taliban? I should apologize to advocate against the death penalty, including (for) the Taliban leadership?”

“All my life I fought for life as a doctor,” she said. “So I cannot change and support the death penalty. I shouldn’t apologize for those principles of human rights and be punished.”

Samar became an activist as a 23-year-old medical student with an infant son. In 1984, the then-communist government arrested her activist husband, and she never saw him again. She fled to Pakistan with her young son and worked as a doctor for Afghan refugees and started several clinics to care for Afghan women and girls.

Samar remembered the Taliban’s previous rule in the late 1990s, when they largely confined women to their homes, banned television and music, and held public executions. A U.S.-led invasion drove the Taliban from power months after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, which al-Qaida orchestrated from Afghanistan while being sheltered by the Taliban.

After the Taliban’s ouster, Samar returned to Afghanistan, moving into the top women’s rights and human rights positions, and over the next 20 years schools and universities were opened for girls, women entered the workforce and politics and became judges.

But Samar said in an AP interview in April 2021 — four months before the Taliban’s second takeover of the country — that the gains were fragile and human rights activists had many enemies in Afghanistan, from militants and warlords to those who wanted to stifle criticism or challenge their power.

Samar said the Afghan government and leadership, especially Ghani, were mainly responsible for the Taliban sweeping into Kabul and taking power. But she also put blame on Afghans “because we were very divided.”

In every speech and interview she gave nationally and internationally over the years, she said Afghans had to be united and inclusive, and “we have to have the people’s support. Otherwise, we will lose.”

As chair of the Human Rights Commission, she said she repeatedly faced criticism that she was trying to impose Western values on Afghanistan.

“And I kept saying, human rights is not Western values. As a human being, everyone needs to have a shelter … access to education and health services, to security,” she said.

Since their takeover, the Taliban have limited girls’ public education to just six years, restricted women’s work, encouraged them to stay at home, and issued dress codes requiring them to cover their faces.

Samar urged international pressure not only to allow all girls to attend secondary school and university, but to ensure all human rights which are interlinked. And she stressed the importance of education for young boys, who without any schooling, job or skill could be at risk to get involved in opium production, weapons smuggling or in violence.

She also urged the international community to continue humanitarian programs which are critical to save lives, but said they should focus on food-for-work or cash-for-work to end peoples’ total dependency and give them “self-confidence and dignity.”

Samar said Afghan society has changed over the past two decades, with more access to technology, rising education levels among the young and some experience with elections, t even if they weren’t free and fair.

She said such achievements leave the possibility of positive change in the future. “Those are the issues that they (the Taliban) cannot control,” she said. “They would like to, but they cannot do it.”

Samar said she hoped for eventual accountability and justice for war crimes and crimes against humanity. “Otherwise, we feel the culture of impunity everywhere, everywhere — and the invasion of Russia to Ukraine is a repetition of Afghanistan’s case,” she said.

Her hope for Afghan women is that they can “live with dignity rather than being a slave of people.”

Edith M. Lederer, The Associated Press

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Ship carrying grain for hungry Ethiopia leaves Ukraine

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By Derek Gatopoulous in Kyiv

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — A United Nations-chartered ship loaded with 23,000 metric tons of Ukrainian grain destined for Ethiopia set sail Sunday from a Black Sea port, the first shipment of its kind in a program to assist countries facing famine.

The Liberia-flagged Brave Commander departed from the Ukrainian port of Yuzhne, east of Odesa, according to regional governor Maksym Marchenko. It plans to sail to Djibouti, where the grain will be unloaded and transferred to Ethiopia under the World Food Program initiative.

Ukraine and Russia reached a deal with Turkey on July 22 to restart Black Sea grain deliveries, addressing the major export disruption that has occurred since Russia invaded Ukraine in February.

Ethiopia is one of five countries that the UN considers at risk of starvation.

“The capacity is there. The grain is there. The demand is there across the world and in particular, these countries,” WFP Ukraine coordinator Denise Brown told The Associated Press. “So if the stars are aligned, we are very, very hopeful that all the actors around this agreement will come together on what is really an issue for humanity. So today was very positive.”

On the front line, Russian forces on Sunday fired rockets on the Mykolaiv region in southern Ukraine, killing at least one person. That region is just north of the Russian-occupied city of Kherson, which Ukrainian forces have vowed to retake. The Ukrainian emergency service said one person was killed in shelling early Sunday settlement of Bereznehuvate in Mykolaiv.

A Russian diplomat, meanwhile, called on Ukraine to offer security assurances so that international inspectors could visit a nuclear power station that has come under fire.

As fighting steps up in southern Ukraine as Russia’s war closes in on six months, concern has grown sharply about the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, which is held by Russian forces and has been hit by sporadic shelling. Both Ukraine and Russia blame each other for the shelling, which officials say has damaged monitoring equipment and could lead to a nuclear catastrophe.

The Zaporizhzhia facility is Europe’s largest nuclear power plant.

Russia’s envoy to international organizations based in Vienna, Mikhail Ulyanov, called on Ukraine to stop attacking the plant in order to allow an inspection mission from the International Atomic Energy Agency.

“It is important that the Ukrainians stop their shelling of the station and provide security guarantees to members of the mission. An international team cannot be sent to work under continuous artillery shelling,” he was quoted as saying Sunday by Russian state news agency Tass.

Ukraine says Russia is shelling nearby regions from the plant and storing weapons there.

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Follow the AP’s coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine

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