New Biden Book Offers Ammo for Those Hoping He Sits Out 2024
Franklin Foer’s "The Last Politician" paints a portrait of an insecure president who admits to friends he’s feeling every bit of his 80 years.
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Simple men don’t get elected to the White House. They increasingly try to sell themselves as plain-spoken folks who understand the struggle at the gas pump, how things can get tight toward the end of the month for seniors, how tough it is to pay off those student loans. But behind their feigned Everyman status lies dozens of contradictions, enormous egos and insecurities, and deep-ground imperfections.[time-brightcove not-tgx=”true”]
Franklin Foer’s The Last Politician: Inside Joe Biden’s White House and the Struggle for America’s Future is part narrative history of his first two years as the steward of the Oval Office and part notes from a psych evaluation. Foer, a staff writer at The Atlantic, acknowledges that he has more admiration for Biden now than when he started reporting the project, before Biden had even won the 2020 election.
But, for close-eyed readers, the reasons Foer has to admire Biden are equally as animating for his critics. In other words, The Last Politician provides plenty of fodder for Biden’s foes, as well as fair-weather Democrats still holding out hope he won’t be the party’s nominee next year.
Biden’s team insists he’s running again, and he remains the prohibitive favorite. His new headquarters is up and running, if still building. Foer reports that Biden seldom schedules meetings before 10 a.m., admits to friends he’s feeling every bit the 80 years he stands today, and anyone who has watched the White House in the last year can see things are a little slower than when they started and scaled back to accommodate his age. In interviews, Foer has been open to the idea that Biden may ultimately step aside for a new ticket.
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But Foer’s portrait of Biden goes a step further than that surface-level analysis or pure ageism. The man who wanted to be President since before he won election to the Senate in 1972 is fueled not just by ambition but by deep insecurities, an unflappable belief that better angels always win, and an understandable grief. Biden likes to think he runs a meritocracy and technocracy, but favors longtime loyalists who don’t challenge him. He is solicitous of advice but rarely follows it. As Vice President, he often took on the job of asking the crucial questions that the boss didn’t want to raise to presidential queries. Now, he tends to limit debate to his core group of advisers for fear of looking unintelligent or someone leaking his questions.
Biden fancies himself his sharpest tactician and strategists, and his yes-men—and, yes, they’re almost all men in this version—allow him to believe this to be true. As described by Foer, his aides create “a safe space” for policy talks, a tendency that burst out in public during the summer Roe fell, when he tried to use the historic moment to warn the American public on threats to privacy. The ultimate delivery was roundly and rightly criticized as flat and disconnected.
For someone who has been around Washington as long as Biden, so much of the job is personal, and the books shows moments of raw Bidenism. When former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers published a particularly critical op-ed about Biden’s early economic plans, rather than consider the merits, Biden phoned him and unloaded. His aides didn’t consider the merits, just that Summers, up at Harvard, was being mean to his former Obama-era colleague.
At another juncture, Biden had to walk-back a declaration that coupled two spending bills together as a package, moments after reaching an agreement with Republicans on one of them. At another, Biden can barely conceal his frustration with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who to the American’s mind had less experience in Ukrainian politics than he did. And at yet another moment, he accidentally discloses a private negotiating conversation with a lawmaker while she was sitting with her colleagues.
And the disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan is well documented. But, in Foer’s mind, Biden finds redemption there; he never sought to blame anyone but himself for how that war ended after 20 years and in defeat.
Biden came to office with challenges that are easy to forget, more than two years on. The COVID-19 pandemic was still at its height, the Trump administration frankly had no plan to distribute fast-coming vaccines, inflation was creeping up, unemployment showed no signs of fading, and there was the messy business of Trumpist election denialism and insurrection. For the better part of the history Foer covers, Biden was seen as an ineffective leader, an heir to Jimmy Carter’s listless one term.
But by the end of this book’s covered two years, the comparisons to Franklin Delano Roosevelt seem less bombastic than the start of his term, when much of Washington rolled its eyes at Biden’s choice of an FDR portrait in the Oval Office as a guiding inspiration. FDR carried out the New Deal, but Biden may lap him in sheer size of federal ambitions through his legislation dealing with green jobs, infrastructure, technology, and social safety programs. Biden is, in Foer’s estimation, “the old hack who could.”
But could do what, exactly? Where an activist state saved the economy and set a course for a greener future, critics of Biden will naturally see it as a fool’s dream destined to fall short of its lofty aims. While Biden’s defenders see his courtship of Republicans and his arm’s distance from his party’s left flank as shrewd posturing, it’s not hard to see why many think of him as out-of-touch and trying to run a Washington that no longer exists. When Biden deferred to teachers over growing support for getting kids back in classrooms, it’s not a stretch to see favoritism toward powerful unions that count First Lady Jill Biden as a member.
Biden’s stubborn fetishization of bipartisanship leaves even loyalists in the West Wing privately dubious that he’s up to the task. Lawmakers who know Biden seem to genuinely like the man but question if he’s actually in command or if Ron Klain, who departed as chief of staff this year, was the puppetmaster.
The Last Politician hints in its very title that Biden is the last of a breed, the back-slapping optimist who thinks he can carrouse even his sworn enemies to yes. That optimism is blunted throughout by story after story of obstruction, obstinance, and outright mockery. While not nominally a book about him, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia emerges as a gnarly and complicated man. The same can be said for Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, another unpredictable—but slightly less contrarian in this telling—figure. Both delayed some Biden victories for demands that never quite made sense. In other moments, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi feels Biden biffs it and steps in to manage legislative affairs for the confrontation-averse President.
Biden may ultimately wind up joining FDR among Democratic icons—despite his claims that he doesn’t care about legacy—but it might be in spite of himself, and perhaps more through sheer Irish luck than he or his acolytes are willing to admit.
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