In his book The Last Politician: Joe Biden’s White House and the Struggle for America’s Future (Penguin/Random House, $30), author Franklin Foer quickly establishes a central premise. He is dealing with an imperfect President who never really comes to terms with today’s politics of relentless combat and 24/7 public display.
Joe Biden is, rather, a fine example of the old tradition of “nose counting, horse trading, and spreading a thick layer of flattery over his audience.” Biden says of himself: “I will always be a Senate man.” He was, after all, a senator 36 years. Its workload and collegiality helped him recover from the death of his first wife and daughter in an auto crash.
The old way of doing things has recently yielded results, although you’d never know it through the braying hatred and ridicule of right-wing media and the bed-wetting tendencies of liberal commentary. Biden pushed through the infrastructure bill, with bipartisan support — something promised by three previous presidents who failed to deliver. The CHIPS Act (prime sponsor, Sen. Maria Cantwell) is reviving America’s microchip industry and delivering a shot-in-the-arm to American manufacturing.
The $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan cut childhood poverty in half and pumped money into recovery from the pandemic. Rapid nationwide implementation of COVID-19 vaccine reflected, Foer’s words, “the guiding hand of an activist state.” The Inflation Reduction Act is our first real effort to tackle the climate crisis, giving the U.S. “an investment in moral authority” to urge action by the rest of the world.
Foer praises the Biden record. “Politics is the means by which a society mediates its differences of opinion, allowing for peaceful coexistence,” he writes. But the hard work of working out society’s compromises doesn’t get respect. As this is written, a Republican faction in Congress is working actively to shut down the federal government and start presidential impeachment research.
Nor does Biden get much respect. Polls show a majority of Americans, even a majority of Democrats, want him to stand down after this term. Age is clearly slowing down an emotive, engaging happy warrior. Biden has found, in Foer’s words, “advanced years were a hindrance, depriving him of the energy to cast a robust public presence or the ability to easily conjure a name.”
The 80-year-old’s gaffes date back years. Of Barack Obama, early in the 2008 race, Biden declared, “I mean, you got the first mainstream Afro-American who is articulate, and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy. I mean, that’s a storybook, man.” Or, at a town meeting, giving a shout to a wheelchair-bound Iowa supporter: “Chuck, stand up and let them see you.”
But talk of age rages. “Where’s Jackie?” Biden asked at a White House ceremony last year. Rep. Walorski, R-Indiana, had been killed in an auto crash the week before. Biden carried on: “Rep. Jackie, are you here? Where’s Jackie? I thought she was going to be here.” The New York Post and sneering pundits at Fox News, both run by 92-year-old Rupert Murdoch, feast on Biden gaffes, ignoring Trump’s call to suspend the Constitution and put him back in power.
The Biden inner circle, together for decades, has grown super-protective of their charge. As, Foer argues, they should be: “His public personna . . . reflected physical decline and time’s dulling of mental faculties that no pill or exercise regime can resist.” Biden comes to work at 10 am – an hour later than Ronald Reagan, an hour earlier than Trump – with “few morning meetings” and “few public events before 10 am.”
Yet, Biden soldiers on into the 2024 race, convinced his mission is to “restore the soul of America,” along with the politics of rationality, civility, comity, and compromise. He has seen Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a global test of democracy and rallied (and expanded) the NATO alliance. “If we allow Ukraine to be carved up, is the independence of any nation secure?” he asked at the United Nations last week.
Biden is a person of core principles. Foer is somewhat amazed at his grit, focus, lack of fretting over low polls or chattering columns (in both Washingtons) saying it’s time for Joe to hang it up. First Lady Jill Biden told a Shoreline fundraiser last week: “Over the years, I’ve been continually inspired by his resilience and optimism.”
Foer delivers lots of insider stuff. But he makes a point with stories and observations, unlike the tell-all, dog’s-breakfast presentations in Bob Woodward’s books.
He depicts Vice President Kamala Harris as insecure and super-sensitive to criticism. Having humiliated Biden at a 2019 presidential candidates’ debate, bringing up his past chumminess with Southern racist colleagues, she has faced challenges penetrating the inner circle. Writes Foer: “Instead of carving out an independent role, she stuck to the POTUS’ side, an omnipresence at every White House meeting.”
Of course, Harris had to hang around D.C. to break tie votes in an evenly divided Senate. Lately, she has begun solo ventures, coming to Seattle to tout the Inflation Reduction Act and taking on Gov. Ron DeSantis’ sanitizing of American history during Florida visits. Gen. Mark Milley, outgoing chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has praised her “piercing questions” in private briefings.
Foer describes in excruciating detail our precipitous withdrawal from Afghanistan, which was the Waterloo of Biden’s poll ratings. That account brings to mind ex-Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ observation that a dovish Biden was “wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the last four decades.” To the contrary, Foer praises Biden’s decision to go all-in on defense of Ukraine.
That account brings to mind ex-Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ observation that a dovish Biden was “wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the last four decades.” To the contrary, Foer praises Biden’s decision to go all-in on defense of Ukraine.
One surprising revelation: It turns out Biden has a somewhat strained relationship with Ukraine’s President Vladimir Zelensky. Of Zelensky, Foer writes, “At least subconsciously (he) seemed to blame (Biden) for the humiliation he suffered, for the political awkwardness he endured with Trump.”
Zelensky asks for more and more, notably weapons that can hit targets in Russia. “Where Biden tended to expect Zelensky to open with expressions of gratitude for American support, Zelensky crammed his conversations with a long list of demands.” Zelensky touted benefits of Ukraine joining NATO, a conversation wonderfully described by Foer: “It was an absurd analysis – and a blatant contradiction. And it pissed Biden off.”
The astuteness of Foer, a writer for the Atlantic and ex-New Republic editor, could be seen last week. At the White House Zelensky and Biden rather formally shook hands and exchanged praise. A day later, in Ottawa and at a Toronto rally, the Ukrainian president was beaming and exchanging bear hugs with Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Biden’s team believes the grumpy doubters will eventually come home. Voters will react to “relentless attacks on our institutions” from the far right and its “contempt for the rule of law,” Jill Biden told a Mercer Island fundraiser. Unlike the too-modest Obama, the Biden Administration is aggressively pushing its accomplishments. As well, Biden is working on a long-overdue task — bringing blue-collar workers back into the Democratic fold.
After reading Foer’s long book, I recalled a scene from the 2008 Iowa presidential caucuses, when Biden was headed for an early exit. I had just covered a big Obama rally in the small town of Boone. When Biden showed up in nearby Ames, however, a crowd of 500 people was on hand to hear him out. Iowans take their politics seriously.
Biden visibly brightened and delivered a stemwinder speech timed at 49 minutes. He then took questions, with answers that lasted as long as ten minutes. After an hour of this, Jill Biden gently tugged at his coat and the audience, more overwhelmed than bored, was free to go. A trio of scribes, including me, interviewed voters and then decided we could use a drink.
Our group traded stories about Joe’s famous long-windedness. I heard for first time an incident of newly elected Sen. Barack Obama listening to Biden hold forth at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing. The wearied Illinois senator slipped a message to an aide: “Shoot me.”
We agreed, however, that deep down Joe Biden is a good guy with a sense of honor, fiercely devoted to family, and visibly shaped by tragedies in his life. All of us had watched him hug troubled citizens. Still, at age 64, we thought this was his last hurrah.
Not so, we can say 15 years later.