Presidential aides were in a state of nervous anticipation in the weeks leading up to the publication of Franklin Foer’s new book, The Last Politician: Inside Joe Biden’s White House and the Struggle for America’s Future. The book is the first insider account of President Joe Biden’s first two years in office, based on nearly 300 deep background interviews. Politico Playbook reported that “In Washington, the book will be a test for how a generally leak-proof White House grapples with the first detailed excavation of its successes and failures from the Inaugural through the midterms,” and added that “In recent days Biden aides have been scrambling to secure a password-protected PDF of the book.”
Franklin Foer is a longtime Washington, D.C. journalist and staff writer at The Atlantic magazine. He was for many years a staff writer at The New Republic, along with briefer stints at Slate and New York magazine, and twice served as editor of The New Republic. He is the author of several books, including How Soccer Explains the World and World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech.
In this podcast episode, Foer discusses why he thinks Biden “is inherently more interesting than the public or pundits assume he is,” how he came to write the book, and why he chose to focus on episodes from the early Biden presidency including the administration’s response to the ongoing COVID pandemic, the disastrous military withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the struggle to pass critical legislation, particularly the Build Back Better bill that eventually became the Inflation Reduction Act. Foer also talks about why Biden is a difficult boss who nonetheless inspires fierce loyalty from his closest circle of aides, the tradeoffs involved with Biden’s age, the question of whether Biden can accurately be described as a moderate or centrist, and why Biden has struggled with public perceptions of his presidency.
Franklin Foer: Biden is somebody who’s always had this maxim that good politics is good policy; that in order to make policy sustainable over the long run, you need to build a public constituency for it. You need to get out there and you need to be the used car salesman. And he’s not been very good at doing that.
Geoff Kabaservice: Hello! I’m Geoff Kabaservice for the Niskanen Center. Welcome to the Vital Center Podcast, where we try to sort through the problems of the muddled, moderate majority of Americans, drawing upon history, biography, and current events. I’m delighted and honored to be joined today by Franklin Foer. He’s a staff writer at the Atlantic Magazine and was previously the editor of The New Republic — twice — as well as a staff writer at Slate and New York magazine. He’s the author or editor of five books, from 2004’s widely beloved How Soccer Explains the World to, most recently, The Last Politician: Inside Joe Biden’s White House and the Struggle for America’s Future, which will be released on September 5th. Welcome, Frank!
Franklin Foer: Pleasure to be here.
Geoff Kabaservice: And huge congratulations on The Last Politician. This podcast won’t appear until after September 5th, Frank, but you and I are speaking before the release date and already it has stirred massive (indeed transatlantic) publicity and controversy. On August 29th, Politico Playbook described The Last Politician as “an eagerly anticipated” tome that would be “The first insider account of President Joe Biden’s first two years in office,” based on nearly 300 interviews you conducted from November 2020 to February 2023. They reported that “In Washington, the book will be a test for how a generally leak-proof White House grapples with the first detailed excavation of its successes and failures from the Inaugural through the midterms.” Politico added that “In recent days Biden aides have been scrambling to secure a password-protected PDF of the book.”
I personally don’t know enough about the Biden White House to know how they will receive it. But as an interested reader of books like this, I can say that The Last Politician is really terrific. It’s just a wonderfully written account. It’s obviously based on superb inside intel as well as your long experience as a reporter in Washington. And it has actually a propulsive narrative thrust that I found both exciting and rather unexpected. Congratulations again.
Franklin Foer: Thank you. I feel like part of the challenge of writing this book was that Joe Biden is a figure who’s generally not regarded as exciting, interesting, sexy — the subject of propulsive narrative. The thing that I tried to work with as an author was both the fact that Biden is inherently more interesting than the public or pundits assume he is; that he’s a guy who’s got an array of insecurities, status anxieties, but also somebody who’s got very unique theories of the world that grow from his experience. He thinks about the world in a way that is much more unconventional than you’d think from a person who is seen as so conventional.
The second thing that I worked with narratively was just that there were all these crises over the last two years, beginning with January 6th, which happened to be the peak of the pandemic and also a moment when the country was teetering on economic collapse. This was existential.
As a historian, you’ll know the Arthur Schlesinger books about the Roosevelt administration. And there’s really not a parallel between those two administrations exactly, but there are elements. When I started to read the Schlesinger books as a young man, I loved the way that he just created this sense of peril and went from there. That was what I used as my model. When I would get stuck writing this book, that was where I would go to just draw some inspiration.
Geoff Kabaservice: Well, you succeeded brilliantly. I have to admit that I initially thought that, given Biden’s reputation for being boring, when I picked up the book I might use it as a soporific to help me sleep at night. Instead, I stayed up all night reading the book, so it cost me a night of sleep. Like I said, it’s a big spotlight that’s being cast on this book because it is the first insider account to come out about the presidency and it joins a kind of a select group of books that can be said to kick off that first draft of history in that sense.
To take a metaphorical helicopter ride over the building before we set foot in the front door, can you tell me something about how your original intention to write about Biden’s first 100 days in office broadened into an account of Biden’s first two years in office up until the 2022 midterm elections?
Franklin Foer: This book wasn’t initially my own idea. My publisher came to me just after Joe Biden had won the Democratic nomination, or had had his nominating convention and it seemed possible that he might become president. She proposed this idea to me and I hesitated for all the reasons that I think we’ve just discussed. I wasn’t sure. Joe Biden wasn’t a figure who I’d ever gravitated to, he wasn’t somebody that I felt any kinship with, and he’d run his campaign from his basement. He was this blank canvas for me in recent memory. And then there was the fact that I’ve never actually done a book like this per se, which is an insider account. There are a set of skills that are required to be able to pull a book like this off, and I wasn’t sure that I possessed them.
I started out very nervously and was convinced that I was going to end up with not enough to fill out a book. Because part of the problem with doing a book like this, just as a matter of tradecraft, is that when people arrive in administration, they don’t know what they’re doing. They’re all scared about leaking because they’re new to their jobs. The idea of collaborating on a work of history — even a first draft — is something that is at the back of their minds and they can only see the downside risk from collaboration.
I started, and I started to make a little bit of progress here and there. I was a little bit saved by the fact that Biden, on his 100th day in office, proposed two big pieces of legislation which were originally known as the American Family Plan and the American Jobs Plan, which would become the infrastructure bill and then the Build Back Better bill, the thing that ultimately was culled down by Joe Manchin to become the Inflation Reduction Act. I was like, “Okay, he actually has a chance of becoming a transformational president.”
Initially I thought the story was about dealing with the crisis of the pandemic and dealing with inheriting the destroyed institutions of government left by Trump. And then there was this other story that intruded and I thought, “Okay, well, this makes my book so much better, to have this legislative saga.” But the problem with that legislative saga was that I kept telling my publisher, “All right, Build Back Better is probably going to pass in October.” “Okay, Build Back Better is probably going to pass by the end of the first year.” “Okay, Build Back Better is never going to pass. What the hell is the terminus for my book?”
I had a very wise publisher who just said, “Keep going. There will be an end date. You will discover it. But really you’ve got to let the piece of marble speak to you. You can’t sit there and chisel out a sculpture from a plan that you’ve got sitting on your desk.” That turned out to be very wise advice. And patience is not a journalistic virtue that I’m accustomed to practicing, but it was one that I had to learn.
Geoff Kabaservice: Since you mentioned Schlesinger’s Age of Roosevelt, I noticed that in your source notes you paid tribute to the 1992 book What it Takes by the late Richard Ben Cramer, which was an account of the campaigns of the Republican and Democratic contenders for the 1988 presidential election, including Joe Biden. For listeners who might not be familiar with this book, can you tell us something about why you found it so important?
Franklin Foer: It’s just a magnificent group biography of the presidential contenders from the 1988 election. What was so great about it, as it relates to Biden, is that Biden gave Richard Ben Cramer all this access. He let him trail him around. And there are just incredibly memorable scenes of Biden walking around this white elephant house that he’d bought in Delaware, and all of the class anxieties that went into this property that he was spending all this money on and fixing up by himself.
Biden was a guy who wore his insecurities on his sleeve, which made him faintly ridiculous but also in his way endearing. Biden’s aged since then, he has had all sorts of experiences — his son has died, he’s become vice president — but people don’t change fundamentally over time. There’s enough of the core character that carries over from the decades.
I began with this assumption that the Joe Biden who was there in that book still exists and would manifest himself as president. That Joe Biden was a great historical character and a great literary character. Once I accepted that fact, the book became much more pleasurable to work on.
Geoff Kabaservice: I definitely see the echoes of Cramer’s work in yours as well. Anyone looking for the biographical details of Joe Biden will find most of them in your book: the death of his wife and child in a car accident just before he got into the Senate, the death of Beau Biden, his long years in the Senate and the way in which that institution really became a balm to him in the wake of the tragedies that he’d suffered.
But I noticed that you did really launch the reader right into the action with Biden’s Inauguration on January 20th, 2021. And then you proceeded in a largely straightforward chronological march through the critical events of his first two years, including Biden’s attempt to undo the work of Trump before him, to respond to the ongoing COVID pandemic, to pass the critical legislation you mentioned including what became the Inflation Reduction Act, the disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan, eventually Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the 2022 midterms.
Your portrait of the president is based mostly on the experiences and perceptions of the people around him without the biographical flashbacks and historical scene-setting that’s I think more typical of books in this genre. Can you tell me something about how you decided on your approach to the subject?
Franklin Foer: Initially, the start date for my book was March 2020, and I wanted to begin with the planning for the transition to power and to cover the transition in more depth. But then I decided, for a whole variety of reasons having to do with narrative tautness and the size of the book, to start on Inauguration Day, because that is the absolute beginning of an administration and it just seemed like the most sensible start date. You know, as an editor, I always felt like chronology was the reader’s best friend, and there’s just an overcooking that happens when you flash back constantly. I had enough material that I could craft everything in a reasonably taut sort of way.
I tried to include some of the ideological, policy, and intellectual context for characters. That was one thing that was really important to me. A lot of times, this genre of presidential journalism skips over policy or treats policy purely as a matter of drama. But there were things like the way in which the economic consensus of the Democratic Party was shifting, or the way that China policy was shifting, that I wanted to include in the book because it felt important to me.
But my goal as I started to mess around with the writing and to come up with a style was just to keep things moving, keep things taut in order to recreate that sense of perpetual crisis that was the actual reality of the White House.
Geoff Kabaservice: There are some segments of the book where you’re actually slowing down the chronology and going day-by-day, including the withdrawal from Afghanistan, the blowup of Build Back Better, and then the Russian invasion of Ukraine as well. I found those really amazing, and your ability to sustain the tension over that period was tremendous.
Franklin Foer: Thank you. You look back on yourself and you look at books… This is a very, very strange source of inspiration, but there was a great history of World War I written by a Swedish historian, Peter Englund, that was just like a day-by-day account of World War I as experienced by a constellation of characters. I found it such a great read and such an utterly conventional device for structuring narrative, but ultimately so important because you can create the sense of how this is, to use the phrase, a “lived experience.” And governing is a lived experience, where you can see on any given day that you’d go through this cycle of despair and hope.
Just to pause, one thing I felt very torn about is I’m talking about a group of elites who are running things. And definitely, the genre of this type of presidential history leans heavily on psychology and on personal relations. I tried to deepen it in the way that I could by focusing on some of the policy content and some of the background for how beliefs evolve over time.
I was somewhat ambivalent about it, but the more that I reported and the more I thought about the contingency of history and the ways in which… There’s just no resisting the fact that if Joe Manchin had a different temperament, then there could have been this massive expansion of the social safety net, and it could have happened in the first year of the Biden presidency. Or if he’d had a different temperament, maybe he would’ve walked away from the Democratic Party altogether and there would’ve been no Inflation Reduction Act in the end. I think it’s a style of history that academic political scientists won’t especially enjoy, given their tendency to focus on structures. But it’s how politics works, it’s how politics is experienced. To write personality out of history, I think, is to simplify history.
Geoff Kabaservice: I’m sure you could have written an 800-page book with the greatest of ease, as opposed to the 400-and-change-page book that you wrote. Was there anything that was particularly painful to give up?
Franklin Foer: Like I was saying, some of the stories about the presidential transition were really painful for me to give up, because I’d spent so much time reporting them. I had like 40,000 words that I’d spent months and months reporting. There were some great stories about the various machinations to work with, for lack of a better word, the “deep state” in order to secure democracy.
And there were some good characters that I had come across. One of Joe Biden’s best friends is his former chief of staff, Ted Kaufman, who was briefly the senator from Delaware and just a really interesting guy. He actually happened to be one of the world’s leading experts on presidential transitions, kind of bizarrely, because Biden had asked him to go work on the Obama transition in 2008. He watched that up close and he saw all the irrational, inefficient ways in which a presidency is built. Then when he became a senator just after that, he introduced legislation to reform the presidential transition process. The legislation governing presidential transitions is actually named after Ted Kaufman, who was running Joe Biden’s transition. He had a whole counterintuitive plan about how to go about building a government. I was very sad to lose old Ted Kaufman from my story, but such is the price of narrative tautness.
Geoff Kabaservice: Such indeed. I understand that most of your interviews were conducted on record but on deep background, which means that your sources shared information that you were free to use but with the caveat that you shouldn’t attribute that information to a specific or named person. I won’t ask you who your principal sources were at the White House. But I will ask what gave you confidence that your sources were conveying information that was accurate and relatively devoid of spin?
Franklin Foer: Well, I assume most things come with a little bit of spin. You do your best to check against the recollections of other participants, and then you cull things that seem like they’re overwrought. It is a peril of reporting that any reporting that you do, any history that’s written, you’re relying on sources. And sources are imperfect. Memory is imperfect. People’s minds work in a way, even when they’re not trying to spin you outwardly, that they’re telling stories in a self-serving way because that’s what we’re made of. I can do what I can do, and I think there’s even benefit knowing that my book contains probably some stories that are self-serving and that’ll be corrected at some later date by a historian. It’s like the nature of that cliché, “the first draft of history” — it’s just a draft.
But I think that the value of getting that behind-the-curtains peek in something close to real time is true. For an electorate that has to make up its mind about whether to reelect a guy or not, it’s important to get as much of that story now, with whatever the inherent faults of the genre.
I guess what I’m saying is I began this process with a lot of questions and qualms about the whole genre. As I went about it, I guess my respect for the genre increased. I realized that I had been a bit smug about some of the faults in some of these other books, knowing now how difficult they are to pull together.
Geoff Kabaservice: Well, terrific. Frank, as you know, I typically ask the people I talk to in these podcasts to tell us something about your personal background. Where did you grow up, where did you go to school, and what were some of your principal influences?
Franklin Foer: Well, those are also the questions that are probably somewhat relevant to this book. I had a colleague at The New Republic, where I was editor for a long time, who would always say that you need to interrogate the subconscious reasons why you’re attracted to a subject. And once you understand that, then you can better unlock your reasons for doing it.
I grew up in Washington, D.C. My father was — is — a lawyer who practiced antitrust law, but who worked in the Carter administration in the Federal Trade Commission and then had a sojourn in small business, because my grandfather had run a chain of jewelry stores in the Washington, D.C. area. My grandfather was getting old, and my dad was in the Reagan administration, and the Reagan administration had no place for a passionate antitrust advocate. So he did the thing that antitrust celebrates, which is small business, and he was a small businessman for a couple years. And then he returned to antitrust and started a think tank called the American Antitrust Institute in the 1990s, and kept alive the flame of antitrust during the dark periods. My mother was in public relations in the Washington area and set up the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue here, which is a major venue for literary events and Jewish events.
I think that as that relates to my book… Coming out of the Trump era where Trump caused so many people (probably including myself) to become psychologically destabilized, to lose our minds, to not practice the type of reasoned thinking that we pride ourselves on, and was such a traumatic experience — I think I was drawn to the idea of writing about technocrats. Because I’d grown up in a world where I knew technocrats. My friends’ parents were technocrats. I grew up in a world where politicians were admired. I think on some level I wanted to be able to tell a story that saw the possibility of the redeeming features of the world that I came from. That’s how I’d stitch it together.
Geoff Kabaservice: That makes a lot of sense. I don’t usually refer in these interviews to family connections, because they are they and you are you. But I did notice that you dedicated your book to your younger brothers. Your book actually does seem to me to have some of the love of words of your novelist brother Jonathan, and also the world-class noticing abilities of your Atlas Obscura co-founding brother Josh.
Franklin Foer: Well, that’s very flattering of you to say. I’m extremely close to my two brothers. I dedicated my first book to my wife, and I dedicated another book to my daughters, and I dedicated another book to my father, and I’d really wanted to dedicate a book to my brothers. So this was my chance to do it.
Geoff Kabaservice: Glad you were able to do that. If memory serves, you and I first spoke in early 2000, when you were writing for The New Republic about Skull and Bones, the Yale secret society of which both Presidents Bush were members. You must’ve been all of, what, 25 at that time?
Franklin Foer: Yeah, something like that.
Geoff Kabaservice: Half a lifetime ago…
Franklin Foer: Well, it’s interesting… I think we could probably thematically connect some of the stuff from that conversation to this book. Because I think among the reasons that I was interested in speaking to you was that you had this interest in the American elite. That’s always been an abiding interest of mine. The sociology of the elites is really one of the great historical-journalistic subjects.
Joe Biden interestingly, is somebody who prides himself on having gone to a state school. He has a very complicated relationship with elites. On the one hand, he seeks their approval. On the other hand, he’s acutely aware of the fact that they will never fully accept him because he talks differently, he thinks differently, he doesn’t have some of their cultural traits. That class anxiety, the class resentment, is just a thing that constantly propels him. The fact of two guys who had a conversation about Skull and Bones for The New Republic would probably amuse him and maybe even a little bit piss him off.
Geoff Kabaservice: Fair enough. I wish we had time to talk about your time at The New Republic, speaking of elites, and my much more occasional participation in the magazine. You were a staff writer there for much of the first two decades of this century and then editor, first from 2006 to 2010 and then again from 2012 to 2014. You wrote about that latter stint as editor, during the time when the magazine was owned by Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, in your 2017 book World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech.
The New Republic still exists, and I think Michael Tomasky has improved it since he took over as editor, from its low point. But it was my feeling, during the years that the magazine was owned by Marty Peretz and you were editor, that there would be no replacement for its distinctive mix of insider politics and serious treatment of culture if it disappeared. And I think there hasn’t been any such replacement.
Franklin Foer: I would agree with that. I feel like there’s a void in the cultural landscape. The thing about a magazine like The New Republic, with that alchemy that you’ve just described that was both political insider material and then also high cultural criticism — it was just an anomalous combination of content, to use a word that probably doesn’t fit. So who would go about recreating something quite like that?
Geoff Kabaservice: I think you said that the people who actually fit that description could have fit comfortably into the University of Mississippi football stadium.
Franklin Foer: Yes. Yeah… That was a detail in a history of the 1960s that I had read once, which was exactly this, that the entire readership of The New Republic would’ve comfortably fit within the University of Mississippi football stadium. That’s just an image that can’t help but stick with you.
Geoff Kabaservice: A few years after we spoke, I ended up working for David Bradley at the Advisory Board Company. I was around when David Bradley then acquired The Atlantic and was facing the same question of: Who is the readership there? How would you compare your experience working at The Atlantic to the old New Republic?
Franklin Foer: I love working at The Atlantic. I think that it aims for a broader audience than the New Republic audience, and it’s achieved a far broader audience than the New Republic audience. We’re on the cusp of getting a million subscribers at The Atlantic, which is several University of Mississippi football stadiums stacked on top of one another.
It has, in certain ways, higher journalistic aspirations than The New Republic had. I would say that one of the differences is that The New Republic had the energy in the vitality (at its best) of a weekly, even as we were forced by economic conditions to expand into a biweekly format and to adapt to the web. I think that weekly sensibility is kind of necessary for covering politics well.
And it also was very British in its way. The New Republic was inspired initially by The Spectator and the New Statesman, these great British magazines. Michael Kinsley, when he edited the magazine in the 1980s and ’90s, was a relentless Anglophile, very much influenced by the heyday of little magazines in London. What’s great about that is that there’s this quality of British hackishness, which is that you move quickly. It’s cleverness, but there’s also … Even as you’re trying to write very stylish pose, you’re still doing it on deadline.
The Atlantic is a monthly. It has more of the DNA of a ruminative publication with its roots in Boston and the mid-19th century in the abolitionist movement, and its connection to Emerson and Thoreau. It’s got a different metabolism and aims in a different direction. I think that persists even into the present with all of these changes. With long-form journalism, there’s a little bit more of a deliberate slowness to it in the way that it’s produced and the sense that you’re writing something that will have this much longer shelf life. I don’t know if that makes sense to you as a reader.
Geoff Kabaservice: It makes a lot of sense, yeah. I’m trying to remember if your colleague at The Atlantic, George Packer, was on The New Republic once upon a time…
Franklin Foer: He never was, no.
Geoff Kabaservice: Okay. Well, in 2013, I think it was, he wrote extensively about Joe Biden as senator and vice president in his book The Unwinding. I can’t cite chapter and verse of George’s book, but the Biden of his portrayal was on the whole kind of an unpleasant figure: emblematic of Washington’s capture by the money power, prone to ignoring or even humiliating the people who worked for him outside of a charmed circle of insiders. Since you mentioned Ted Kaufman, he said in effect, “Biden disappoints everyone. He’s an equal-opportunity disappointer.” And this is coming from Biden’s best friend! But that doesn’t at all seem to describe Biden as president in the perceptions of the people who spoke to you for your book.
Franklin Foer: Well, I think there are rough edges that Biden has in my account. He can embrace a mentality of victimhood when things aren’t going his way. He has a temper. I’d say there are a couple things that maybe would account for the contrast between those two accounts. The first is he lost his son in those intervening years, which I think had a real… it was the walloping experience of his life, or maybe the second walloping experience of his life. I think that aging, for better and for worse, has kind of mellowed him. I think achieving this thing that he sought for so long — the presidency — took the edge off of some of his insecurities.
But look, he is a tough boss. He’s somebody who is just not an easy person to work for. I think it’s part of the Joe Biden that people don’t get to see, which is that for an old guy he’s so deep into the weeds of governing. He governs with this small circle around him, which is kind of his clan. They’ve stuck with him for decades and decades. I don’t think he could be the Joe Biden who always disappoints and also have this band of talented loyalists who’ve been attached to him for that long a period of time. Ted Kaufman may have said that to George but he’s also, in a way, Joe Biden’s most devoted aide, most devoted friend. You have to be able to square that sentiment with the loyalty. And you do that, you get the rounded picture of the guy.
Geoff Kabaservice: That makes sense. I’m also interested in what you’re talking about in terms of a tradeoff with Biden’s age. I suspect that the aides who were trying to find that password-protected PDF were worried that there was going to be dreadful revelations about Biden’s aging. There really aren’t in your book. Biden says that he gets tired. Well, that’s not an admission against interest. I get tired; I feel tired.
But you do point out that there are benefits of age. You conclude, I think, calling him “a man for his age” and in a way “the West’s father figure” — a calming presence. He has strategic clarity. Frankly, he has wisdom at this point, which I think serves him in good stead.
Franklin Foer: Yeah. I think that I don’t quite know how to approach the age question going into this election, because I could describe what Joe Biden is like now. The Joe Biden who exists now I think is totally up to — cognitively, mentally — up to the task of being president. I think, for the most part, his age has probably made him a much better president than he would’ve been 10, 15 years ago, for some of the reasons that I’ve already described, with him being a bit more mellow than before — and also having witnessed everything before.
I’m struck by some of the moments of crisis even in the last couple of months where you have the debt ceiling negotiation, you have the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank. Well, these are things that he participated in, versions of things he participated in when he was vice president. There was a banking crisis. There was a debt ceiling crisis. He knew how to execute in a very no-drama, painless sort of way where we didn’t end up going to the brink. I think that’s the benefit of age.
I think with Ukraine, one of the things that I’m struck by… I would ask aides constantly, “Well, what’s the question that Joe Biden asks in meetings about Ukraine?” The answer was, “He’ll ask: ‘If I give this weapon system to the Ukrainians, how does that increase the risks of nuclear war?’” He’s somebody who grew up in the Cold War era. He’s from the Silent Generation. He understands that nuclear war is the thing to be avoided at all costs. It may be emotionally fulfilling to give the Ukrainians every arms system that they ask for, but it may not be the path of wisdom. I’m grateful to have somebody who has that historical experience to draw on.
Interestingly, he’s gone in this different direction economically than you would’ve expected him to go in. He’s become the post-neoliberal, for lack of a better word, president. That’s based on instinct, and also there’s a willingness to break with orthodoxy that I think also comes from his own experiences, where he saw the impact of the financial crisis and how it left long-term unemployment. He was willing to accept some short-term inflation, I think, in order to reap the rewards of long-term unemployment. He so feared the scarring effect of having people without jobs for extended periods of time that he erred on the side of overreacting to the instability of the financial situation, unemployment, all of the pandemic economic problems that we faced.
Geoff Kabaservice: When Biden was running for the nomination, there was a widespread perception that he was the moderate or centrist candidate. I wonder in what ways it seems to you accurate or inaccurate to think of him in those terms?
Franklin Foer: I think culturally he’s managed to bridge some of the progressive, “woke,” whatever-you-want-to-call-it energies of the moment, but then also filter them through his political brain. And just being an old white guy, he doesn’t project radicalism. I think that his focus on persuasion has meant that he tries to avoid culture war in its most aggressive forms.
On economics, I think that he still is relatively moderate. I don’t think that he’s… What’s interesting about the economics that have emerged as we head to the end of this first term is that there’s no economic redistribution attached to it. There’s not a grand expansion of anti-poverty programs. What he’s embraced are elements of New Deal liberalism that fell out of fashion, in the form of industrial policy, in the form of aggressive antitrust enforcement, in the form of more rigorous support for trade unions.
It’s not even that novel. He’s kind of calling on the economics of his youth. I think it is a very 1950s sensibility to the way that Joe Biden thinks about the economy. His dream is that corporations behave like DuPont did in 1960. That’s his expectation for what’ll happen at the other end of this: that companies that had been very globally directed will be more rooted in American communities and therefore better American citizens. It’s a little bit naïve, but it’s a more optimistic version of post-neoliberal economics than some of its alternatives.
Geoff Kabaservice: That’s a complicated but I think accurate description. It’s interesting… If you hadn’t kept the story of Biden’s first two years going up until the midterms, if you’d cut off maybe even just in the springtime of 2022, it would’ve seemed largely a portrait of failure after the initial successes around the vaccine rollout and the passage of the American Rescue Plan.
You have excerpted in The Atlantic a description of the Afghanistan withdrawal and all of the disasters there. To what extent do you think history will blame Biden for the debacle around the Afghan withdrawal? How do you think the verdict of history 10, 20, 25 years in the future might be for that particular episode?
Franklin Foer: I think it’s important to ask the question: What do we condemn Biden for with Afghanistan? I think there are a couple things. One is just the chaos of the operation. You had a couple days in the middle of August where we’d completely lost control over a situation that should have theoretically been eminently predictable. The cost of that moment, specifically at the time, seemed to be a loss of American credibility — that we’d looked callous, that we’d looked like a waning superpower. Two years later, I think you could say that some of that doesn’t hold up. We are still a behemoth in the world. We still have allies who trust us. We were able to orchestrate the alliance against the Russian invasion of Ukraine. We’re pretty successfully orchestrating new alliances in the Asia-Pacific region. So that I don’t think holds up.
I think that there’s a moral problem, a moral sin, which was that there were lots of people who thought they could depend on the United States, and they were left high and dry at the moment that they needed the United States most. That’s an issue that I think will stick to Biden in history. Then there’s this other part of the story, which is that they did successfully orchestrate the evacuation of 124,000 Afghans who might otherwise have been vulnerable when the Taliban came back to power.
My feeling is that the return of the Taliban was basically inevitable as soon as the United States left the country. It was our military support and our military that was propping up the Afghan government. In the year leading up to withdrawal, after Trump had agreed to withdrawal, the Taliban just kept getting stronger and stronger. So there was no stopping that. It was just a question of how we would manage the transition to the Taliban.
Negotiating a transfer of power to the Taliban would’ve been a very politically risky thing to do, and I’m not sure any administration would’ve had the ability to pull that off. We were very, very close — this is one of the tragedies — we were very, very close to negotiating a unity government that would’ve essentially included the Taliban, or maybe even been run by the Taliban. Ghani would’ve resigned from power and that unity government, or that Taliban government, would’ve peacefully assumed control over the country. It might have been possible with that to have better negotiated the withdrawal of our allies from the country.
Geoff Kabaservice: I did find it interesting that there wasn’t anyone really, at any level of government or even in the military, who was predicting this rapid collapse of the Ghani regime. It wasn’t like Biden had this mistaken perception and everyone was counseling him against it. It was really very widespread.
Franklin Foer: Yeah, I think that that’s true. I think people could see the collapse of the Afghan government happening in the distance, but nobody saw it happening as quickly as it actually happened. That’s the distinction.
Geoff Kabaservice: At one point you say that the problems that Biden has encountered that are self-made don’t stem from age or a lack of acuity. They really come from his own indiscipline and imprecision. And those are lifelong qualities.
Franklin Foer: Yes. He’s somebody who was always known as a gaffe machine. I remember when, during the Democratic primary in 2008, he called Barack Obama “articulate”…
Geoff Kabaservice: And “clean.”
Franklin Foer: …and “clean” and got flamed for that — rightfully so. Then in 1987, he had this plagiarism scandal where he was accused of taking Neil Kinnock’s, the Scottish Labour politician’s, life story and then making it his own in a speech. There are lots of examples of this from Joe Biden’s past. It’s part of who he is that he is an Irish-American politician who has his share — I’m using the crudest cultural cliches — of blarney. He’s a flaneur. He’s somebody who loves to tell a story and can’t help but make the story better in the retelling.
He’s an emotional guy who sometimes gets carried away by the moment, as he did when he was in Warsaw and gave that famous speech where he improvised the line that “this man” — Vladimir Putin — “cannot remain in power.” He knew better. He’s somebody who preaches restraint, yet he couldn’t help himself in the moment.
Geoff Kabaservice: Some of the other sources of problems and failures in the Biden administration seem to come from the structure of the Democratic Party itself. I found myself in unexpected sympathy with Anita Dunn, who witnessed the slow-motion collapse of the voting rights effort that Democrats (and activists more generally) put a lot of money and time and energy and political capital behind. I found it very interesting that she had actually urged her colleagues to craft their own approach to voting rights, so they weren’t just blindly following progressive groups who were fundraising off the issue. But it didn’t happen. The White House Domestic Policy Council on this issue alone didn’t conduct a rigorous review of the administration’s options.
“Biden just accepted the claim that the bills were necessary for the political survival of the Democratic Party,” you write, “because that’s what activists and Nancy Pelosi told him.” Yet then he still went ahead and gave that speech in Atlanta where he essentially compared disagreeing with the stance on HR1 to that of Bull Connor against the Civil rights movement. You write that it was “an entirely foreseeable debacle” in behalf of these bills that never did pass. Yet the whole process still seems a little mysterious to me, except that sometimes the progressive activist tail does wag the Democratic dog.
Franklin Foer: Yeah. Well, I think the other crucial piece of context there is that speech about Bull Connor and the approach that they took to voting rights — which was kamikaze — happened in the aftermath of the collapse of Build Back Better. They were getting nowhere with their domestic agenda, they had totally let down the left wing of the Democratic Party with that failure, and so they felt like they needed to do something to keep them on board. They were, to some extent, boxed in there in their own minds about their political options. They needed to prove themselves.
I think what was interesting about that episode is how out of character it is really for Biden to engage in that adversarial rhetoric where he makes that overheated political comparison — because it really is. He would do that for Donald Trump, but it’s antithetical to his character to do that to Mitch McConnell or to Joe Manchin. An in the aftermath of that moment, he went to the Senate… He was in the Capitol to speak to the Senate Democrats. He thought he would just go knock on Mitch McConnell’s door to personally apologize. McConnell wasn’t there, so he was left wondering the halls of the Senate. It was a very pathetic moment.
Geoff Kabaservice: Yeah, absolutely. Yet then the corner was turned. You paint the story very well that Joe Manchin needed to be apologized to by people including Ron Klain…
Franklin Foer: Yes.
Geoff Kabaservice: And then he came aboard and actually, it seems from your description, improved what had been a fairly incoherent bill into a smaller but still transformational Inflation Reduction Act. But how, in your opinion, did Biden actually manage to bring on so many Republicans in the Senate for the CHIPS and Science Act, where I think 17 Republicans came on, and the infrastructure bill, where I think he got 19 Republicans?
Franklin Foer: A couple of things need to be said about that. One is that you had a group of moderates in the Senate, moderate Republicans in the Senate, who were alienated from the Trump wing of their own party and who had been on the outs. They greeted the Biden presidency as this chance to reassert themselves. They thought that Biden would be the return of “the vital center,” to use a term. I think that Biden did a successful enough job of negotiating with them in good faith that he’s able to keep bringing them along. Susan Collins was a genuine friend of his. He would just keep calling her out of the blue to keep that conversation going. It’s part of the personal part of politics that does matter on some level.
Also you have Biden lowering the temperature in general. He’s very reluctant to attack the Republican Party as a whole. His slogan is that he attacks “the ultra-MAGA” wing of the Republican Party — intentionally he does that in order to avoid alienating this group of Republicans that he thinks he can work with. He’s tried to calibrate the politics to be anti-Trumpist, but to leave the possibility for legislative compromise.
Geoff Kabaservice: That makes sense. I was horrified to be reminded that the “CHIPS” in the CHIPS and Science Act is an acronym for “Creating Helpful Incentives to Produce Semiconductors.”
Franklin Foer: Oh, God.
Geoff Kabaservice: That’s just terrible.
Franklin Foer: Can I say one other thing that’s underrated about the CHIPS Act? The CHIPS Act gives all of these subsidies to the semiconductor industry so they can build foundries and plants in the United States. But they’re also investments in AI and hard science and research institutes. Much like the Cold War created context for investments in research and development in universities, the rise of tensions with China similarly creates those sorts of possibilities.
That money exists in the CHIPS Bill. It’s one of those things that won’t pay off in the short run, but there’s a likelihood that we’ll look back a couple decades from now and say, “Oh, the reason we developed this piece of technology, the reason we mastered this field in AI, is because we created these research centers. We created this academic funding for this research project.” And that’s there too, but way under the radar.
Geoff Kabaservice: I share Ezra Klein’s concerns about the capacity of the state to execute on some of these laws that have been passed. But I think that’s definitely in the to-be-determined category. I think there were some truly important things in both the infrastructure bill and especially the CHIPS and Science Act.
Franklin Foer: I’d love to read more robust debate about industrial policy and its pros and cons. What has surprised me about industrial policy as executed thus far is that there was this investment that was waiting on the sidelines, and just needed a little bit of a nudge to get in. Maybe it’s not the most effective public dollars that could be spent. But what I think what we’re seeing happening is that this investment provides what’s called a “coordinating event,” where you have these supply chains that are very intricate and fragile. They needed everything to fall into place simultaneously in order for business to have the confidence that it could make these kinds of investments. And that’s happening. The administration privately talks about something called “the Battery Belt,” which has popped up in the American South. You have companies that need to be located in relatively close proximity in order to make the supply chain actually happen and to operate in concert. And they’re happening.
The level of initial investment spurred by the CHIPS and the IRA is really astonishing. On the level of just bringing private investment to bear, the acts are an unimpeachable success. Whether over the long run it’s efficient spending, whether government micromanages these things so that they’re less effective or maybe not effective at all, that is the to-be-determined question.
Geoff Kabaservice: One of the advantages of Biden’s age is that as a member of the Silent Generation, he belongs to the last generation that believed in bipartisanship in a meaningful way. What do you think is the status of Biden’s current belief in bipartisanship, if you had to probe his brain?
Franklin Foer: I think it’s pretty discouraging that the House is run by a set of Republicans who are basically indebted to the most radical Trumpist wing of their party. He sees that clearly, and that’s an issue. Yet he was able to cut a deal with Kevin McCarthy over the debt that involved a lot of face-to-face negotiations. To me, it was a classic illustration of “the Last Politician” I depict in the book, even though it comes outside of the timeline of my book.
Because he brought McCarthy in. He didn’t know McCarthy well. He sized him up. He was able to suss out very quickly what McCarthy’s bottom line was and the places that he would be willing to give. And then, instead of exerting himself in the process, he let McCarthy be the one who would walk down the driveway to talk to the banks of the cameras.
For weeks, it felt like the Republicans were winning. In public, McCarthy was able to take credit for a lot of stuff. Then once the details were actually published, it was clear that Biden had taken McCarthy to the cleaners — that he let him win the short-term war of public opinion in order to negotiate things that kept all of his priorities, Biden’s priorities, in place, and then even extended certain benefits in directions that he was able to get McCarthy to give.
Geoff Kabaservice: But this question of public perception is an important theme in your book. You have this very interesting vignette of Ron Klain seeing this national outpouring of joy over the reopening after COVID, and yet the public seemed to think that Biden had nothing to do with it. You wrote about how the public would get upset about a problem — whether it would be the lack of COVID tests or a shortage of baby formula, container ships not being able to unload in ports — and the administration and Biden personally would apply all kinds of time and resources into solving these problems. It would solve them, and then the public would just move on to the next problem. You wrote that “There was no glory in technocratic troubleshooting,” which is a little ironic given that you got into writing this book partly because of your affection for effective technocrats.
Franklin Foer: Also, I think it’s a strange paradox of the Biden administration that Biden is somebody who’s always had this maxim that good policy is good politics, good politics is good policy; that in order to make policy sustainable over the long run, you need to build a public constituency for it. You need to get out there and you need to be the used car salesman pimping your wares. And he’s not been very good at doing that.
There are probably a couple of reasons why that’s so. I think with age, he’s probably become a little bit more of a limited communicator. He doesn’t have the energy that he once did to go out and hit the road. I think that he doesn’t love the media. He doesn’t give interviews.
I don’t want to buy into Green Lanternism, which is this theory that presidents have infinite power if they only exploited the bully pulpit more; they are the equivalent of rhetorical superheroes who can bend the country to their will. It is a polarized country. People don’t have access to a media ecosystem where they can be persuaded about certain things. And people are polarized. Even on the left, there’s this sense of inflated expectations for what a president should be able to do or deliver. Whatever Biden has delivered is never going to be enough for that group. Still, we can fairly critique him for not doing a better job of making the public aware of his own accomplishments.
Geoff Kabaservice: We don’t unfortunately have time to get into the tensions between Biden and Zelenskyy, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the head of Ukraine. But there were some interesting moments where you pointed out that part of the problem is that in Biden’s moral code, you have to be grateful for aid received — and Zelensky didn’t seem to be grateful. If anything, he seemed to be dismissive and just demanding more.
I wonder if this is not a wisdom about the older model of politics that we’ve forgotten. One of the things I think historians are going to puzzle over about the present moment is how America cut child poverty in half with the expanded Child Tax Credit, and then it went away and no one seemed to care. Maybe this is because politics in some level has become too impersonal and you aren’t grateful for some bureaucratic adjustment. What you’re grateful to is the ward boss who gives you a job or gives you a check or gives you a sack full of Thanksgiving dinner. I wonder if there actually is not some wisdom in Biden’s approach that you have to make people feel grateful, and they have to show gratitude for things, if you want a coalition to be effectively kept together.
Franklin Foer: I like that insight. I think that there is wisdom in that for sure.
Geoff Kabaservice: As a last question… We cannot foresee the future. Neither of us has a crystal ball. But how do you feel, based on the work you’ve done in putting together this great book, about how Biden regards his own performance to this point and what he would like to do if he had the chance in a second term?
Franklin Foer: Well, I mean, everything I know about Joe Biden is that he has high self-regard. His insecurities propel him to overstate his own achievements, even in this case where I think he’s got real good reason to crow. I would say that a second Biden term is unlikely to be a happy one, just for the reason that we’re going to have divided government. There are some lingering possibilities for bipartisan consensus, but it’s hard. If Democrats were able to take back the House, say, and Republicans maintain control over the Senate, I could see something happening with early childhood education that would be bipartisan because there’s interest there.
I think he’s somebody who would relish being a foreign policy president, full-time, in a second term. I think the work of continuing to build and extend the alliance against China would be a primary occupation of his, and ending the war in Ukraine.
He’s somebody who is a reluctant convert to the administrative state. As a senator, he was very skeptical of executive fiat and daydreamed about maybe going up to the Hill and holding office hours there. But so much of American politics now, with the country so evenly divided, comes down to which party does a better job of manipulating the powers of the federal government for their own ends. There’s a lot that can be done in that regard, whether it’s fighting climate change or having to deal with issues of racial justice, that I’m sure there are people cooking up plans to deploy.
Geoff Kabaservice: Well, Frank Foer, thank you so much for joining me at this moment of relative calm before all of the thousands of klieg lights of international media descend upon you. And congratulations again for having written The Last Politician, which is available September 5th.
Franklin Foer: Thanks for such a fun interview.
Geoff Kabaservice: And thank you all for listening to the Vital Center Podcast. Please subscribe and rate us on your preferred podcasting platform. If you have any questions, comments, or other responses, please include them along with your rating or send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks as always to our technical director, Kristie Eshelman, our sound engineer, Ray Ingegneri, and the Niskanen Center in Washington, D.C.