About the Book by Franklin Foer “The Last Politician: Inside Joe Biden’s White House and the Struggle for America’s Future”

From a New York Times book review by Adam Tooze headlined “Joe Biden’s First Term and the ‘West Wing’ Fantasy of American Politics”:

How will the history of the Biden administration be written: as the turning point when America began to heal or as a hiatus between moments of deadlock and adversity? Franklin Foer’s “The Last Politician,” an account of Biden’s first two years in office, is the first draft of an answer. It has the makings of high drama. Crisis follows crisis. The problem is that, from Biden’s bleak inauguration to the surprise result of the midterms, we know the story in advance.

Foer, a staff writer for The Atlantic, revives familiar headline moments with fresh quotes that advisers and cabinet members gave him largely on background, but it would take a writer with more sense for the ineffable unfolding of history than Foer to compellingly convey the maelstrom that has at times consumed the Biden team. Unless, as he seems at times to be hinting, the scripted, typecast feel that his book exudes is the truth about the present administration.

Biden, according to Foer, enjoys “the hell out of being the Leader of the Free World.” He has been waiting his whole, long life for the opportunity. One of the more telling cameos in the book describes how the Oval Office has been physically rearranged to create the stage for Biden’s presidential storytelling. A giant portrait of Franklin Roosevelt now takes “pride of place” above the office hearth. If Trump did the presidency W.W.E.-style, one gets the feeling that the secretaries and aides of the Biden administration are living in a reboot of “The West Wing.”

Onto this carefully organized set, at least in Foer’s telling, outside events intrude as a series of tidily resolved episodes. In the Middle East, “Bibi” retaliates against Hamas rocket attacks by pummeling Gaza and destroying a high-rise that housed the offices of Al Jazeera and Associated Press journalists. For a few anxious days, Biden works his personal magic to calm the Israelis down. “Hey, man, we’re out of runway here,” Biden says to Bibi on the phone. The result is a promised cease-fire. The actual question of the future of Palestine barely registers.

Then there is the Russian invasion of Ukraine. As Foer somewhat coyly remarks, when Volodymyr Zelensky took office in 2019 Biden may have known Ukraine’s political scene better than the country’s new president, a political amateur. From the outset of the conflict, Biden was not going to be drawn into World War III and he is not afraid to tell Zelensky as much. But, for Foer, grand strategy is not the main theme. What matters is Zelensky’s lack of gratitude when offered a gift of munitions and how “Joe from Scranton” gets Kyiv to say thank you to America in a tweet.

Perhaps because it is an issue more dominated by the policy elite, the new and unfamiliar challenge of China as a “peer competitor” barely registers in Foer’s telling. By contrast, the withdrawal from Afghanistan, a personal priority for Biden, is rendered in revealing detail.

Biden got his way. But at what price? Biden did not shrink from facing the angry families of the American soldiers killed in the withdrawal. But, the previous year, when he was asked on camera how responsible he felt for the Afghanistan that America was leaving behind, the future president shaped finger and thumb to form a zero.

Biden has a rough edge. He once caused scandal by calling Vladimir Putin “a killer.” Biden also apparently remarked that Barack Obama didn’t know how to say screw you “properly” with, as Foer puts it, “the right elongation of vowels and the necessary hardness of his consonants.”

Foer’s book is above all a psychodrama of America’s political class. At its heart are relations between Biden and the Democratic “moderates.” Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin, the two senators who sat at the rightward end of the Democratic majority, figure as two different versions of America. One young, brash and rapacious; the other old-school, sentimental and populist.

If the former administration was a preschool, Trump was the toddler in chief. Biden is not a toddler, but Foer’s description of the rival egos adds up to a profoundly unflattering portrait of America’s gerontocratic elite. He characterizes Biden at different moments as obstinate, moody, self-pitying and undisciplined. After accidentally calling for regime change in Russia and having to do damage control, Biden plaintively asks why he is “babied” in a way John F. Kennedy never was. The obvious answer hangs awkwardly in the air.

If you follow the technocrats who run Biden’s administration in “The Last Politician,” they tell a more substantial, policy-centered story about the overcoming of neoliberalism and a New Washington consensus. Foer recounts this by way of Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, and his trajectory from core Clintonian to advocate of a new industrial policy. But the dirty secret is that their big project — Build Back Better — was strangled in the cradle.

The impressive list of legislation that has emerged from Biden’s first term — the American Rescue Plan, the Infrastructure Act, the CHIPS semiconductor bill and the Inflation Reduction Act, as Build Back Better came to be known — is as much a product of congressional initiative as it is of the White House. With days to go on the congressional recess clock, in the summer of 2022, the outline of the Inflation Reduction Act was dictated to Schumer’s aides by Manchin’s staff with the final details worked out in a basement of the Capitol building full of exposed pipes. The true triumph of the White House was not in the making of the bill, but in turning it, warts and all, into an effective policy tool.

In any case, technocratic magic is not what Foer’s book is about. Biden, he insists, must be judged as an old-school politician. On that score, avoiding total defeat in the 2022 midterms seems to be his vindication.

But, Foer reminds us, Biden’s personal role in that surprising outcome was limited. His approval ratings were too fragile for him to campaign intensively. What swung the results to the Democrats were not politicians, but judges, in the form of the Supreme Court’s rollback of Roe v. Wade. Biden himself did little to take aggressive action against the decision.

On abortion, his Catholic faith leaves him profoundly torn. “Wherever there were nuns,” Biden wrote in a 2007 memoir, “there was home.” But, as Foer gamely argues, though it disappointed many of his core supporters, Biden’s refusal to fall in with left-wing outrage left the Republicans to “damage themselves as he stood to the side” and helped to swing the suburban vote toward the Democrats.

Foer intends this portrait of the Biden presidency as consolation for former skeptics like himself, but it is cold comfort. Biden, “the old hack who could,” Foer writes, has emerged as the “father figure” of the West, a “man for his age.” But why?

Foer forecloses the question from the very outset. If, as the title tells us, Biden is the last politician, we should presumably cling to him for as long as possible, come what may. Boomer hegemony as destiny: This is the future sketched for us by Foer’s thin and yet telling book. Is this the inescapable truth of our political moment, or simply the limits that the shellshocked liberal imagination impose?

Adam Tooze is a professor of history at Columbia University. He is the author of “Shutdown: How Covid Shook the World’s Economy,” and writes the Chartbook newsletter.

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