Putting the Shine on Biden

REVIEW: ‘The Last Politician: Inside Joe Biden’s White House and the Struggle for America’s Future’ by Franklin Foer

(Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
October 15, 2023

In popular esteem, the politician today ranks somewhere between the telemarketer and the journalist. With a long and dishonorable record of dishonesty and chicanery he was never much admired for sure. But in the last decade or so, as the burden of America’s multiplying political and social pathologies have been laid at Washington’s door, his standing has plumbed new depths.

So to most Americans a suggestion of the extinction of the species of homo politicus might be a welcome development. The Last Politician would surely go unmourned.

Not in Franklin Foer’s estimation. For Foer, a former editor of the New Republic and fully reliable purveyor of all of the left’s verities, labeling President Joe Biden the Last Politician is a form of secular canonization. The 46th president is, in his accounting, among the very noblest of a noble breed.

Foer was given extensive access by the White House to write The Last Politician, one of those fly-on-the-wall accounts of the first two years of a presidency of the sort popularized by Bob Woodward. The officials’ decision to cooperate clearly paid off.

The Biden of Mr. Foer’s depiction—imagination might be a more accurate description—is not the fumbling, mumbling, stumbling president we have all come to see on our screens these last two years nor the predictable Democratic party hack we have known throughout his more than half a century in national politics.

The figure who emerges from the pages of this book would make the sculpted residents of Mount Rushmore climb down from their rocky perch in glad abdication. Biden is the savior of the nation, the man who rescued America from the various scourges of recent years: former president Donald Trump, of course, and the existential threat his MAGA Republicans posed to our democracy; COVID-19 and the existential threat the pandemic posed to our health; climate change and the existential threat it represented to our planet. Foer could have gone on, presumably but, like Alexander the Great who wept salt tears at the age of 30 because he had no more worlds left to conquer, Biden has apparently slain all comers.

You think I’m exaggerating? Foer faithfully recounts and endorses Biden’s soaring self-estimation: There are more references in the book to Franklin Delano Roosevelt than to Bill Clinton: Early on in the presidency, we are told that "comparisons to FDR … felt strangely within reach, especially to Biden." By half way through year two, he was convinced his legislative achievement was already "greater than the combined accomplishments of FDR and [Lyndon B. Johnson]." (Historical footnote: FDR was president for 13 years; LBJ for more than 5.)

Most of these real-time contemporary-historical accounts—even the most hagiographical—offer at least some revelatory material that, even if only for color, offers some valuable insight into a presidency, warts and all. You will find none in Foer’s book. Instead, almost all the accounts of the major episodes of the Biden presidency he relates are essentially the versions we have been told already by those ever-so-reliable narrators who appear at the podium in the White House briefing room every day.

Foer perpetuates the myth that Biden strained mightily to achieve bipartisanship but was rebuffed all the time by those cynical Republicans.

"Joe Biden believed in the gospel of unity with his whole heart." Oddly there is no attempt to square his supposed commitment to this creed with Biden’s routine denunciations of his opponents as neo-fascists, or episodes such as his condemnation of immigration enforcement agents for doing their job.

The claim also sits oddly with the fact that the main antagonist throughout the book is not Trump or Sen. Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.), but Sen. Joe Manchin (W.Va.), who, at last count was a Democrat, but whose reluctance to go along with Biden’s aggressive progressive agenda clearly better represented the views of middle America than the rest of his party.

While lovingly painting in the detail of Biden’s many talents, Foer glosses gently over the evident flaws. The question of his "age issue and mental powers," as it is neatly described in the index, gets only a few mentions in the book and even these are cited mainly in support of the president’s claim to greatness. In his handling of the Ukraine crisis, for example, his advanced age enabled Biden to be "the West’s Father figure"—his "calming presence and strategic clarity" helped lead the NATO alliance’s response so successfully.

Hunter Biden gets one mention—and this only as a criticism of Trump’s attempts to get Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy to investigate the former vice president’s son in 2019.

As for Biden’s long history of making up stories about himself, these are neatly euphemized: "A good Biden story often gets better with age." And that famous moment from an earlier campaign where he was forced to leave the race after he was exposed for having used the words of a British politician? This we are told came about because he "inadvertently plagiarized sentences from Neil Kinnock."

This Kremlin-level historical whitewashing takes only a small break for obvious Biden administration failures: Foer can’t quite portray the withdrawal from Afghanistan as a stunning success, and he does at least channel some of the concerns of the senior military about Biden’s insistence on a hasty departure from Kabul. But even here the Biden who comes across is empathetic and strategic. After all, as the author tells us, "When it came to foreign policy, Joe Biden believed he was the business."

Try as he might, Foer can’t quite avoid the subject of inflation, an old, almost forgotten economic torture that has been unleashed in the last few years under Biden’s presidency. But rather than ascribing any responsibility for the surge in prices to Biden’s massive government spending programs, especially the American Rescue Plan Act, the first item of legislation that pumped $2 trillion into the economy, Foer echoes the president in finding other culprits. The spike in oil prices, we are told, was in part at least the result of a "malicious ploy" by the Saudis to cut oil production in the fall of 2022. Meanwhile domestic oil companies were "vindictively … dumping money into Republican coffers and keeping prices artificially high at the pump."

It’s no surprise that Foer can’t find much space to explain why, with all this bipartisan unity, FDR- and LBJ-eclipsing legislative achievement, an economic transformation, and such great wisdom and governing skills, Biden finds himself so deep in the dumps, according to all opinion polls.

If the book had spent more time assessing the reality of Biden’s presidency and the politics that defined it and less trying to portray this deeply flawed and failing old pol as the national hero without equal, he might have gotten closer to an understanding of the reality of the last two years.

That reality is that Biden had a historic opportunity at the outset of his presidency to unite a fractured nation, to acknowledge the fragile margins by which his party had prevailed in the presidency and the Congress, and pursue a genuinely unifying approach.

Instead he chose to embrace the most progressive and partisan elements of his own party.

It was an instinctively political decision by a man who has probably done as much as anyone over the last half century to discredit politicians. Still, it’s unlikely he’ll be the last.

The Last Politician: Inside Joe Biden’s White House and the Struggle for America’s Future
by Franklin Foer
Penguin, 432 pp., $30

Gerard Baker is editor at large of the Wall Street Journal and author of American Breakdown: Why We No Longer Trust Our Leaders and Institutions and How We Can Rebuild Confidence (Twelve).