The Last Politician: Inside Joe Biden’s White House and the Struggle for America’s Future 
by Franklin Foer.
Penguin, 432 pp., £24, September 2023, 978 1 101 98114 6
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The Fight of His Life: Inside Joe Biden’s White House 
by Chris Whipple.
Scribner, 409 pp., £12.99, December 2023, 978 1 9821 0644 7
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The Internationalists: The Fight to Restore American Foreign Policy after Trump 
by Alexander Ward.
Portfolio, 354 pp., £28.99, February, 978 0 593 53907 1
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The debate​ last month between Biden and Trump was painful to watch because it reminded us that someday we’ll all die. In retrospect Biden’s advanced age was a political asset in 2020. By contrast with the sneering and erratic Trump, given to mocking the disabled and insulting anyone unlucky enough to be in his vicinity, here was a kindly and familiar old man who had suffered terrible personal tragedies: the death of his young wife and infant daughter in an automobile accident in 1972; the death of his eldest son from brain cancer in 2015; the crack addiction and wastrelsy of his surviving son in the years that followed. Broadcasting a socially distanced campaign from his Delaware basement, he appeared gentle and forgiving, the ‘designated mourner’ in Fintan O’Toole’s phrase, just the man to heal the country after the devastation of the pandemic and the four-year reign of the American berserk. To see Biden that way was to forget his decades in the Senate as an arrogant opportunist, an inconsistent warmonger and a plagiarist (his speeches stole from Neil Kinnock and JFK). Age took the edge off him. Reaching the White House four years ago, he accomplished at 78 what he couldn’t manage at 45 or 65. Perhaps he’s been better at the job as a mellow old man than he would have been as a middle-aged hothead – though that is little comfort to the rest of the world, especially the zones under American protection or subject to US (or US-sponsored) might. There, it seems, the emperor has no brain.

It’s difficult to divine from the histories of the Biden administration written so far just how active a role the president has played in governing the country. The titles of Franklin Foer’s The Last Politician and Chris Whipple’s The Fight of His Life put Biden at the centre of the story, while Alexander Ward’s The Internationalists casts the administration’s foreign policy forthrightly as a team effort. All draw on published accounts and interviews with aides and officials – some named (especially in Whipple) and others not, though their points of view, if not actual identities, are easy to glean – and view Biden himself at a distance. He presides over meetings, attends ceremonies and picks up the telephone to prod legislators, chastise despots and puff his appointees on a job well done.

Whereas accounts of the Trump White House varied from clown show to cesspool, with backstabbing among hacks, mercenaries and scumbags, the histories of the Biden administration present a succession of earnest and credentialled professionals lining up to help the president better the country and the world. Jeff Zients, a management consultant who made $200 million before the age of forty by starting and taking public a series of research and investment firms and served the Obama administration as ‘chief performance officer’, ran Biden’s transition organisation before becoming his Covid tsar. Zients’s team included a former healthcare executive who had dreamed of being a foreign correspondent and now kept the public informed via Twitter about the administration’s pandemic efforts; a former field geologist and volunteer firefighter who whipped Pfizer into ramping up vaccine production; and a former head of the Food and Drug Administration who once impounded thousands of gallons of ‘pure squeezed’ orange juice on suspicion of insufficient freshness. These men were the brash but ‘low-ego’ technocrats who got the job done. Female aides have also thrived in the Biden White House. ‘He is completely comfortable with women in authority roles,’ Biden’s former press secretary, Jen Psaki, told Whipple. ‘He doesn’t need to have, like, a “bro” conversation. I’ve never experienced that ever with him.’

The hero of Ward’s book is Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, who is said to have memorised the capitals of the world by the age of ‘ten or thirteen’ (a little late in the game by my lights) and knows the lyrics to every Billy Joel song by heart (a detail rarely omitted, for some reason, when he is profiled in the press). After Hillary Clinton’s defeat, which as her top wonk he took personally, Sullivan and colleagues started a think tank called National Security Action, which advocated a ‘foreign policy for the middle class’ whose focus would be ‘Russia, Russia, Russia and China, China, China’, that is, the abandonment of Bush’s war on terror and ramping up of Trump’s reindustrialisation and trade war. They would be like Trump, only progressive, and in favour of freedom, though less often at the barrel of a gun, at least a gun held by an American soldier. One of Whipple’s key sources is Antony Blinken, a habitual punner who plays guitar in a DC cover band called Coalition of the Willing, specialising in tunes by the Stones and Clapton. Blinken has worked for Biden on and off since the invasion of Iraq; presented with a binder full of dossiers on potential appointees during the transition and a vetting process that would take weeks, Biden said: ‘Tony is my secretary of state.’

Another figure who features heavily in Foer’s book and spoke to Whipple at length is Ron Klain, Biden’s chief of staff until after the 2022 midterms and a Democratic Party lifer. He has plenty to say about Kamala Harris, whom Biden himself calls ‘a work in progress’. Foer writes that Klain ‘assumed the role of Harris’s guide’ but

struggled to productively help her. He felt Harris kept making life excessively difficult by imposing all sorts of constraints on herself. She told him that she didn’t want to work on women’s issues or anything to do with race … Constantly in search of a portfolio but reluctant to accept them when they were handed to her, she asked to be placed in charge of relations with Scandinavia – away from the spotlight.

Foer reports Klain saying: ‘This is baseball. You need to start getting out of the dugout and scoring some runs. You can’t score runs if you’re not on the field.’ Eventually, Harris asked to lead the administration’s response to Republican efforts to erode voting rights; she took up the task of outreach to the Northern Triangle in Central America, source of many of the migrants crossing the US’s southern border; and she has been outspoken in defence of reproductive rights after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. Immigration has been a thorn in Biden’s side – a crisis he can’t solve thanks to Republican obstruction and a lack of consensus in his own party – and the main theme of Trump’s xenophobic political career. Abortion is an issue that could win the election for the Democrats in November because people don’t like having their rights taken away. At the time of writing – if the betting markets and obsequious voices on social media are to be believed – Harris is the person most likely to replace Biden. Her downsides include her unpopularity outside her home state of California and her reputation as a dysfunctional manager, something Whipple makes much of.

It’squaint now to recall the way Biden entered office. Washington is a dull city, full of civil servants and lawyers who look like they’re on their way to lacrosse practice. Trump’s outer-borough gangster posturing was ill-suited to the town. Rejected by the electorate after four years of incompetence, ineffectuality and bluster, he left a legacy of tax cuts for the rich, a Supreme Court tilted decisively to the right and degraded American prestige abroad, no matter how cosy he got with Netanyahu and the Saudis. The vandalism done by provincial brigands in his name at the Capitol on 6 January 2021 looked from afar like a skirmish of rowdy spectators outside a Division Three college hockey match or a Limp Bizkit concert gone fatally awry. The casualties included five who died within 36 hours of the event and hundreds injured, including 174 police officers. Deadly though the day was, Biden and the Democrats have overstated matters by repeatedly comparing the event to the Civil War, in which more than half a million people died over four years, but hyperbole has been the default style in US politics ever since Trump rode down the escalator.

Congress was back in session within a few hours after the shaman in horns was expelled from the chamber. Biden took the oath of office a fortnight later. A 22-year-old Harvard graduate, Amanda Gorman, delivered the inaugural poem; the New Radicals reunited to perform ‘You Get What You Give’, the late Beau Biden’s favourite song; and Tom Hanks presided over a virtual celebration from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The usual ceremonial balls were scotched thanks to Covid protocols. It wasn’t quite a ‘return to normalcy’, as the slogan of Warren Harding’s 1920 campaign had it, but that was the idea.

‘After Trump had unleashed the furies, Biden’s task was to restore as much calm as possible,’ Foer writes. ‘Despite his expansive agenda, Biden managed to get slapped with the label “boring” by friends and critics alike – which is not far from what he aimed to achieve.’ It was a sound footing for the new leader, who is said to have avoided saying his predecessor’s name even in private, referring to him only as ‘the former guy’. In the early months of 2021, he kept the federal government out of local fights over pandemic management – mask mandates, the reopening of schools – and focused on making the vaccine available. ‘America is back,’ Biden told a crowd of diplomats at the State Department on 4 February that year, and he and his staff got on with the business of reversing Trump’s executive orders, rejoining treaties, unbanning Muslims and carrying on the technocratic response to Covid. News channel ratings plummeted, as did news media consumption generally. The vaccines were rolled out that spring. The $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan was passed by Congress in March: it would cut child poverty almost in half, to 5.2 per cent, until it spiked again in 2022, after the Act’s child tax credit expired. That month Biden’s national approval rating was at 54 per cent. It would linger above 50 per cent until August, when the US withdrew from Afghanistan, and disapproval numbers have outpaced approval numbers ever since.

The exit from Afghanistan was initiated by Trump, though with a timeline that stretched beyond his term in office (perhaps because he was too optimistic, perhaps because he wanted someone else to do the dirty work). Biden advocated withdrawal as vice president under Obama, but it was a lonely position, one he formed on a 2009 visit to the country, when he concluded, according to Klain, ‘that there was no way to build a nationwide pluralistic democracy based in Kabul’. David Petraeus and other generals instead convinced Obama to send in tens of thousands of additional troops. On the campaign trail in 2020, Biden promised to pull out US troops and told an interviewer that he would feel ‘zero responsibility’ for what happened after they were gone. In initial meetings with diplomats, generals, cabinet members and other officials, Biden professed to keep an open mind about arguments for staying put. According to Ward, Blinken and the defence secretary, Lloyd Austin, presented him with three choices: ‘Option 1: Stick to the Trump-era timeline. Option 2: Negotiate an extension to the deal with the Taliban, permitting American forces to stay beyond the set deadline. And Option 3: Rip up the pact altogether and push for the victory that had eluded the United States and its allies for two decades.’ Austin, a former general who served with Beau Biden in Iraq, and Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, favoured maintaining a force of 2500 troops in the country. Milley made an ‘emotional’ pitch, Ward writes: ‘Withdrawing American forces would make it easy for the Taliban to regain control of the country. The lives of millions of people would quickly get worse. Women’s rights “will go back to the Stone Age” and it wasn’t worth leaving after “all the blood and treasure spent” in the war.’ Biden decided to withdraw anyway. Foer quotes him telling another journalist in 2010 that he was ‘not sending my boy back there to risk his life on behalf of women’s rights. It just won’t work, that’s not what they are there for.’

Thirteen US soldiers died during the withdrawal and the optics – chaos at the airfield; people falling from a plane as it took off – were not to Biden’s political advantage in a media environment that fetishises American imperial power. But for a few months in the offices of socialist magazines in Brooklyn you could hear nice things about Biden, ‘the best president of our lifetime’. The war on terror had at last been wound down (mostly). The American Rescue Plan was generous. The Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act and the American Families Plan (the three had initially been grouped together as the Build Back Better Plan and that name stuck to the last of the bills) incorporated many of the ideas put forward by Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, even if they fell short of their Green New Deal. Lawrence Summers, Clinton’s neoliberal Treasury secretary, was left out of the administration and Warren’s people were invited in.

It’s after the withdrawal from Afghanistan that the histories of the Biden years move to the Democrats’ efforts to pass their domestic agenda and the obstructions of two right-wing Democratic senators, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona. With the Senate split 50-50 and deciding votes cast by the vice president, Manchin and Sinema (now both registered as Independents caucusing with the Democrats, neither of them running for re-election) maintained something like veto power over whatever Biden wanted to do. Klain and various congressional allies shuffled their way to Manchin’s houseboat on the Potomac to plead and bargain with him. He grudgingly assented to the Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act, as he had to the American Rescue Plan, despite concerns about inflation. The White House and progressive Democrats in Congress worried that Manchin, with his ties to the energy industry, and Sinema, with hers to finance, wanted, in Foer’s words, ‘to whittle it down to an uninspired nub’. In the end, Manchin sank the American Families Plan, but in 2022 he agreed to a nub version, the Inflation Reduction Act, scrubbed of most social benefits but including corporate tax reform, deficit reduction, curbs to carbon emissions and boosts to domestic energy production. A nub is better than nothing.

This is one of the two almost happy notes that conclude the Biden histories, which cover his first two years in office, until the House was lost to the Republicans in November 2022 and Klain left as chief of staff to be replaced by Zients. The other is the war in Ukraine, which, before these books were published, seemed from Washington to be going well. The Russians were repulsed from Kyiv. The invasion had been defeated and might be turned back. The stalemate that set in last summer and the failure of Ukraine’s counteroffensive were not yet apparent. The narratives of the months before the hostilities resumed portray a time of uncertainty and suspense in the White House. In September 2021, Zelensky arrived in Washington to plead for Ukraine to be allowed to join Nato. Biden didn’t take him seriously, especially when Zelensky also said that Nato was a relic and that France and Germany were planning to leave. The next month, Milley and Austin came to Biden with intelligence showing that the Russian military was massed on the border with Ukraine, possibly in preparation for an invasion. The director of the CIA, William Burns, was dispatched to Moscow to talk Putin down. He ended up speaking to him on a secure phone. Burns told him that the US would respond with harsh sanctions in the event of an invasion. Putin responded tauntingly that the time had never been so ripe for such an operation: Zelensky was weak; Merkel had left office; Macron was hanging on by a thread; the Russian economy was strong and could withstand sanctions. Within a few months Harris was at the Munich security conference warning Zelensky to watch out for assassins, and Ukrainian flags were flying in American front yards. In 2023 Blinken dressed his son up as Zelensky for Halloween and joined a band in Kyiv on guitar to play a listless cover of Neil Young’s ‘Rockin’ in the Free World’, a song about American poverty, pollution and imperialism. For his part, Sullivan told the New Yorker: ‘As a child of the 1980s and Rocky and Red Dawn, I believe in freedom fighters and I believe in righteous causes … and I believe the Ukrainians have one. We’re on the side of the good guy and we have to do a lot for that person.’

These histories stop short of 7 October and the war in Gaza, but they do cover the brief war that broke out between Israel and Hamas in May 2021. Biden expressed support for Netanyahu during nine days of Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocket attacks, and then told him over the phone: ‘Hey man, we’re out of runway here. It’s over.’ Netanyahu agreed to a ceasefire brokered by Egypt. It was perhaps this experience, plus the advance towards a deal with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States following on from Trump’s Abraham Accords, that led Sullivan to say in September 2023: ‘The Middle East region is quieter today than it has been in two decades.’ Less than a month later Biden, whose record of fealty to Israel dates back to a 1973 visit he paid Golda Meir as a young senator, addressed the nation to make the case for sending $106 billion in military aid to Israel and Ukraine. He emphasised that the money going abroad would benefit the American economy, particularly in swing states crucial to his re-election:

And let me be clear about something: we send Ukraine equipment sitting in our stockpiles. And when we use the money allocated by Congress, we use it to replenish our own stores … with new equipment, equipment that defends America and is made in America: Patriot missiles for air defence batteries made in Arizona; artillery shells manufactured in twelve states across the country, in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Texas; and so much more.

You know, just as in World War Two, today, patriotic American workers are building the arsenal of democracy and serving the cause of freedom.

Returning the United States to a war economy, albeit one that doesn’t require the deployment of its armed forces, was not what Biden had in mind when during his 2020 campaign he spoke of governing like Franklin Roosevelt. Nor did he expect he would have to hide his impairments from the public to the extent that he appears to have done.

The issue​ of Biden’s age is not much discussed in these books. Whipple, whose previous books include a study of the job of White House chief of staff, recounts a Zoom meeting between Klain and some of his predecessors during the transition in 2020. Jim Jones, the 82-year-old former chief of staff to LBJ, asked: ‘Could a soon to be 82-year-old man, battered by four years of stress and crisis, serve effectively for another full term as president?’ The question became pertinent in April 2022 when at a ceremony at the White House to unveil a proposed expansion of Obamacare, the former president was mobbed by admirers while Biden, in Whipple’s phrase, ‘looked a little lost’. Republican Senator Rick Scott of Florida said: ‘Let’s be honest here. Joe Biden is unwell. He’s unfit for office. He’s incoherent, incapacitated and confused. He doesn’t know where he is half the time.’ ‘This was, of course, false,’ Whipple insists. ‘Biden was mentally sharp, even if he appeared physically frail.’ Bruce Reed, the deputy chief of staff, told Whipple of a long flight home from Geneva in 2021 during which Biden regaled his jetlagged entourage with old stories, including the one about the time he visited the Kremlin and told Putin he had no soul, until everyone except the president passed out. But Foer writes that Senate Republicans ‘doubted Joe Biden was running his own show. Because of his advanced age, they whispered that he was a marionette, wiggling his arms as Klain manipulated him from above. Aides to Mitch McConnell were blunt in their analysis. They dubbed Klain “prime minister”.’ Tucker Carlson has made Biden’s age one of the central themes of his twerpy routine. Defenders of the president have written off such claims as ‘right-wing talking points’, but like left-wing and centrist talking points, right-wing talking points occasionally have some basis in fact.

Biden was trailing Trump in the polls before the debate on 27 June, despite Trump’s conviction in New York on 34 felonies. A poll in February found that 86 per cent of Americans think Biden is too old to be president and 62 per cent think the same of Trump. The debate only confirmed them in their opinions. Over the winter the war in Gaza became a political liability for Biden among many voters, especially the young, who not unreasonably call him ‘Genocide Joe’. (Trump, not himself a model of cognitive splendour these days, affirmed at the debate: ‘As far as Israel and Hamas, Israel’s the one that wants to go – he said the only one who wants to keep going is Hamas. Actually, Israel is the one. And you should let them go and let them finish the job.’) Biden has lost the support of the liberal commentariat, with the editorial board of the New York Times and the editor of the New Yorker calling for him to drop out of the race and make way for a younger candidate. Dozens of speculative columns have bloomed, suggesting replacement tickets featuring various governors and even Harris running with Barack Obama as her vice president –not technically a violation of the constitution. Biden, who has long believed the press unfairly chased him out of the race for the 1988 Democratic nomination after his plagiarism came to light, is unlikely to accept the pundits’ premature obituaries. He has hunkered down with his family, and now Gen X icon Hunter Biden, recently convicted of lying about his drug use on a gun permit application, sits by his side at White House meetings. It’s an astonishing moment in American politics. I preferred the few months in the summer of 2021 when things seemed boring.

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