As we tumble toward 2024, anxiety among Democrats is beginning to simmer. It’s easy to understand why. Just look at what happened last week: Biden was giving a press conference in Vietnam about upgrading the country’s diplomatic ties when he started rambling: “The Indian looks at John Wayne and points to the Union soldier and says, ‘He’s a lying, dog-faced pony soldier!’ Well, there’s a lot of lying, dog-faced pony soldiers out there about global warming.” Then he said, on mic, that he was going to go to bed. A voice suddenly emerged and jazz music started to play. Biden tried to answer another question, but they cut off his mic.
According to a recent CNN poll, 56 percent of Democrats are seriously concerned for Biden’s current level of physical and mental competence. Sixty-two percent of Democrats said they are seriously concerned about Biden’s ability to serve a full second term. Another poll, by AP-NORC, found that 69 percent of Democrats surveyed think Biden, who turns 81 in November, is too old for a second term.
Among the people not yet convinced that Biden needs to be in a nursing home is Atlantic staff writer Frank Foer. Foer’s new book, The Last Politician, tells the behind-the-scenes story of Biden’s first two years in office. Foer says he started as a Biden skeptic. The incoming president was, in his estimation, a bloviator who dangerously fetishized bipartisanship. But he emerges some 400 pages later with a rather more charitable view of the president. Biden is “the father figure of the West,” someone deeply experienced in foreign policy and racking up policy victories at home. Biden, he writes, “is an instructive example of the tedious nobility of the political vocation. Unheroic but honorably human. He will be remembered as the old hack who could.”
But. . . why doesn’t that come through to the public? Will Americans buy that narrative of Joe Biden in 2024? What of Hunter Biden’s legal troubles? The impeachment inquiry? What should we make of the many Biden alternatives eagerly waiting in the wings, and what would it take for one of them to step forward?
Listen to Honestly guest host Michael Moynihan pose all these questions and more to Foer by clicking here to listen to the episode—or read an edited excerpt below.
On Foer changing his mind about Biden:
MM: You went into this having an opinion of Joe Biden. You don’t really elucidate what that opinion was, but you say it changed during the reporting for the book and you came out with a more positive idea of him as a person and a politician. Explain that a little bit.
FF: I’ve always thought he was a bit of a hack and that he was artificial. It’s like his stories are the same stories over and over again. There was this sense that he would say anything to a crowd and then do something different behind closed doors. But over time, observing him up close, I think some of his hackish tendencies mutated into things that I saw as strengths that I see disappearing from the rest of our political system. One of the things that I think is so interesting about the guy in the end is he’s so messy. He’s one of the most supremely human beings I’ve ever met. And the messiness informs the way that he practices politics. Because he wears his ambitions, his insecurities, his humanness on his sleeve, he’s able to identify those qualities in foreign leaders or Republican senators that he deals with. That forms the basis for the calculations he makes when he’s dealing with them.
MM: Let’s talk about Bidenomics. People are rallying to Bidenomics but the economy is not great. A vast majority of people polled in both parties think it’s in a rough patch. Gas prices are rising, inflation is eased, but it seems to be ticking up again. And if you listen to people like Larry Summers, they say this is the problem with spending. The spending has created this issue that was probably necessary in some way or another during the pandemic. But after the pandemic, the spending continued creating out-of-control inflation. What do people around Joe Biden think about this messaging? Because it’s going to be a very difficult one for him to deal with in the next campaign.
FF: I think that the Summers critique has a lot of truth in it. You had this wave of pandemic spending, a lot of which happened in the Trump era, and then you have this extra bit of it that happened with the American Rescue Plan that accelerated preexisting inflationary trends. But his big objection to the American Rescue Plan and that inflationary spending was that it’d make it impossible to spend money in other programs that would have long-lasting impacts on the American economy. I think that inflation was going to be a problem for them regardless of the rescue plan. But any inflation beyond a certain level is economic pain to people. And inflation has come down faster in the United States than it has in other countries around the world.
On criticisms of Biden:
MM: Are there any criticisms about Biden that you think land?
FF: Sure. In terms of their Covid policy, there are a lot of right-wing critiques that I think are justified. They could have pushed harder to reopen schools. I think it’s maybe more complicated, obviously, than some of his critics portray. But in the end, it was a place where he should have devoted greater political resources and he didn’t.
MM: He didn’t want to upset Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, the largest donor to the Biden campaign.
FF: Right. The other element that I think is important to recall is that the nation was potentially on the brink of labor strife around schools. And maybe you could argue it was worth forcing a confrontation there. But there was real anxiety on behalf of teachers about going into schools. And so he had a strategy for managing that. I would argue he could have been more aggressive in pushing them. I think that the vaccine mandate that he imposed in the end of September of his first term was a mistake, that his instinct had been right about vaccines headed into that, that vaccines were a question of persuasion and that coercion was never going to work, and that he did something that was legally dubious by imposing a vaccine mandate and ultimately counterproductive and ended up exacerbating a lot of the culture war around the vaccine. I think in terms of foreign policy. I think the chapters on Afghanistan in my book were very harrowing to report, and I felt like I was talking to people in the immediate aftermath of the withdrawal who were traumatized themselves by the whole experience. And while I think the idea of withdrawing from Afghanistan was correct, I think that his unwillingness to engage with the humanitarian consequences of that decision was a great failing on his part from the left. The other thing I would say, just criticizing him from the center, is the push he made for voting rights was both nonsensical from a political perspective. He was never going to be able to get the maximalist Democratic version of a voting rights bill, and it also distracted from coming up with a centrist voting rights bill that would have addressed the primary problems that Trump and his subversion tactics pose to democracy. That struck me as the real threat, not whether somebody could get a bottle of water at the hundred foot mark in line.
On Biden’s age and whether or not he’s too old to run again:
MM: Let’s talk about the thing that the media doesn’t stop talking about, and apparently is a very important issue to voters, too: age. In your book—I don’t want to say you’re dismissive of it, but you say that Biden should look at his age as a strength and something to be presented as experience. And that he’s pretty sharp and he gets his notes and gives them back to people with all of his notations. And he’s pretty engaged in policy argument. That doesn’t really come through to the American people.
FF: I have thought so much about age since my book has come out, and because it is something that is on everybody’s mind. When I was reporting the book, I was chronicling two years of governing and the political demands placed on Biden were very different during those two years than they are now. So there’s a question about Biden’s mental acuity and his governing capacity over the course of the last two years and where he sits at this moment in time.
MM: A CNN poll the other day said that 73 percent of Americans are seriously concerned for Biden’s current level of physical and mental competence. That’s three quarters of Americans!
FF: He has the ability to think through a major problem in a way that does reflect experience. So if you were to give him a mental acuity test of the likes that Nikki Haley has suggested the president should take, I’d say he would pass it. And I’d say that his age has made it harder for him to be an energetic communicator with the American public. One of the strange things about his presidency is the way in which he’s omnipresent. He gives speeches every day, he talks every day, and yet he seems to be this guy who’s at a remove.
MM: The other day, Biden said he was at Ground Zero the day after the September 11 attacks. He wasn’t. He said that he was a professor, I think, at the University of Pennsylvania, teaching political theory for four years. He wasn’t. Said something similar about his grandfather dying in the hospital the same day. He falsely claimed to have been arrested during a civil rights protest. He falsely claimed that he, quote, “used to drive an 18-wheeler,” falsely claimed to have visited the Pittsburgh synagogue where worshipers were killed in a 2018 mass shooting, falsely claimed to have visited Iraq and Afghanistan as president, told a false story involving a late relative and a Purple Heart, and falsely described his interactions decades ago with late Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir. He frequently refers to his son, Beau Biden, who died of cancer, dying in Iraq. At what point is that lying and not a gaffe?
FF: It’s clearly a tendency that is deeply ingrained in him that these are not straight examples. They’re part of a pattern of the way that he describes himself and his role in events in history. And there is something both disturbing about it on some level and, I think, very reflective of something deep in his psyche, that this desire to be at the center of the narrative and to have a version of events that kind of meshes with some idealized version of those events.
MM: But you’re reluctant to call it lying.
FF: On the surface, yes, it is. It is lying. But there are different reasons why people lie. And I think that needs to somehow be wrapped into the way in which we morally judge them. The pattern of lies are really always about himself, not about other people. And they’re self-aggrandizing. And so it’s this tendency towards self-aggrandizement, which is super connected to the way that he exists as a politician and super connected to all of these insecurities that he has. I mean, that’s how I think about it.
On Hunter Biden:
MM: You don’t mention Hunter in the book. He gets one passing mention. Why did you choose to not dig into that a little bit?
FF: I was writing about the first two years of his presidency, and Hunter was not a significant part of that narrative. And there weren’t very many questions that were posed to the White House as it related to Hunter Biden. And I wish I had more about Hunter Biden as an individual and as a figure. And that was something I got close to getting some interesting stuff on, and then I just couldn’t nail it down.
MM: There’s a lot of people on the right who see this as an opportunity to launch an impeachment investigation when there’s some curious things there. But nothing I would suspect would allow somebody to be like, oh, we can impeach him on this one. What about it, though, seems curious to you and you would like to know more?
FF: I know what everybody knows. And that doesn’t seem to me to add up to anything remotely impeachable at this stage.
MM: So where was his failing? Where was his moral failing?
FF: I think he knew that Hunter Biden was clearly running a business that was exploiting the Biden family name and was dealing with certain figures that were in areas of the world that were adjacent to what Biden was working on. And he should have been able to say, I understand you’ve got to make a living, but this is too important for you to be working here. To me that’s not that hard of a conversation to have. And where the Biden story gets interesting is all the ways in which that does then become a complicated story for them to have a conversation, because there’s so many layers of guilt that are built onto this. I think of this as a family story as much as a political story, although it is clearly a political story. Hunter Biden was never the son that he loved most. Beau was going to be the one who was going to carry the torch for the family dynasty. Hunter was always kind of the hatchet man in that operation.
On Kamala Harris:
MM: Let’s talk a little bit about how you became quite popular in conservative media, I’m sure to your surprise, when it came to some of your reporting on Kamala Harris. Your book seems to be slightly tough on her in some parts and not on others. What do you make of her vice presidency?
FF: I would like to thank Fox News and the New York Post. There’s this comedy where a lot of people who bought my book under false pretenses are giving it one-star reviews on Amazon, which I will happily take in exchange for the sale. There’s part that I understand about the way in which right-wing media operates and cherry-picks stuff from a book. That’s totally appropriate and in its way honorable. But there’s other ways—I’ve seen how Jesse Watters on Fox News just makes things up. There was a story in the book about how Biden was looking at a map of Kabul during the evacuation and was looking at a parking lot and said, oh, this is a place where refugees could gather. And then suddenly in the Fox News version of it, it became “Joe Biden actually wanted to build a parking lot in Kabul, and his aides were laughing their asses off at him because he’s so mentally deranged.” What’s the real question about Kamala Harris? Because every vice president suffers from some version of what she’s suffered from, which is struggling to figure out their role in the White House. They have this relationship with the president where they end up, on some level, resenting the president for constraining them.
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