Actually, Joe Biden is good at politics: Franklin Foer on our misunderstood president

Author Franklin Foer talks about his full-spectrum portrait of the man who wins because everyone underestimates him

Published September 13, 2023 5:45AM (EDT)

U.S. President Joe Biden departs the White House on August 15, 2023 in Washington, DC. Biden is scheduled to travel to Wisconsin today. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
U.S. President Joe Biden departs the White House on August 15, 2023 in Washington, DC. Biden is scheduled to travel to Wisconsin today. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Much of the press coverage surrounding Franklin Foer's compelling new book, "The Last Politician: Inside Joe Biden's White House and the Struggle for America's Future," has been about whether Biden will drop out of the 2024 race, or whether he should. Those in the media focused on that kind of speculation are missing the real thesis of Foer's book: Biden is a political animal, and in fact a highly pragmatic politician who has been underestimated time and time again — and who has proven his critics wrong, time and time again.

As Foer notes in his book, Biden has decorated his office with portraits of historic figures such as Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson — two of the fiercest political rivals of early American history — so that he can tell people he negotiates with that if those illustrious founders could find agreement on issues, so can we. By Foer's account, Biden will use every angle possible to achieve political wins. 

"Joe Biden always saw the interconnection between politics and policy," Foer told me, and saw that "good politics is good policy, [and] good policy is good politics." Foer details numerous examples of Biden evolving on issues during the 2020 campaign and in the White House — from reversing Donald Trump's cap on refugees to his closing argument in the 2022 midterms, focused on the danger Trump and the MAGA movement posed to our republic. Biden didn't blindly follow the advice of his top aides or Democrats of Congress on these issues. Instead, he examined them closely from a policy and political point of view, and reached his conclusions.

Foer had remarkable access to key people in or near Biden's circle, and introduces us to a Biden who over-prepares for press conferences, who can be funny or quick-tempered and who is above all a decisive leader. It's a fully fleshed-out portrait, not the often one-dimensional portrayal of him so often get from the corporate media. If only more people in the media would read "The Last Politician" and absorb its conclusions.

I spoke to Foer recently about his book and the man it tries to capture in full. This transcript has been edited for clarity.

In this book, you're like a fly on the wall, and I mean that almost literally. You describe a dinner meeting between Gina Raimondo, the secretary of commerce, Sen. Joe Manchin and Ron Klain, who was then White House chief of staff, as if you were there. 

One of the things that I've learned about journalism over time is that patience is the hardest thing to learn. With this book, I just kept showing up. When you show up repeatedly, and you ask questions in good faith and show curiosity, people soften up and some of their initial skepticism starts to evolve. They stop feeding you talking points. 

"One of the things I learned about Joe Biden, which I hadn't appreciated before, is that he's a very psychological leader."

Also, with something like that, I have to wait until after the fact. This bill needed to pass before people wanted to share their side of the story. That type of patience is crushing to me because you sit there worrying you're not going to get the story. Then something like that happens and you get this very vivid account of this dinner, which was really fun. Manchin and Ron Klain were not talking at a certain point in negotiating the Inflation Reduction Act, and were forced to reconcile by Gina Raimondo.

They go to her house just outside Georgetown, and she cooks this dinner with roast pork, eggplant parm and cannoli. She's trying to soften them up. She basically turns to both of them and she's like, "Ron, you have to apologize to Joe. Joe, you have to apologize to Ron." 

It was very grudging, but this is the nature of politics. There are these massive forces that are at work and we need to understand those. Then there's this psychology of the individual actors. Especially, in the 50-50 Senate, which we had at the time, that becomes the difference between a massive piece of legislation faltering and succeeding.

I also like that Raimondo made Italian food for him. I'm half Italian. Manchin is part Italian too.

Yeah. Very uncomfortable for Ron Klain, who is Jewish and doesn't eat pork.

You also touched on the personal nature of this. Especially in the Middle East, when they were negotiating a ceasefire in Gaza. The point being, these are international events and this is about human interaction.

One of the things I learned about Joe Biden, which I hadn't appreciated before I started to report this book, is that he's a very psychological leader. Everybody talks about his empathy, but what he's really good at is he's able to sit across from a foreign leader like Netanyahu or Putin or whoever, or a senator like Joe Manchin, and say, "OK, I'm going to withdraw my ego here and I'm going to try to get in this person's mind. What are their political interests? What are their emotional touch points?"

There was a moment in the book from his vice presidency, which really captured, when he was dealing with the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and meets with the guy. The relationship was very difficult, and he tells Erdoğan, "Look, go have your press conference. Say whatever you need to say about me out there, and then come back and let's make a deal." That's Biden in a nutshell.

You get that sense that Biden's not about his ego. At the same time, as you mention in the book, the consistent underestimation of Joe Biden was his diesel fuel. Why is that? From the outside, it looks like he was in the Senate for a long time, he went on to be vice president, now he's president. If his success is because he's been underestimated, I don't know why he was.

I think a lot of this simply comes down to how he talks. You've got a guy who begins life having a stutter. He spends all this time trying to master his stutter. Then he gets to Washington and he's surrounded by all these Ivy Leaguers because the Democratic Party changes midway through his career. It goes from being this working-class party with broad base to being a party with an elite that went to Ivy League schools. All these stories that he tells, they go on forever, he retells them and retells them. The Ivy Leaguers would roll their eyes at Joe Biden, and Joe Biden totally knew it.

"All these stories that he tells, they go on forever, he retells them and retells them. The Ivy Leaguers would roll their eyes at Joe Biden and Joe Biden totally knew it."

As a reporter, the first time I talked to Joe Biden, I was 24 years old. He called me on the phone. I was like, "This is kind of amazing. I'm talking to a senator on the phone." Five minutes into the call I'm like, "Oh my God, he's never going to get off the phone." That's just who he is. With that style, people think he's too folksy, he's not that smart, he had a plagiarism scandal when he ran for president. In truth, he has an emotional intelligence that's extremely high. He's got this psychological acumen and he has all this experience which has accumulated into a certain type of policy expertise, especially as it relates to foreign policy.

I had a friend who worked in the Obama administration who said about Biden, "Nicest guy in the world, but he would grab you and make you sit and he would talk to you forever. People would literally try to escape him, not from his warmth or lack of intelligence, just because he seemed to enjoy talking to you when you're busy."

In your book, you mention something about Biden when he comes in to the White House and gets a gracious note from Donald Trump. We don't know what's in that note. Could that be the exhibit in a trial against Donald Trump? Do you think there's any chance Biden reveals that?

I would doubt it. Maybe, maybe.

Any sense what it said?

No, I have no idea. He's kept that close to the vest. He's never really talked about it so far as I know.

I wish there was something in there like, "I'm sorry, I know I lost, but I had to do this." I was taken aback by the idea that it was actually gracious. What did he say in there?

Jack Smith, if you're watching, you wrote a subpoena, right?

I've not seen this reported anywhere else, but you describe Biden decorating his office with pictures of MLK and Robert F. Kennedy and Jefferson and Hamilton. It says so much about Biden that we don't know. I'd say that your book captures a human quality to Joe Biden that we never get in the corporate media. 

Well, it's interesting. With Biden, there's always this contrast he's drawing with other presidents, and especially with Obama, because that's the presidency he knows best. Obama was always dinged, probably unfairly for never using the majesty of the White House to his advantage. Do you really get to change senators' minds by inviting them to the White House? Biden worked with the historian Jon Meacham to structure his office as a set piece, as a stage, so that there could be these narrative touch points in the room. It's Hamilton and Jefferson. You think our country has it bad now, but we've always had these profound disagreements and they've sometimes percolated in violent of ways.

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Of course, what's most important to him is this massive bust of FDR on the mantel above the fireplace, staring at him as he goes about his day. I think that that's an interesting thing for him because when people elected Joe Biden, the conventional wisdom was that he would basically be a placeholder president. For a guy who doesn't like to be underestimated, and who is always underestimated, his ambition is always to go big. He wanted to take his place in the pantheon of great Democratic presidents.

You make the point that Biden has evolved. What does it take for that to happen? We watched him evolve as president over the first few years on a number of issues where he pushed through a lot of changed and then embraced new positions. How does the trajectory of this work with him?

One thing that's interesting about Biden, as it relates to the left, is that he's been able to form a symbiotic relationship with it. There are moments with Bernie Sanders where they are not ideologically aligned. They have some shared sympathies with non-college-educated voters, which I think they identify in one another. His attitude towards Sanders is basically: Push me to go bigger and I can use that pressure in productive ways for myself. 

"Biden and Sanders are not ideologically aligned, but they have shared sympathies. His attitude towards Sanders is basically: Push me to go bigger and I can use that pressure in productive ways."

Let's take the specific issue of refugees. Biden made a promise during the campaign to raise the number of refugees who'd be admitted into the country, under the resettlement program. That's very different than the asylum program, where when you cross the border, you have right to claim asylum. Biden started to take heat on the immigration issue, and then started to pull back on that promise to raise the refugee resettlement cap, which Trump had constricted severely. He was like, "I'm getting hammered on this issue. The public won't distinguish between refugees and asylum seekers. It's going to cost me votes in the Rust Belt." He didn't want to move, but over time, the apparatus was able to deal with the problem at the border in a more effective way, so that started to go down as an issue in his head.

He also has an ability to work through his anger on an issue. The immigration issue was pissing him off. He didn't want to talk about it. Then it started to subside over time as aides were able to make him feel calmer. He is somebody who has these flashes of temper, occasional outbursts of ego, but it's not really defining for him. He is able to adjust more than I think most people are on issues.

Donald Trump is like always in motion on policy. It's just whatever he needs to say to win. With Biden, is it fair to say it's more of a pragmatic evolution, based on the politics and where he wants to go?

Yes. The politics matter to him a lot. Another signature issue in this category is abortion. He's Catholic. He's somewhat tormented on the issue. He's evolved with his party on the choice issue, but when the Dobbs decision came down, he didn't quite get it. He was thinking about it in an old-fashioned way, where if the party went too far left on abortion, it would get nailed. He was still thinking about the nuns in Scranton, who he has a lot of nostalgia for. In the end, he was able to see, "Wait, this is a different Republican Party. This Supreme Court decision is so much more radical than anything that's come before."

It took him seeing the story about 10-year-old girl from Ohio who had to go to Indianapolis to have an abortion and then was sued. That just registered with him in a major way and emotionally allowed him to get where he is now, where abortion is the issue. That's probably the best chance to save the Democratic Party in the next election.

It was a key issue in 2022 and it will be in 2024. We all know Trump was obsessed with the media, but you mention that Biden watches the media lot. Do you get the sense that he's frustrated that the media is all Trump all the time? There's so little about President Biden. Even on the one-year anniversary of the Inflation Reduction Act, he's doing events and is getting, at best, breadcrumbs in corporate media.

It's totally true. One thing that strikes me is that Trump caused the media to go to a place that it hadn't been before. It became very emotional, very combative, willing to call Trump out on things that it never called out a politician before. Then Trump leaves and I think there's this desire to reassert the values of objectivity and neutral authority. Biden has suffered from that to some extent. As you say, there is this tendency in the media to just get sucked back into the Trump vortex. It's ratings, it's clickbait. It is scary, and it is irresistible on a certain level. Biden is out there doing all sorts of stuff that will resonate through the decades, and he doesn't seem to get much credit from the media.

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I saw a recent poll where they asked, who had more major achievements, Donald Trump or Joe Biden? More people said Trump. Biden and the Democrats have to figure out how to get press. 

Of course, but it is worth just pausing to talk about substance a little bit. The constellation of bills that passed, I think, sum to a total that's much greater than the individual parts. You have the infrastructure bill, which progressives didn't totally love, because nobody wants to spend money on bridges and roads and airports and ports, even though there was money embedded in that for electric vehicle charging stations and to electrify the public mass transit of the United States. That exists in combination with the CHIPS Act and the Inflation Reduction Act, which does all this work to inspire the transition to clean energy. You take those things together, and the government is coordinating the spending so that it can supercharge certain parts of America.

It's economic development in the same way that a lot of the New Deal was economic development. You have places in the Rust Belt or Georgia or Arizona or other parts of the country that are going to be completely transformed because of these investments. There's political benefit to that as well, which is not just that workers might feel some gratitude to the Democratic Party. Who knows if that'll happen? There's a lot that would need to break through for that to occur. But you're going to have a lot of college-educated workers, engineers and managers migrating to these purple states and red states, and that could have implications for upcoming elections.

To me, Democrats have to do more to explain to people when they're benefiting, why they're benefiting, how the infrastructure bill is helping, how the Inflation Reduction Act or the CHIPS Act will help them. 

"Joe Biden always saw the interconnection between politics and policy, that good politics is good policy, and good policy is good politics."

Joe Biden always saw the interconnection between politics and policy, that good politics is good policy, good policy is good politics. If you want your policy to exist into the future, you need to have it become a fixture in people's minds. They need to understand how government is working and to be grateful for it. 

What's interesting is how much of Trump's populism Biden has actually implemented, whether it's the merger guidelines that the administration has passed or the most aggressive anti-monopoly position the government has staked out in years. The prestige of unions is on the rise, as is public support for them. I think having a president who sides with unions has made a difference. Then you have the trade policy, where we're de-globalizing the economy in order to restore American manufacturing. That's what Trump was all about but, lo and behold, Biden's actually doing it and not getting credit.

You talk about Biden feeling slighted a bit as vice president under Obama and trying to do more for Kamala Harris. One example you give is Biden saying, "She's the vice president, not my vice president." Is he helping her? Is he holding her back? Are theire certain constraints on what she did and did not want to do in terms of policy agendas, as you document in your book? What's going on? Are things going well? I can't tell right now.

Well, look, I wrote about the first few years. I think that story has taken a little bit of a turn since my book ends. Because on the abortion issue, I think she was able to become the primary spokesperson for the administration. She's been able to find more of her niche and more of her sense of purpose. 

Interestingly, I was always told she was reluctant to be defined by the ways in which she reflects the base of the Democratic Party. She was always eager to establish bona fides with the white working class. I think she was unsure about which political identity to assume. I think she's gotten a bit of a clearer political identity now than she did when I was reporting the book.

I think she is on the ascendancy in terms of her media appearances and being confident. I was at an event at the vice president's residence in July for Eid and really wondered why we don't see more of this person.

Before we started, you told me you would not be totally shocked if Biden did not run for re-election. At the same time, he's so fueled by people underestimating him and he wants to prove himself. What would it take for him to decide not to run?

I think everybody should assume he's running for re-election. The gap between the public Biden and the private Biden on issues like this is basically nonexistent. You have to read his public statements very carefully. What I was just noting on "Meet the Press" was that when he talked about running for president, for a long time he would invoke the word "fate" in describing it. That was always a tell to me, because it's shrouded in all his religious beliefs. It was just assumed that he was always leaving some room for an out. I was just interpreting him at face value, but I think at this stage it is exceedingly unlikely that he would turn around and decide not to run.

He even joked about his age over this weekend. Do you think if Biden gets out there more and is in the media on a daily basis, that could change how people see him?

Yeah. The thing about Joe Biden is that he's not perfect, right? He's a human being who's got elements of imprecision and sloppiness. I think he's tried to guard against that part of himself. His staff has tried to guard against that part of himself. It's always been there, by the way. It's not really a product of age, but I feel like he needs to lean into age as his selling point. It's part of the reason that he's been able to get these accomplishments done that nobody thought he would be able to get done, it's part of how he's been able to manage the world through a very difficult period where we're fighting a proxy war with a major nuclear power, where relations with China have really become quite tense. This is very dangerous, and I think the experience that he has has allowed him to navigate this in a way that will make him — regardless of what you think about his domestic policy — ranked very highly as a foreign policy president. And his age has helped him guide us through this all.

Going into 2022, his closing message was not about jobs or inflation. It was saving our democracy. I loved that, really. Can you share a little bit on how he got to that decision, and do you expect to see that again in 2024, especially if Trump is the nominee?

Absolutely. That is the playbook. It worked in 2022. I think it has a good chance of working again. He's gone through a cycle of thinking that all this is through, where he has hoped that Trump would just disappear by us not paying attention to him and not thinking about him and calming down our politics. That didn't work, or it only worked to some extent. 

I think we're not on the brink of civil war right now, which is what seemed to be the case when Biden came to office in 2021. I think he evolved because he saw that Trump wouldn't go away, and he saw that this faction in the Republican Party has become more and more prominent. He's seen the polling data on this as well. He ended up adopting this tagline, "ultra MAGA." When it was presented to him at first, they said, our opponents have the Democrats pegged as "socialist," the equivalent tag for the Republicans that is sticking is MAGA. He thought "ultra MAGA" was more important because he also wanted to carve out space for the centrists and more moderate forces in the Republican Party to be able to distance themselves from Trump and work with him where there was bipartisan space.

By Dean Obeidallah

Dean Obeidallah hosts the daily national SiriusXM radio program, "The Dean Obeidallah Show" on the network's progressive political channel. He is also a columnist for The Daily Beast and contributor to Opinion. He co-directed the comedy documentary "The Muslims Are Coming!" and is co-creator of the annual New York Arab American Comedy Festival. Follow him on Twitter @DeanObeidallah and Facebook @DeanofRadio

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Authors Books Franklin Foer Interview Joe Biden The Last Politician