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Franklin Foer’s new Biden book portrays a Washington that still works — for now
Struggling to find a new angle on the Biden presidency, Foer reached the conclusion that the lifelong politician knew how to make politics work
As a lifelong Washingtonian, the journalist and author Franklin Foer grew up in a family and in a city that believed a functioning political system could be a force for good.
But by the time President Joe Biden was sworn in on Jan. 20, 2021, American democracy was barely hanging on, weeks after an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol that threatened the peaceful transfer of power. At the time, Foer was under contract to write a book on the Biden presidency — and struggling to find something new to say about Biden, an elder statesman who had made a decades-long career out of politics.
After observing the transition to the Biden administration, Foer came to a very Washington conclusion: “As I watched that, I thought, ‘Well, maybe there is a lot of benefit to having experience, and people with experience, who understood the mechanics of government on some sort of deeper level,’” he told Jewish Insider in an interview last week.
The result is The Last Politician: Inside Joe Biden’s White House and the Struggle for America’s Future, Foer’s book chronicling Biden’s first two years in office, which was published last week. In it, The Atlantic staff writer presents a picture of a presidential administration that is functional and even successful, at a time when many Americans think of government as deeply dysfunctional.
Unlike many of the books and magazine articles written about the Trump presidency, this book is not a gossipy account of the lives of West Wing staffers, or the ins-and-outs of political relationships. It’s about actual governing. (Foer acknowledged the influence of his father, who worked for the Federal Trade Commission, where Foer learned to think of civil servants as “basically honorable people who were doing their best for the common good.”) Biden did not give Foer an interview.
“After the Trump administration, I think that I did turn to this book a little bit as a tonic, to be able to portray government in a way that I think made government as interesting and exciting and tense and dramatic as it can be,” said Foer. “It’s my idealistic hope that the example of having a substantively successful politician might change the way in which people think about the vocation of politics, but that’s a pretty idealistic hope.”
He points to a bipartisan gun bill passed in 2022 and that year’s CHIPS and Science Act as examples of Biden’s political know-how. The strongest example, in Foer’s telling, is the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act, billed as a response to the climate crisis.
Foer maintains that Biden has managed to largely stave off — at least for a few years — what felt at times like an inevitable descent into political chaos and rampant partisanship. He has also helped the Democratic Party punt on some of the major questions about its future, as the party’s moderate and progressive wings have largely reached a truce under Biden.
“Biden has done a pretty good job within the Democratic Party of cooling some of the cultural tensions,” Foer said. “I assume if Biden stepped aside — which I don’t think is exceedingly likely, but let’s say he did step aside — I think that we have no idea what way a Democratic primary would evolve [and] what sort of tensions would spring to the fore.”
Take, for instance, the Democratic Party’s approach to Israel.
“Biden came from a different generation than his foreign policy team,” Foer writes. “He grew up in a world where most Americans, especially liberals, regarded Israel as both a historical miracle and a sympathetic underdog.”
Foer recounts the story of Biden’s first time meeting Nancy Pelosi in the 1970s: “She was helping a San Francisco neighbor organize a fundraiser for Israel. Biden was the keynote speaker. Pelosi loaned her Jeep, for the sake of squiring Biden around town so that he could extol the case for Zionism.”
But, Foer adds, “Over the past decade, mainstream Democrats had begun to drift from their elders on the subject of Israel. They didn’t regard it as quite the same sacred commitment.”
One chapter chronicles the brief but intense conflict between Israel and Hamas in 2021, which Foer said “provided a real window into Biden and to the way that Biden conducts foreign policy and the way that he thinks about foreign leaders, and the way that he developed relationships.”
Biden leaned on his decades-long friendship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to eventually push the Israeli premier to accept a cease-fire. Biden did not outwardly show any frustration with Netanyahu.
In the two years since, that has changed. Biden has publicly criticized Netanyahu’s controversial judicial reform plans.
“I actually think the pressure he’s putting on Bibi now grows out of his own Zionism,” said Foer. “I think everything he’s done in the last year, he’s doing, essentially, in the name of Israeli democracy.” (Foer then paused and questioned whether this “sounds like a naive take.”)
In Foer’s recounting of Biden’s foreign policy travails, the botched American pullout from Afghanistan and Washington’s crucial support for the Ukrainian war effort against Russia are connected.
In August 2021, there was “a sense that U.S. credibility had taken almost a permanent beating, that we abandoned our allies, that we looked weak,” said Foer.
“All that stuff is morally true,” he added. “But I think that the long-term strategic effects of the withdrawal were probably overhyped in the immediate aftermath, and you could even make an argument that if we were still in Afghanistan, we wouldn’t have been able to free up all the resources to make the Ukrainian armament possible.”
Ukraine is a nation and a cause that is close to Foer’s heart. He first visited the country more than two decades ago, while reporting his 2004 book How Soccer Explains the World. Later, his family’s journey to track down their Jewish history in Ukraine was twice immortalized in writing, first in his brother Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2002 novel Everything Is Illuminated, and later in his mother Esther Safran Foer’s 2020 memoir I Want You to Know We’re Still Here. (The Atlantic’s Editor-in-Chief Jeffrey Goldberg called the Foers “America’s leading literary family”; Foer’s other brother, Joshua, wrote Moonwalking with Einstein and founded Atlas Obscura, as well as the Jewish text website Sefaria.)
“Over time, I grew up with my grandmother telling me that Ukrainians were dangerous people, to having this more complicated relationship, which ultimately became one of reconciliation with Ukraine, and then deep, abiding love for the country,” Foer said.
His book reaches a largely positive conclusion about Biden’s performance since Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022: “With Ukraine, the advantages of having an older president were on display. He wasn’t just a leader of the coalition, he was the West’s father figure, whom foreign leaders could call for advice and look to for assurance,” Foer writes. “He was a man for his age.”
Foer’s book takes up the matter of Biden’s age — he is the oldest sitting president — but largely brushes aside concerns about it. One passage, about a press conference Biden held after a year in office to “put to bed all the swirling speculation about his age and diminishing mental powers,” called Biden’s real challenges “his indiscipline and imprecision” rather than “age or acuity.”
Biden “will be remembered as the old hack who could,” Foer writes. But his central argument will be tested next year, as Biden faces a potential rematch against former President Donald Trump, a man whose entire political persona rests on his opposition to the Washington brand of politics as normal. Early polling suggests Biden’s reelection is far from a sure thing.
“If he loses to Trump,” Foer told JI, “it’ll make the stuff that I wrote about look a little bit more like a footnote.”