In June 2021, perhaps for the last time, President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin met face to face. They talked for three hours, emerging to tell reporters that there had been no breakthroughs; Biden told reporters that he’d handed Putin a list of 16 examples of critical U.S. infrastructure, warning him of consequences if any came under cyberattack.
According to “The Last Politician,” the Biden-in-power book that Franklin Foer published last week, the president spoke more ominously than he’d let the public know. “Put yourself in my shoes,” Biden told Putin. “I mean, with the attacks on our infrastructure. Imagine if something happened to your oil infrastructure…”
Biden let “the thought hang in the air,” and reading it now, it hangs even heavier. One year later, as America spent millions to defend Ukraine against Russian invasion, the CIA learned of a Ukrainian plot to damage the Nord Stream pipelines with underwater bombs.
Foer’s book, the most far-reaching study of the Biden White House so far, presents an aging president who’s nonetheless fully engaged in the job, stumbling more when he loses his temper — blurting out Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s private negotiating position, telling a Democrat who resists the Build Back Better package that she’s “the opposition” — than when he loses his train of thought.
But this story is so distant from most coverage of Biden, especially on the right, that it reads like alternate history. To many voters, Biden is presented as too frail to carry out even basic duties, leaving his aides to secretly run the country in his stead. In the first books to document his presidency, the picture is of a leader who sounds shaky in public, but is the dominant force in his White House.
Foer told Semafor that he “wanted to write a book about governance” after the Trump years, and he got one: Biden, he found, “buries himself in details” and “takes technocratic charge” of issues. “The Last Politician” acknowledges that Biden “would occasionally admit that he felt tired,” and that his “advanced age was a hindrance” when he blanked on a name or kept a light schedule. But it’s a bit part in the overall story — and his staff is worried more about his life-long tendency to wander off script than how age has affected his faculties.
“It’s weird; people are always saying, ‘well, it’d be great if we saw more Biden,’” Foer said. “He gives public speeches almost every single day. He sticks to his message. He doesn’t say anything insane. He does have kind of a low-key style in these speeches, but I don’t think that’s abnormal for a president. It’s just abnormal in the aftermath of Trump.”
Biden’s status as the oldest-ever president has defined not just his re-election — it’s by far his biggest weakness — but the way his White House is analyzed daily in the choose-your-own-media landscape.
Presidential speeches make less news than a rambling off-teleprompter aside, or a non-answer to a shouted question about Hunter Biden. The Republican National Committee cut 12 videos along these lines from Biden’s 25-minute press conference in Vietnam late Sunday evening, where his energy level and stammering fired up conservatives and inspired fresh coverage of whether he simply looked too old to win again.
Footage of the president briefly pausing or being ignored feeds entire news cycles in conservative media about who, really, must be running things; nearly every day, Nikki Haley tells Republican crowds that her true, actuarial opponent is Vice President Kamala Harris. During the 2020 campaign, Trump similarly warned Biden would be a “puppet” for further left Democrats because of his fragility: “They are going to put him in a home and other people are going to be running the country,” he said. Ron Klain, Barack Obama, The Clintons, Xi Jinping — there is always someone, pulling invisible strings with invisible hands.
The president never comments on the press treatment around his age in Foer’s book, which ends after Biden’s 2022 midterms. But his comment to Jen Psaki about media coverage of the Afghanistan withdrawal sums up his mindset: “Either the press is losing its mind, or I am.”
One reason the book version of Biden isn’t better known: No one is reading it.
Insider accounts of the Biden-Obama relationship (Gabriel Debenedetti’s “The Long Alliance”), of Biden’s core team (Chris Whipple’s “The Fight of His Life”), and the First Lady (Julie Pace and Darlene Superville’s “Jill”) have sold just a few thousand copies, and missed the best-seller list.
There’s enough of them now, though, that they’re worth evaluating together on their own terms. They draw a consistent picture of Biden, a confident man who over-prepares for every briefing, puts no timer on his anecdotes, delegates more often than he micromanages, and bristles when he’s told to shut up. He is, for better or worse, “his own chief strategist,” Whipple writes.
In Debenedetti’s recap of the 2008 campaign, Biden fumes that “the journalists covering him were too young to understand him,” and complains how the Obama campaign tapes him to a teleprompter and limits his interactions with voters. “I’m not going to grovel to this guy,” he tells one aide, early in his vice presidency.
Thirteen years later, in Foer’s book, Biden “fumed to his friends about how he was treated like a toddler” because he ad-libbed a call for Putin to be removed from power. He has been like this for a long, long time. His senior moments today — this week he said he was at Ground Zero “the next day” after 9/11 (it was nine days) — were trademark gaffes and tall tales in his three presidential campaigns.
Book-buyers don’t seem especially interested in reading more about a figure they’ve seen in politics for decades who is now overseeing a relatively quiet White House. At this point in Donald Trump’s presidency, 47 Trump-related books had hit the New York Times nonfiction list, including two editions of the Mueller Report, two Michael Wolff blockbusters, two Trump tributes by Newt Gingrich (“Understanding Trump” and “Trump’s America”), and a fake memoir from Trump’s SNL stand-in Alec Baldwin.
Fired FBI Director James Comey turned his wash-out into a number one hit, “A Higher Loyalty,” soon joined by fired FBI agent Andrew McCabe’s tell-all “The Threat.” Books on an alleged Russian plot to steal the presidency filled shelves faster than Tolstoy: “Russian Roulette,” “House of Trump, House of Putin,” “Proof of Collusion,” “Collusion,” and, for the defense, “Ball of Collusion.” All of this before Trump’s first impeachment.
Biden had a best-seller then, too — “Promise Me, Dad,” a gutting memoir of his son Beau and his early death from brain cancer. In power, Biden’s enemies see him less as his own man than as Barack Obama’s vice president and Hunter Biden’s dad. Conservative media interest in Obama often out-paces interest in Biden; a lack of stories about Obama manipulating the president becomes evidence that this is happening, and the press is covering it up.
That’s not what the reporters who’ve embedded in the White House have found, but their word doesn’t mean much to media skeptics. What’s mattered is what Roger Ailes called the “orchestra pit theory” — that if a substantive speech is followed by someone stumbling into an orchestra pit, the stumble will make the news. And Biden has a tendency to fall into the orchestra pit.
Room for Disagreement
The public-facing part of the presidency is a big part of the job. New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait questions whether Biden has grown too old to do it, no matter how effective he might be as a manager behind closed doors. “If Biden wanted to dispel concern about his mental acuity, he could submit to challenging interviews,” Chait writes. “The fact that he hasn’t done so suggests that he or his aides are uncertain he could pass muster.”
- In The New York Times, economist Adam Tooze reviewed “The Last Politician” as a “thin but telling” argument for the president’s ability to ride a wave; his domestic legislative success is “as much a product of congressional initiative as it is of the White House.”
- In The Bulwark, Mona Charen advises Biden’s handlers to let him talk. “People have come to believe that he is in sharp mental decline. When you see him in a Q&A, it’s clear that he isn’t.”