The Tuesday edition of the taxpayer-supported PBS NewsHour featured liberal political writer Franklin Foer talking about his new biography of President Biden. But don’t expect Foer’s book, The Last President, to be a harsh expose like the dozens of books written about former President Trump. Foer just told NBC’s Meet the Press anchor Chuck Todd that Biden “has been covered probably tougher than he deserves.”
But first, NewsHour host Geoff Bennett primed Foer for some serious sucking up.
Bennett and Foer discussed Biden’s view on abortion, suggesting Biden’s “Catholic faith” got in the way of attacking the Dobbs decision, while ignoring the phoniness of such a pose from an abortion supporting president.
Foer attacked the Dobbs decision that overturned the activist 1973 Supreme Court decision Roe vs Wade, and simply returned decision-making on the issue to the states, as “radicalism.”
This pro-Biden segment was brought to you in part by financial services company Raymond James.
September 5, 2023
7:38:40 p.m. (ET)
Geoff Bennett: When Joe Biden stepped into the Oval Office as president on January 20, 2021, following his decades-long career in public service, he was perhaps better prepared and more equipped than other presidents in recent history to deal with the ways of Washington and his fellow world leaders.
The Atlantic’s Franklin Foer has examined president Biden’s first two years in office, which he writes about in fascinating detail in his new book, “The Last Politician.”
And Franklin joins us now.
Thank you for being with us.
Franklin Foer, Author, “The Last Politician”: Thank you so much for having me.
Geoff Bennett: In the prologue of this book, you write that the electorate in 2020 turned to Joe Biden as a balm, that his victory was ascribed to the fact that voters wanted calm and decency and competency, even a bit of boredom after four years of the Trump administration.
But you write that that wasn’t the view that Joe Biden had of himself and for his presidency. What was his initial vision and how did it evolve?
Franklin Foer: Well, Joe Biden hadn’t sat around his whole life wanting to be president just to be a placeholder. He had grand ambitions for what he wanted to accomplish. He had a massive social spending program that he wanted to put into place.
He wanted to redirect American foreign policy so that it was oriented more to the challenges of a rising China. And he wanted to redirect a lot of the old orthodoxies of Democratic Party economics to steer it in a different direction, where it was warmer to unions, it took the problem of monopoly more seriously and had some version of industrial policy.
Geoff Bennett: You also recount the untold timeline of the Afghanistan withdrawal.
And though it was former President Donald Trump who set that plan into motion with the Doha agreement, it was president Biden who decided to honor that decision. And you write that he had distrusted officials who warned him against ending the war too soon, that he had a contrarian faith in the righteousness of his decision.
How did that affect the strategy and the execution of that withdrawal?
Franklin Foer: So, one of the most interesting qualities of the Biden presidency and of Biden’s whole career is that he has a very complicated relationship to elites.
On the one hand he craves their respect and approval. On the other hand, he doesn’t feel totally at home within the elite, and he thinks, to some extent, that they are constantly underestimating him. Biden, I think, believes that he possesses certain qualities that allow him to be a contrarian.
And, on Afghanistan, he was a contrarian for over a decade. During the Obama administration, he was calling for withdrawal. And so I think that he felt the impulse to get out so strongly. He was so intent, to some extent, on winning the bureaucratic wars over Afghanistan and so intent on focusing on the strategic redirection of American foreign policy, that he lost a bit of track of the humanitarian questions that ultimately came to the fore and were so vivid in those weeks in August of the withdrawal.
Geoff Bennett: There is a ton of reporting in this book about the president’s domestic legislative achievements.
I want to talk, though, about abortion, because Joe Biden’s Catholic faith, according to his friends and staffers, is central to how he views the world. Is that what accounted for what his critics saw as his sort of flat-footed response to the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade?
Franklin Foer: As a devoted Catholic, he’s got a complicated set of feelings about abortion.
But I also think that Biden came from this other era where the terms of the abortion fight were different. I don’t think he fully appreciated initially the radicalism of Dobbs and the ways in which it would be radically implemented straight away.
And so it took that case of a 10-year-old girl who — from Ohio who went to Indiana to have to have an abortion and the way in which the law fell down on her. And, for Biden, that became a morality tale that forced — that snapped everything into place for him.
He could suddenly see the radicalism of the Dobbs decision. And whatever flat-footedness, whatever qualms he had at the outset melted away. And I think he eventually came to not just appreciate what Dobbs would mean for women, but I think he also came to appreciate the political benefit for the Democratic Party with the Dobbs decision in the way in which it took maybe a demotivated Democratic base and rallied them to the polls.
Geoff Bennett: What’s the relationship like between President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris?
Franklin Foer: Their relationship was forged on the job.
It comes with all the baggage that Biden brought from the Obama administration about his own time sitting in that chair. And so I think Kamala Harris initially, for reasons having to do with her own sense of political self, and some reasons having to do with Joe Biden’s sense of the job, struggled to find her way.
And the truth is that Obama needed Biden because he saw certain holes in his own resume that he thought that Biden could fill. Biden has this supreme sense of self-confidence, based on all of his many years in Washington. And I think it was harder for him to see the space for Kamala Harris in the vice presidency.
And so, while the relationship formally, emotionally, is a very healthy one, as a practical matter, I think it made it harder for Harris to find her legs. And I should also say that my book ends with the midterm elections in 2022. And I think Harris has had an easier time, has found a greater sense of political identity since my book closes because of the abortion issue, where she’s been the administration’s primary spokesperson.
And I think that she’s developed a more coherent political identity in the months that follow the close of my book.
Geoff Bennett: Voters right now overwhelmingly think that President Biden is too old to run for president. That was the latest finding in a Wall Street Journal poll out this week.
How is the White House planning to turn his age, his real half-century in public service, turn that into an asset?
Franklin Foer: It’s a real strange disconnect, because, in the course of my reporting, I depict a president who is deeply involved in the intricacies of policy, an extremely active commander in chief, and he’s got to find a way to explain what he’s done and to convey this sense of activity.
And I think you’re correct in saying that they haven’t really leaned into his age as an asset, even though he was clearly elected because he was an experienced hand. But we’re navigating a proxy war with a major nuclear power. Our relationship with China is extremely tense. There are ways in which those things could go off the rails.
His experience actually does matter in navigating those conflicts, and he needs to show that it was his legislative skills, his political skills, gleaned on — based on all of those decades of experience that yielded these accomplishments that he can rack up on his side of the ledger.
Geoff Bennett: The book is “The Last Politician: Inside Joe Biden’s White House and the Struggle for America’s Future.” Its author is Franklin Foer. It is a triumph of reporting.
Congratulations, and thank you for being with us.
Franklin Foer: Thank you so much.