early and often

3 Lessons From the First History of Biden’s Presidency

Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Joe Biden is a relic, an adult before Black Americans gained full voting rights and a senator before the fall of Saigon. The man’s presence in the Oval Office can feel like an anachronism. Al Gore, John Kerry, and Bill Clinton exist as political fossils in the American imagination, yet all are younger than today’s commander-in-chief.

That Biden is a walking, talking antique is generally framed as a liability. During the 2020 campaign, progressive commentators fretted that Biden’s archaic sensibilities left him hopelessly naïve about the prospects for bipartisan policymaking. More recently, voters and pundits alike have suggested the man is simply too old to serve another term.

But the first history of Biden’s presidency, Franklin Foer’s The Last Politician, argues that Uncle Joe’s seemingly outdated qualities rendered him uniquely well suited to the challenges of his first two years in office.

In Foer’s account, Biden is a throwback for reasons that transcend mere age. We live in an era of anti-politics: Across the developed world, social media has decentralized authority while financial crises and lackluster growth have discredited governments. “Outsider” candidates who advertise their contempt for politics as usual, and their detachment from political parties, have proliferated. Barack Obama wrested the 2008 Democratic nomination from Hillary Clinton by running as a movement leader who transcended the petty corruptions of partisan politics. Eight years later, Donald Trump conquered the GOP while promising he was “not a politician.” This is not even an exceptionally American phenomenon. From Emmanuel Macron in France to Silvio Berlusconi in Italy to Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Ukraine, political neophytes have enjoyed electoral success by campaigning against politics as such.

Biden, by contrast, is nothing if not a party man and Washington insider. After losing his wife and daughter in 1972, Biden was all but adopted by his newfound colleagues in the Senate. That not-so-august body became a second family to the young Delawarean as he struggled to persevere in the shadow of his grief. This emotional attachment to the Senate likely made Biden even more acutely sensitive to prevailing political winds lest the voters in his (then) purple state evict him from his beloved workplace.

Biden is not a gifted orator like Obama or an entertainer like Trump. His expertise, as Foer writes, is in “nose counting, horse trading, and spreading a thick layer of flattery over his audiences.” In other words, he is a master of the much-reviled art of conventional politicking.

Foer’s thesis is that the past few years of American history have vindicated Biden’s vocation. Conventional politics can be corrupt and complacent, but a more vital progressive populism is not its sole antithesis. Another logical end point of widespread frustration with the compromises and stodginess of democratic politics is the January 6 insurrection.

Foer’s case for “the last politician” is not solely that Bidenism is preferable to its most prominent alternative. He also argues that the merits of Biden’s mundane chops as a political “hack” are reflected in his first term’s achievements: the revival of big bipartisan lawmaking with his infrastructure and semiconductor-manufacturing bills, the passage of landmark climate legislation through the narrow opening of a 50-vote Democratic Senate, and the assembly of a unified western coalition against the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

This is a reasonable summation of Biden’s virtues, though Foer’s attempts to substantiate his thesis can get a bit strained. For example, he casts the Democratic Party’s unexpected strength in the 2022 midterms as chiefly the byproduct of Biden’s sage political instincts: The president gave a speech framing the elections as a referendum on democracy, over the objections of many pundits. And while some progressives wanted the president to defend abortion rights through legally dubious executive orders, Biden charted a more moderate course, thereby keeping the focus on the pro-life movement’s extremism.

Yet there’s reason to suspect that none of this mattered much. It seems unlikely that any Democratic president would have attempted to set up abortion clinics on the outskirts of national parks by executive fiat. (Elizabeth Warren floated that idea, but the risks of advocating for such proposals in the Senate are distinct from those of actually trying to implement them from the Oval Office.) And in any event, whatever federal Democrats said or did on abortion rights was liable to be less salient than the radical forced-birth agenda of Republican state lawmakers. The Democrats’ success in avoiding a red wave likely had much less to do with Biden’s political savvy than the pro-life movement’s hubris.

Ultimately, though, Foer’s book is less of an argument than a reporting dump. It narrates the first two years of Biden’s presidency from an administration’s-eye view, reconstructing behind-the-scenes scrambles to execute the vaccine rollout, the Build Back Better agenda, the Afghanistan withdrawal, and the rollback of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The beats of Foer’s story will be familiar to virtually anyone politically engaged enough to buy his book. Biden’s presidency begins on a high note. He quickly passes a $1.9 trillion stimulus bill, abruptly exceeding liberals’ fondest hopes for what they could get out of an ostensibly moderate president and single-vote Senate majority. Jabs make their way into arms, seemingly insulating most Americans against the threat of reinfection. Biden’s approval remains healthily above 50 percent.

Then inflation starts to spike, the Afghanistan withdrawal (and/or the media coverage of it) shatters the public’s confidence in Biden’s competence, Omicron overwhelms the vaccines, Manchin torpedoes Build Back Better, and Uncle Joe looks like a failed president. Finally, just as his legacy appears lost, Biden belatedly secures historic public investments in green technology, infrastructure, and domestic manufacturing, unites the West in opposition to an expansionist autocracy, and enjoys one of the best midterm showings for an in-power party on record.

Of course, this triumphalist narrative is premature. Biden’s approval rating remains abysmal. Current polling has him running even with Trump nationally. Given the GOP’s advantage in the Electoral College and the threat of third-party spoiler candidates, it’s entirely plausible that the Biden presidency will ultimately be remembered as the Trump era’s intermission.

Nevertheless, Foer’s account is compelling. Although most of its reporting is familiar, it offers a more vivid and comprehensive rendering of the scenes we already know about, while introducing a few that we don’t. As such, it provides plenty of discrete insights into the Biden presidency. Here are three lessons I found particularly compelling.

To pass an ambitious progressive agenda, move fast and stroke egos.

Given the constraint of a single-vote Senate majority dependent on the whims of a man who hails from one of America’s most Republican states, Biden’s legislative record looks impressive. His historically large stimulus bill helped trigger one of the fastest labor-market recoveries in U.S. history. The Inflation Reduction Act invests a historically unprecedented $369 billion in decarbonization, and that official figure wildly understates the actual scale of spending the law will likely generate. Because the IRA’s green subsidies are structured as open-ended tax credits available to anyone who produces certain goods, if more companies and utilities get into the business of building renewables, the bill’s total spending will rise. According to Credit Suisse’s estimate, the IRA is likely to generate over $800 billion in federal spending and $1.7 trillion in combined public and private spending.

And yet, with a few different strategic choices, Biden’s legacy could have been much larger.

During the transition, Biden’s inner circle presented him with a plan to enact a $2.4 trillion bill shortly after taking office. This legislation would combine $1.3 trillion in COVID-relief funds with $1.1 trillion in spending on green energy, infrastructure, and child care. But the president felt this would be an audaciously large opening ask, one that would ensure Republican opposition (at the time, Democrats had yet to secure Senate control).

The precise scale and content of his aides’ proposal were not obviously wise. But the instinct to secure a permanent expansion of the social safety net during Biden’s honeymoon period looks well advised in retrospect. Biden’s tenure as a popular president presiding over a recovering economy with normal inflation proved fleeting. During that brief moment, Biden had enough cache to strongarm Joe Manchin into backing a $1.9 trillion bill. Yet Democrats failed to fit a signal permanent program into that nearly $2 trillion bucket. Had they scaled back on fiscal aid to states and one or two other temporary relief initiatives, they could have funded universal pre-K, an increase in the generosity of Affordable Care Act subsidies, an expansion of rental subsidies, or myriad other social programs.

This said, Biden’s plan to begin with a pure relief bill and then move on to his broader agenda nearly paid much larger dividends. Even after assenting to the American Rescue Plan, Manchin was onboard with a $1.5 trillion green-energy and safety-net bill in the summer of 2021. Kyrsten Sinema was prepared to support at least $1.1 trillion in new spending. In the end, the Inflation Reduction Act included just $437 billion.

In hindsight, Biden’s attempt to wear down Manchin’s resistance to a bill in excess of $3 trillion looks like a costly error. Early in 2021, the West Virginia senator told the White House, “Don’t try to muscle me, because you can’t.” Nevertheless, instead of taking Manchin’s $1.5 trillion offer — and passing it before inflation spiked, Biden’s approval tanked, and the senator’s appetite for spending shrunk — the White House kept pushing for a more expansive bill. Progressive activists also sought to pressure Manchin by protesting outside his houseboat. Yet Manchin was fundamentally right that the White House and progressives had little leverage over him. The more he opposed Biden, the higher his home-state approval rose. Progressives tried to exert influence by holding Manchin’s infrastructure bill hostage. But it’s not clear that this ever constituted real leverage since the senator could expect to secure many of the same investments in a future omnibus spending deal, and progressives plausibly had more to lose from the infrastructure deal’s failure than he did, given the law’s green investments.

The protests, meanwhile, actually set back the cause of climate legislation. As the left’s animus encroached on his home life, Manchin grew exquisitely sensitive to any sign that the Democratic leadership was encouraging his antagonizers. When Manchin’s office asked the White House to leave his name out of a statement on Build Back Better negotiations — and the White House, for some bizarre reason, refused — the West Virginia senator withdrew an offer to support a $1.8 trillion version of the bill.

The vision of ordinary people forcing change by putting pressure on the powers that be is much more appealing than a theory of change centered on massaging the ego of a narcissistic millionaire. But the reality is that had Democrats abruptly acquiesced to Manchin’s redlines and celebrated his willingness to back a remotely liberal agenda, they probably could have secured a trillion dollars in additional permanent spending. Manchin’s insistence on means-testing the expanded child tax credit and appending a work requirement to it was deeply misguided. But if Democrats had accepted a more austere version of that program, child poverty would nevertheless be considerably lower than it is today.

Exactly how applicable these lessons will be to future Democratic presidents is unclear. There can be no eternal political truths about manipulating the psyches of idiosyncratic median senators. And even with Manchin, the optimal balance of flattery and strong-arming is not entirely clear. It does seem likely that Democrats could have gotten more out of Manchin in 2021 by simply acquiescing to his demands. But then what actually persuaded Manchin to come back to the table in 2022 was reportedly the harsh criticism of his colleagues, which left him feeling like he “didn’t want to be the bad guy in the story,” as Foer puts it.

Still, I think it’s generally good practice not to overestimate one’s leverage over critical legislators and to get your biggest policy priorities across the finish line as quickly as possible, lest unforeseen circumstances undermine the president’s standing.

Joe Biden is sincerely liberal on economics and moderate on social issues.

By most accounts, Biden has been a more progressive president than anticipated. The reasons for this aren’t exclusively attributable to the president himself (more on this in a moment). But he has nevertheless comported himself as an outspoken proponent of organized labor, a more robust safety net, higher taxes on the wealthy, and public investment in critical economic sectors.

This has raised questions about how one should understand Biden ideologically. As a senator from Delaware, he comported himself as an obsequious servant of his state’s banks and credit-card companies. So is his current liberalism a concession to contemporary political imperatives or an expression of principles previously compromised by the exigencies of Delaware politics?

Foer’s book endorses the latter interpretation. He suggests Biden’s blue-collar, Irish Catholic background instilled in him a strong identification with working people and a resentment of their exploiters. In private, the president reportedly rails against the idle rich and the “trust-fund kids” who comprise Washington’s intern class. He personally chose to gamble on muscling Manchin into a historically large expansion of the welfare state.

On other issues, however, Biden’s reputation as an ideological moderate (or a crass poll chaser) is accurate. The president’s Catholicism leaves him internally conflicted about abortion rights, such that he initially resisted calls for him to safeguard access to abortion-inducing medications in the wake of Dobbs. He also has a tendency toward a callous indifference to the plight of non-Americans. Biden initially tried to retain Trump’s tight cap on refugee admissions for fear of alienating anti-immigration voters. And though he could get sentimentally wrapped up in the fates of individual Afghans, he evinced little concern for the well-being of the Afghan people as a whole in planning for the U.S. withdrawal from that nation (though Foer does not mention it, Biden’s most egregious affront to Afghan interests was his administration’s freezing of the nation’s sovereign funds upon the Taliban’s takeover).

The “war of ideas” matters.

Warren’s 2020 campaign was an almost unmitigated failure. Bernie Sanders didn’t actually get all that close to the nomination; his success in early primaries was largely a by-product of a coordination failure among more moderate candidates. When the Democratic center consolidated behind Biden, it swamped Sanders in a landslide.

Yet Biden’s approach to governing nevertheless incorporated many progressive critiques of past Democratic presidents, while his administration directly empowered many of Obama’s progressive critics. There has been a decent amount of debate over precisely how and why the party’s left wing managed to notch these gains. Foer’s book suggests that progressive intellectuals’ success in selling Democratic elites on their analysis of the post-2008 economy’s discontents, and the centrality of those discontents to Trump’s election, was critical.

In the wake of Clinton’s defeat, longtime Democratic policy hands like Jake Sullivan spent a great deal of time reading up on the left’s critiques of “neoliberalism” and found himself persuaded that a “mania for markets” and austerity had undermined the working class and seeded an oligarchy. Meanwhile, Biden adviser Bruce Reed — a former member of the Democratic Leadership Council and thus widely seen as the right pole of Bidenism — became immersed in the anti-monopoly scholarship and advocacy that proliferated during the Trump years and grew convinced of the need for more antitrust enforcement. The combination of these discursive currents with the humiliation of Trump’s victory and the threat of Sanders’s primary campaigns nudged the Democratic old guard into closer alliance with its erstwhile assailers on the party’s left flank.

3 Lessons From the First History of Biden’s Presidency