Inside Joe Biden’s First Term (with Franklin Foer)
When President Biden took office in 2021, he set out to fix the institution broken by his predecessor. Over his first two years in office, he accomplished many of his policy goals, and The Atlantic reporter Franklin Foer was there to witness it all. This week, Andy and Franklin discuss how history will remember those years, what Biden got right and wrong, why Biden doesn’t get enough credit, and why he’ll be remembered as “The Last Politician.”
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Andy Slavitt, Frank Foer
Andy Slavitt 00:18
This is IN THE BUBBLE with Andy Slavitt. Man, do we have a lot to talk about today? Don’t forget, you can always email me day or night, email@example.com. I’ve got Franklin Foer on the show today. He’s a writer for The Atlantic. He’s written a book called The Last politician, really about the term to date of Joe Biden. So let’s talk about Joe Biden, okay, you’re having this conversation, probably, wherever you live with the people around you. And let’s talk about him. I know him, I serve. In his administration, I worked for him. I have a little bit of that unusual perspective. But it’s not like he’s my best friend. But I know him. So let’s look at it. Joe Biden was elected in the midst of a horrible, horrible global pandemic. He was elected without a majority in the Senate. He was elected just before a war broke out in the Ukraine. He was elected when we had enough weird economic things going on that was unclear whether we were going to slip into a massive recession, or that we were going to end up in a massive amounts of inflation. And not for nothing. For many of us. He was elected at a time when we’re in the waning years of being able to do something about climate. And look what happened. We’ve avoided a recession so far. We experienced some inflation. It’s gotten under control. Jobs continued to be added. We have taken a huge bite out of the climate crisis. We rebuilt allies around the world, in the face of Russia’s attack on Ukraine. We created a policy to compete finally with China, on chip certain factories and manufacturing. And he did all this with were times when it was very unclear whether he would get it done with barely a vote in the Senate. Sometimes with an effort at bipartisanship, the word sometimes and it didn’t. And it is pretty remarkable. That said of a councilman, so when I hear from friends, hey, is this guy too old? Hold that thought a second ago. Wait a minute. What are you talking about? And yes, he’s got a strike right now in his hands. In Detroit with the UAW. He’s got Russian aggression, and Alliance building with North Korea, Russia and China. Bad things happening. But that’s what this job is. This job is the job of facing down bad things. That’s what you do. You fix some things. And then you wait for the next ones, and you face them down. That’s what this job is. So people are doubting him, because of his age, whatever. That’s also what this job is. It’s being doubted at all times, by somewhere between 40% and 60% of the population at all times, literally. That’s what this job is. Why do people not see this? Why do people understand this? Why do people not completely take into account the fact that this is the most brutal, awful, can’t win job, and you’ve got somebody in there? That is doing it for the right reasons. And let me talk about that reason, because of this guy. Okay, he’s 80 years old. All of these accomplishments I just talked about, whether it’s for the climate or prescription drugs or rebuilding alliances around the world, all lessons I just talked about, are not done by a younger man that’s gonna live through the benefits. These are all things. These are all things that are done for after he is off this earth. When you are 80 years old, and you are focused on the climate. You’re doing it for us, not for him, and that takes an extraordinarily different type of thinking and extraordinarily differ type of man, he’s working on more long term things for this country. Because he’s at that age, and you know that age where people are like, I’m not doing it for me anymore. And I think he is misunderstood.
Andy Slavitt 05:16
I think every time he walks with that kind of funny straight back, he has, or stutters, because of his childhood affliction was stuttering. People are like, See, see, he lives in it. Let me tell you, the one that I can tell you for sure. That guy he lived in it. That guy, he lives in it, that guy is sharp, as a tack, probably sharper than he was when I knew him. And when we knew him in earlier periods, when, you know, there was a lot more stuff to talk about when he was very entertaining, and he would tell lots of stories. And this is a guy now who gets to the point. And we should understand that that is not Donald Trump’s view of the presidency. And the one thing I think, that Joe Biden is focused on right now, as much as anything else is preventing that guy from getting back in the White House. And who knows what happens with democracy. When that happens? This is a guy, Donald Trump, who’s not there to serve the country. He’s there to serve himself. And I think, when we really all stop and think about it, we know that to be the case. So Franklin for writes his book, about the Biden presidency. And he starts out, by his own admission, with a point of view that Joe Biden is a relic that Joe Biden is honoring some bygone era of bipartisanship, that Joe Biden is past the sell by date. And he goes deep into these questions, with over 300 interviews, including me around what was happening on a daily basis, on a couple of fronts. What was happening in Afghanistan, a low moment for the Biden administration, for sure, what was happening with Vladimir Putin in Russia, what was happening with China, what was happening? As people were dying of COVID, left and right, what was happening, as inflation started to take off what was happening in all these moments. And he paints a picture, which I’ve got to say, no one can question the accuracy of this picture. That I think is pretty straight telling. It’s not Joe Biden as Superman. It’s not Joe Biden, as God’s greatest gift to public speaking. It’s not Joe Biden, some like brilliantly self confident, FDR, Abe Lincoln. It’s Joe Biden as the guy who pushes the ball down the field and gets victories for the country and then moves on. It’s Joe Biden, who’s willing to take short term criticism for the right long term result. And that I think, is a interesting portrayal where that will put him in history. I asked that question to Franklin force, I gave him some choices, is he FDR? Is he LBJ? I gave him some choices. The answer he gave me, shocked me. It shocked me you gotta listen. This is great, great conversation. Okay, I’m off my soapbox. Except to tell you tell your friends about the show. Leave glowing reviews on Apple. Or, you know, decent reviews, or whatever it whatever you think. And, you know, if you if you’re gonna give us any stars at all, just like with Uber, just give me five stars. I don’t need 10 Just give me five. Okay, here we go. Here’s Franklin.
Andy Slavitt 09:12
I’m so pleased to have you in the bubble, Frank.
Frank Foer 09:16
So great to be in the bubble.
Andy Slavitt 09:18
So tell us what, what kind of man was Joe Biden when he arrived in the Capitol steps in January of 2020. And how different was he from the man that he was only four years ago as VP. And for what different tea was from the guy he was who wanted to run for president as a younger man.
Frank Foer 09:44
I first met Joe Biden, when I was 24 years old. I was a very young reporter. And I was able to get him on the phone for a story and which seemed pretty impressive to me at age 24. And then kind of five minutes into the conversation. He was going Deep into stories about Uncle Finnegan, you know, it was it was like senators from the 1970s. And their Greatest Hits and five minutes into the call. I was like, Oh my God, this guy is going to talk forever. How am I ever going to end this conversation? Or even getting the question or even getting a question? And so I kind of began thinking of him as somebody who was this just kind of ultimate creature of Washington. And then, you know, every time he would run for president, he would seem to kind of gaffe in ways that confirmed my initial impression of the guy. But I think that a lot changed. For him becoming vice president is like the hardest job in America, especially because you have all this power. But yet, you don’t really have power, you become the punch line for all of these jokes. And for somebody who’s not terribly, who was not terribly secure, or who wore his insecurities on this on his sleeve. I think that that was a that was both an exhilarating and a hard job. For for Joe Biden to have. When he became president, I talked to a lot of his friends. And I remember one of them telling me that they’d never seen Joe Biden so copacetic, as when he that that first month or two after the APA declared him the winner of the campaign, they felt like a lot of his insecurities had kind of melted away because he was this guy chasing this job that he’d always wanted. And he finally had the job. There was this moment that one of his aides told me when he was coming down the steps to deliver his inaugural address is that he looked out over the Capitol and he saw George W. Bush, he saw Bill Clinton, he saw Barack Obama, and that afterwards, he said to them, he’s like, Look, I know these guys, I know. They’re totally human. And seeing them and seeing their humanity was very reassuring to me, it made me think that I could do this job, too.
Andy Slavitt 12:00
You know, I think every one of these people who became president, I don’t just think I actually have reason to understand that, that every one of them has points that says to themselves, wow, I can’t believe I’m President, United States. And I want to get to something else you wrote in your book, which is Joe Biden stood there taking the oath of office, he looked down, not on a sea of people, but on a sea of cardboard, fake people. And he looked behind him. And instead of seeing kind of this beautiful capital, he saw broken windows, or at least places where they’re broken windows. And I’m wondering how much those things, you know, plus the loss of beau, which I think changed him, if I were gonna give you my own perspective, absolutely, absolutely. How much those things colored, how he was honing in on what his job was going to be.
Frank Foer 12:56
I think all those things did impact him, in addition to the fact that Trump had basically abrogated the presidency during the transition. I think that there was that moment, when he gave the speech on television before Thanksgiving, where he told people, you know, that they couldn’t celebrate their holiday. And he felt like he was having to constantly fill this void. But when you’re talking about the sense of loss, that is such a part of the Joe Biden narrative, going back to the death of his wife and his daughter in the car crash, extending through the death of beau, which I think really did, shake him, I talked to people who described even in the Obama White House that the difference between the Joe Biden that they’d seen before Beau’s death, and after both death was kind of there was this just enormous gap that he was not, he wouldn’t walk into meetings and kind of tried to dominate in the same sort of way that he had, he wasn’t the same gregarious persona that you could see, you could see the loss on his face and his demeanor. And I do think that at that moment, where he was connecting with death at a mass scale, really was, was a moment that I, I think that he probably felt very emotionally prepared for and I think his sense of purpose and mission was probably never clearer than at the beginning of that presidency where there was a void he was stepping in, he felt like he had the emotional skills to fill it.
Andy Slavitt 14:29
You know, I have this point of view and test that with you, which is that the country sort of elected him because we felt that we wanted an adult. Yes. And then it’s like at that party you have in college where you’re like, Oh, this is getting out of hand, someone please call an adult. Then the adult comes and you’re like, you instantly resent the fact that you’ve got this person who’s really just a stabilizing For some figure, and I don’t say just but I mean in that because I think you’d go into a lot of substance of what he’s actually accomplished, which we’ll get into. But from the perception of this sort of question is why is Joe Biden constantly underestimated? Why is Joe Biden, not crushing it in the polls? Why it is, you know, in a reelection, Donald Trump even stand a remote chance against this adult? I wonder if there’s something around the psyche, if he came in, at a very big low point. We nobody wants to go back and think about this low point of losing democracy and the pandemic, etc. And so to some extent, you get tarred with the very thing that you’ve done for us.
Frank Foer 15:43
Yeah, well, I mean, a couple of things buried in what you said. The first is that it’s very hard for us to recover the sense of crisis that we had, in early 2021, that we had this pandemic raging, the economy was teetering because the pandemic was raging, you had the insurrection, you had the impeachment of Donald Trump, and the amount of pure stabilization that he was able to do, which I think even that undersells the accomplishment of those those first few months in the presidency. All these technocratic things he did like the the vaccination program I described in the book is one of the most, maybe, if not the most successful government program in history that you could walk into a pharmacy, within six months of Biden coming to a president and without an appointment, get a life saving, shot in your arm, giving all of the complexities of the distribution system, etc. Public is not prepared to give somebody credit for averting disaster in that sort of way, for whatever reason, our memories don’t extend in that sort of direction. And our goodwill and political judgments don’t extend in that direction. And I do think that there’s an extent to which Trump kind of broke our brains. And so I know this is true in media in which this constant sense of wanting to be titillated by Trump and the standards of Trump, a lot of what Biden does, with his public persona is just very normal by the standards of the presidency. Yet, if you juxtapose it next to Trump, he just doesn’t seem energetic, right? It’s like Trump, Trump was negative energy radiating in all directions. Biden goes, he gives a set piece speech every day, a very normal speech to the herd in a very normal sort of way. And yet, that registers to the public into the media as evidence of sleepy Joe.
Andy Slavitt 17:32
It’s really weird, if you think about it, like the country has elected a Democrat, when things have gotten pretty bad 1990 to 2008 crisis 2020. And, you know, unlike what I think are people’s general, like, caricatures of Democrats is, you know, big ideal, you know, idealists, et cetera, et cetera. And by the way, the same was also true Carter, in 76, you know, but focusing on Clinton and Obama, and Biden, they came in with economies spiraling crisis of confidence in the country, they stabilize things. And at least in the case of Obama, like he felt like it was never appreciated after we got out of the current financial crisis, how close we came, what a cool customer he was when he walked in. And I think the similar thing with Biden, and you know, you write about, well, here’s a person who’s willing to solve a paraphrase it willing to solve the problem, willing to focus on getting to an outcome, not so much looking for short term gain and recognition, and maybe not as talented as Bill Clinton, or Barack Obama in doing that, but just sort of like, you know, bringing solidity and by the way, sticking in the largest climate transformation, at exactly the time when we had no more time left, but at some level, it feels like, boy, where’s the political credit? Yeah, for something like that?
Frank Foer 19:08
Yeah. Yeah. I mean, it’s it is. It is almost mysterious at times. Just because conditions, you can see why because of inflation, people would be grudging about giving him credit. And you can kind of understand, there’s almost this aesthetic critique of him that because of the way he moves, because of the way that he talks, the pundit Matt Iglesias said, he’s not a good television character. He said, kind of caricaturing the critique of Biden. And I think that’s all true. One thing I want to maybe connect to a theme in the book and use it as a way of pushing back a little against something you said you described him as maybe not being as talented as Clinton or Obama. And I think it’s interesting. I think his talents just reside in a different area than their talents. I mean, those were guys who were in their way Very dazzling walks. They were people who eggheads like you and me. Were can various theoretically attracted to because of the way that they could they wrote the way that they spoke the way that they conducted policy seminars.
Andy Slavitt 20:14
Yeah, they were good. They were good retail people. Yeah, Biden was a good, it’s always been a good inside character. And in terms of getting stuff done, you’re exactly right. It’s hard to argue that he’s done at least as accomplished, if not more, so. But But I think if I were going to rephrase what I said was said at selling what I’ve done to the public, yes, it’s something that you’ll get with Bill Clinton’s empathy and Obama’s kind of soaring, aspirational nature. Those are pretty good retail characteristics.
Frank Foer 20:46
Yeah. Yeah. And one thing I keep thinking about, which is, as you look back over Biden’s accomplishments, you could argue that he’s stolen a page for Trump from on policy that when it comes to trade, or reviving a manufacturing, or going after corporate behemoths, you could argue, like he’s delivered in a populist way that Trump never was able to fully deliver on and that he should have a message that could connect plausibly with whatever populist anger is out there. And he started to do this last week is depict Trump as the phony populist and Scranton Joe as the real deal.
Andy Slavitt 21:27
Right? Like if I asked you, X number of years ago, okay, who’s more likely, you know, that if I was asked this question in 2010, who’s more likely to kind of hit it off with blue collar voters? Right, Joe Biden, or this kind of real estate guy with a gold plated from from from New York, you’d be like, Andy, don’t ask me stupid questions. I want to go to shows that there’s more, there’s more to it. Okay. Give it a second. We’re going to take one quick break. And we’re going to come back and talk about what people get wrong about President Biden. And also, let’s go right at it. Afghanistan, clearly a low moment. I want to go deep into that. We’ll be right back. You spent a lot of time interviewing a lot, a lot of people. Yeah, close to the President, you did a really good big deep dive. And almost everything that happened is for two years. There’s some impressions that are out there of Joe Biden. And I’m curious which ones you think are most correct? Yeah. And which ones are most wrong? There’s, you know that these is old doddering guy, that he’s a super underestimated guy that he’s crafty, and wily and getting deals done. Like what? What’s the truth of it? As you saw what what’s most accurate? And what are people saying that you go? That’s just not what I found?
Frank Foer 23:03
Yeah. So one thing that surprised me about him was the way in which he would bury himself in details. I mean, this just cuts against something I just was in contrasting him to Obama. And Clinton, I actually think that probably relative to the two of them, he enjoys the detail of policy, maybe even more so than than Obama. I mean, I think Obama likes policy. But he you know, he liked it also at a level of abstraction. Biden likes policy at the level of detail. And at this intersection of where government actually meets everyday life. And that’s the thing that he tended to obsess over. But there are these examples. Like when something like Afghanistan happens, which is the lowest moment of his presidency, he was still sitting in the Situation Room, looking at maps of Kabul all day long, trying to figure out how buses could get from this hotel to the airport, whether it’d be possible to have refugees gather in a parking lot and get escorted from there.
Andy Slavitt 24:05
I love how he keeps calling the guy that they set in to lead the rescue effort, and pressing him on every common sense idea that he could think of.
Frank Foer 24:15
Yeah, that’s how he sees his job. Or you take something like the baby formula shortage last year. He’s literally like, you know, trying to figure out how to get pallets of baby formula from Europe, on the shelves of grocery stores. I mean, he really.
Andy Slavitt 24:29
What’s the white part? Is it because he likes policy so much, or is it because he really feels this sort of empathetic, like sense of like, who’s on the other end of it? Like what’s, what’s the why part?
Frank Foer 24:41
I think that there’s a lot of just sheer determination. In Joe Biden, you’ve got this guy who’s pushing through despite the fact that he’s always he is indeed always being underestimated by the people around him. He knows that people are always rolling their eyes at him. He knows that even sometimes his own closest He will roll their eyes at him when he tells his folksy stories or the like. And so he’s he’s constantly determined to kind of show himself to prove himself. I think that he probably your empathy level, your question is probably right. He does care on on a very basic level and the more that things get humanized for him, the more he throws himself into it.
Andy Slavitt 25:23
So what do you think about the kind of almost cliched criticism on particularly I think right wing TV, although kind of man, it’s been a long time since my dial is stopped on almost any news network, let alone little and Fox, but yeah, that he is old and doddering, and that with it, et cetera, easy to plan, those kinds of fears and thoughts and suggestions. I’m curious what you found as an actual matter.
Frank Foer 25:50
I mean, my whole book is a little bit of a rejection of that. I mean, it’s filled with stories of him energetically trying to govern the nation. I mean, I think that the truth of it is, is that does he have the energy, same energy level he did as a 60 year old man answer is obviously going to be no, because he’s a human being. And every human being at age 80, is different than they are at age 60. So he might not be able to campaign in the same sort of way that he did when he was age 60. But as environment matter, governing, it’s not I find him to be somebody who is not just deep in the weeds, but kind of reluctant to let go of that position that he has kind of sitting on top of things, he’s reluctant to delegate wide swaths of important policy to somebody else, he feels like, it’s his job to sit on top of it. And then I’ve seen so when I’ve seen him up close, I’ve seen moments where he’ll tell a story. And like, maybe the story goes on a few beats too long. And and he gets kind of lost in the story, which is maybe a problem Joe Biden had as a teenager? I don’t know. But you know, when you combine that with a..
Andy Slavitt 27:01
That’s certainly not new.
Frank Foer 27:04
But I was gonna say, you’ve seen these commanding performances as well that go alongside this. And so I heard him once deliver this discussion about our Asia policy, and how we were going to counter China. And it was like, it was so incredible to see how he had all the chess pieces moving across the board and how he was thinking about at all and how he would go through just the map in his head to say, Okay, we’ve got this agreement with Australia, we’re doing this with India, we’re doing this with Vietnam, we have this measure to counter the Belt and Road Initiative. I want to push them hard here, but not too hard here, because that would be dangerous. And for me, it’s moments like that, where you see the flip side of the age question, which is that you see experience being brought to bear, you see the way in which somebody who’s just seeing foreign policy play out for decades, know how to conduct it in a way that is both aggressive and safe?
Andy Slavitt 28:02
Yeah, I mean, I think the stories that he tells belie something, which is, you know, younger people, they get distracted, a lot of things are important. They got to have a view and everything. As you get to be in his job as he is today what I saw what I experienced as someone who I felt, knows what matters, and knows what matters more than he ever has in his life. I’m not gonna say, in comparison to anybody else. But I’m gonna say, it’s pretty easy to say, ah, do you know what our democracy matters? Our alliances around the world matter? Yeah, getting stuff done matter demonstrating, you know, who we like. And correct me if you hear feel differently, but the moment kind of plays to it’s actually true inner strengths, which is I don’t need to be walked on everything. I don’t need to be kind of giving soaring speeches, I need to focus on these four or five fundamental things, that as a country, if we don’t do now, we’re going to be it heading in a direction, whether it’s in global alliances, whether it’s wars around the world, whether it’s what happens to our democracy, what happens to the planet? That because I could see these things to pretty focusing?
Frank Foer 29:16
Yeah. And I want to say something also about narrative and about his stories, because this is something I guess when I misjudged him, when I was 24 years old, that I now understand, having studied him up close, which is that he is a storyteller. He thinks in terms of narrative. He understands politics, as narrative and government as narrative that the aides who don’t make it in Joe Biden’s world are the ones who don’t understand that when you come and brief them about policy, what you’re doing are supplying him with the facts in the grist for him to be able to tell a story to the public or a story to a senator or to a story to a form foreign leader and that he understands that storytelling is part of persuasion. And persuasion is the most elemental part of politics and the key key the essence of democracy, in a way in that all politics is consist of having to kind of win the narrative battle, which is part of why I think it’s he hasn’t really shown a lot of his core strengths in the run up to this election, because he has a very good story to tell. And he hasn’t figured out quite the way to narrative eyes it yet.
Andy Slavitt 30:33
Let’s take one final break. And then we’ll come back and get a scorecard on the most important policy areas by the elected rate the president administration, and how well he’s done across some of the most important areas. But let’s take a quick break first, we’ll be right back. I wanted to move to policy and actual accomplishment. And and I want to talk about both what kind of grade you think the President deserves. And also whether or not this is something that attaches to his legacy? In other words, is it will it be well ended up being an extremely important thing? Will we judge it in his how we judge it in history? And all these things are things you’ve touched on in your book, which, by the way, having been a witness to some of this is a very, very good read. And I would encourage people to if they want to know who’s the guy running, at least from on one side of the aisle here, this is the book to read. Okay, so I’m gonna go through 10 areas, just give me a sentence. Yeah. Okay. The COVID response?
Frank Foer 31:50
I think he did. I think the vaccine rollout was one of the great programs in government history. And I think he was right to resist vaccine passports mandates. Until Until the end, I think if there’s one thing he probably regrets it’s doing the mandates at the very end of it, because it that’s the one thing that exacerbated divisions in the country. So but I would give him I give him probably like an A minus on that. Do you want an actual grade, sir? Or is that cheese? Or is that cheesy?
Andy Slavitt 32:19
Sure. No. And will that will that be part of his legacy? Or will people kind of go? No, you get no, sorry, but you get no credit for a problem we didn’t want to deal with in the first place.
Frank Foer 32:29
I think I think historians will. Great. And I’m extremely highly on that. I think the public is going to give many credit for the election.
Andy Slavitt 32:35
Well, kudos to Jeff Zients. And, of course, he’s the Chief of Staff now. And I would get I would say that’s the probably the of the 10 things that you tell us the one that I’m most familiar with. Okay. Second, the exit from Afghanistan.
Frank Foer 32:48
I think that that is that’s a c plus b minus I think it was it was it was the right policy intelligence agencies in in failed him, but not giving him the right assessment of when disaster would strike. But I don’t think that he really thought hard enough about what a humanitarian evacuation of Afghanistan would require. And so didn’t didn’t prioritize that as a leader.
Andy Slavitt 33:15
And then yes, and then interestingly, I looked at the numbers 125,000, or whatever. But towards the end, I hadn’t realized he made a personal change in policy that he decided, which ended up getting a lot more people out than otherwise would have gotten out, which maybe didn’t maybe salvage the tough situation, from being you know, didn’t turn into Saigon could have been a lot worse. But again, you don’t always get credit for that.
Frank Foer 33:39
Is it actually, I think, almost a perverse achievement. Because the initial week of after Gandhi’s fall was so disastrous, it gave him the space and also the political will to evacuate far more people than would have been evacuated in any other set of circumstances.
Andy Slavitt 33:58
Interesting. Okay, NATO and Alliance building around the world.
Frank Foer 34:05
I think he gets an A for that, because what they’re two hard things he did. One is that if you go back a year, there was a lot of indifference in America and indifference in Europe to autocracy. Putin was just kind of an accepted fact of life, it wasn’t very clear that the alliance against the Russian invasion of Ukraine would be as strong as it was. So he gets credit there. And the other thing that’s so interesting about the European Alliance is that he’s brought them along to a position on China that’s very uncomfortable for them, and was very, very unexpected. And so I think, you know, he gets the highest marks.
Andy Slavitt 34:42
Will he get political credit and will be part of his legacy?
Frank Foer 34:46
Again, historians will give him credit for that, but I don’t think anybody else will. The other thing that should be said about Ukraine that I think is so impressive, is that the American people have genuinely sacrificed for their solidarity with Ukraine. ain’t in the form of higher gas prices and some form of economic slowdown. And so the fact that there hasn’t been a massive political backlash against Ukraine, I think is both testament to the American people, but also his political leadership their
Andy Slavitt 35:16
Inflation and the economy.
Frank Foer 35:19
Well, let’s just aggregate those two, because those are two separate things. Sure. cause inflation, I think, you know, he, he, there was some marginal inflationary impact from the inflation Reduction Act. It’s it’s not clear exactly, to me what it is, I think economists will debate this for a very long time, but you give people checks, you’re running the economy hot, he intended to run the economy hot, because he felt like full employment was more important than whatever marginal inflation would, would exist. And in the end, it is true that we’re running inflation at a lower rate than in Europe and other parts of the world. With the economy, I look at that as more of a long term sort of thing, where, between the chips bill and the inflation Reduction Act, the amount of public and private investment in, in semiconductors, and in clean energy is astounding, the transition to clean energy is happening far faster than anybody would have anticipated. And the rebound of American manufacturing is happening at a clip that few had anticipated. So I think he gets really high marks there. And I think he could politically benefit from that, if he finds the right way to talk about it.
Andy Slavitt 36:37
Yeah, that was actually my next one was climate and clean energy. And it’s interesting, and I put that making you repeat what you just said, we this may be one that young voters are motivated by, and young voters are going to be important. But you know, it’s interesting. I mean, there’s both inflation rate, and then there’s high prices. So inflation rates have come down significantly, some of the prices are higher. And that’s not always a good sign for a sitting president.
Frank Foer 37:04
There’s still quite a ways to go to the election. And I think people’s memories of that could fade between now. And then. The other thing about clean energy that’s so interesting is that in the negotiation for the inflation Reduction Act, Joe Manchin didn’t impose any caps on the tax credits and subsidies that go to solar to EVs. And so as a result, the amount of money that we’re going to be spending on those things is far higher than the Congressional Budget Office initially scored, I think it’s going to end up being you know, we talked about that as like a $370 billion dollar investment, but it’s gonna end up being closer to like a $1.1 trillion investment.
Andy Slavitt 37:47
Part of his legacy.
Frank Foer 37:49
Oh, for sure. I mean, it’s yes.
Andy Slavitt 37:52
Okay, how about social programs, and sort of the colored the liberal, progressive democratic vision around not just equity, but sort of supporting people in need, at one point in time, we had a child tax credit, that’s burned off, but there have been a number of other things.What’s the scorecard there?
Frank Foer 38:14
I don’t think it’s that great. I mean, I think that we started off if the child tax credit had stayed in place, and maybe the level of drop in childhood poverty was so astonishing. 50%. Yeah, yeah. And we got that slip away from us as an achievement, which is a very sad thing for society. And Democratic presidents are normally judged by what they can do to extend the social safety net, and all the programs that were embedded in build back better, which were pushing the social safety net to the next frontier, were killed by by Joe Manchin, in effect, and so he doesn’t have anything to really show there.
Andy Slavitt 38:52
Health care. And I think, you know, I’ll go one step deeper and say prescription drug costs. It’s just a win for him. Does he get credit? Is it part of his legacy?
Frank Foer 39:02
Yeah. Well, that’s that’s one thing where I think he actually will get a lot of political mileage there, since it’s something that every Democratic president has wanted to do, but have been unable to do and he actually found a way to deliver.
Andy Slavitt 39:15
On that note, something every Democratic presidents wanted to do, but never been able to deliver for gun safety. Good safety measures.
Frank Foer 39:23
Yeah. And so the bipartisan bill that passed had some meaningful stuff in it, and probably not enough to actually address the core of the problem. But there are new tools that police and judges have to take guns out of the hands of dangerous people. And there was also a decent amount of spending in that bill on mental health. And so I think you need to think of that bill, also as as a health care bill.
Andy Slavitt 39:51
Yeah. Yeah. I mean, a really interesting example. I think both prescription drug gun safety, have a really good bipartisanship on the issues. Nobody ever thought there’d be bipartisan bipartisanship. It would be more we say in the gut and safety side, but the you know, the drug costs. And the climate provisions are interesting along with it, because the three most powerful lobbyists in Washington, the quote unquote, swamp, you know, the fossil fuel industry, the prescription drug lobby, and the NRA, all three took losses.
Frank Foer 40:26
Yeah, one thing that’s so interesting about the gun safety, I talked to a senator who’s deeply passionate about gun safety and a conversation he had with Biden, about pushing gun legislation. And Biden’s attitude is, you keep pushing. And when you get when something comes into the arena of political probability, then I’ll throw myself behind it. And so he’s, he’s got this sense of realism about legislation. And so he knows that, you know, you’re never going to be able to push something through on a party line, bipartisan gun legislation is really difficult. But if it gets close, and if the moments, right, he’s willing to invest a lot and trying to make it happen.
Andy Slavitt 41:09
You made me think of one digression. I have two more lists. But I gotta go to this digression. Okay. That approach you did would describe as probably the opposite of Bernie Sanders, political approach, which is, you know, open the aperture wider by taking positions out that are more extreme and hope that you can pull people over. And what you just said about Biden is tell me when it’s possible, that I’ll accomplish it over the line. I found fascinating, a part of your book, where he talked about Bernie Sanders attitude towards Joe Biden, which was, which might be surprising to kind of traditional Sanders supporters.
Frank Foer 41:50
Yeah, so they had almost a symbiotic relationship. Sanders is the movement leader. And he looked at Biden as the politician who was pushable. And so you know, you go back. This is a faulty metaphor, but you had a relationship between MLK and LBJ, where LBJ was a politician who could be pushed to do bigger and more ambitious things. But there needed to be the right pressure from the outside, he occasionally might resent that pressure from the outside, but he ultimately knew it was his ally. And there’s a real difference with Obama, Obama really disliked the way that he was criticized by the left. And I think Biden is a little bit more understanding of the way in which politics works. So if if he wants Elizabeth Warren support, he understands, okay, I need to promise her student debt relief, I’m not going to enjoy doing this, because it’s not my policy preference. But I understand that I’m the head of a coalition, and I’m gonna get pushed certain places that are uncomfortable for me, in order to govern on behalf of a coalition.
Andy Slavitt 42:57
Fascinating. It is fascinating to hear how Sanders, it according to your book, essentially told people on his staff and his team who wanted to jump on Biden for not doing enough? No, no, no, that you’re missing. The point you’re missing. This is our opportunity to actually get some things done. And and showed, I think, incredible amount of practices. And I know Bernie, and he’s been on the show, I actually find that to be very accurate about what he’s really like.
Frank Foer 43:23
Yeah, well, it was also a measure of the respect with which both Biden and especially Ron Klain, his chief of staff treated Bernie Sanders that had weren’t yet claimed developed a very, very deep relationship with both Sanders and Warren. He took their calls, he talked to them in a way that was respectful, empathetic, and they appreciated that.
Andy Slavitt 43:46
Yeah. So you’ve made a couple of comparisons. Obviously, we deal with right about President Biden has to some degree, looked at FDR, as a comparator. You just mentioned LBJ. As someone who’s incredibly effective as a former senator, from a legislative standpoint, is the jury’s still out or kind of where will we will we think of him? Or will we think of him as you know, the adult interlude? Much of it probably does depend on what happens in 2024, I imagine.
Frank Foer 44:20
Yeah. So everything depends on 2024. But the thing that I’ve been thinking a lot about, is a comparison to a different president, and that’s Reagan. So if if Biden were to win in 2024, and you took all of the bits and pieces of his legacy that we’ve just been describing, and more, you’d say that we lived in this era of political economy that began with Reagan and extended up through maybe Donald Trump. And then you look at Donald Trump and you look at Biden, and you can see we’re going in a different direction, on trade on our attitudes towards monopoly. A future of manufacturing in the Biden administration. One thing we haven’t discussed is is the revival of unions, which I think his prestige and his policies have helped create a moment where union organizing is on the rise, the prestige of unions, is very much on the rise. And there’s a certain parallel between these two eras, Jimmy Carter, when he came to President did a lot to, to tuck down the old New Deal, liberalism that had dominated for a generation he did a lot on the deregulation front. He said that Washington was a big part of the problem. In certain ways, he laid the groundwork for what Reagan came in and pushed in a very different sort of direction. I think you could argue that Donald Trump is kind of like the Jimmy Carter, for this next era that he came in, he broke a lot of China, he shattered a lot of shibboleths, he may not have believed a lot of what he was saying. And he did it all in a very, very dangerous, fake sort of way. But Biden comes in and he takes it, and he’s setting the terms for American economics and politics, potentially, for a generation in terms of the way that we think about the role of government.
Andy Slavitt 46:17
I did not expect you to say, Biden, as Reagan, interesting. You’ve titled this book, The Last politician, and you make the point that we hate politics. It made me wonder, what’s the alternative to politics?
Frank Foer 46:32
Well, it’s, you have leaders of mass movements, who believe in total victory. And I think maybe Trump 2024 is the alternative to politics that you have a guy who doesn’t care about persuasion for whom the state is a matter of imposing their own will and their own interests. That’s that’s one alternative to politics. I think that there are plenty of others. I was on one, I had a very interesting conversation the other day with somebody from the Obama administration about this question of politics. And I was juxtaposing Biden and Obama and I said, Okay, Obama came, he was an anti politician, he came from outside the system. He didn’t like Washington. But he told me that over time, Obama started to change that Obama, by the end of his eight years had so much more respect for Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden, that when he was writing political speeches, his speech writers would just kind of as a matter of muscle memory, put in lines about how Washington was terrible. And Obama would cross them out and say, You know what, guys? That was kind of my initial impression. But but not anymore. I’ve come to actually respect politics as the best way of getting things done.
Andy Slavitt 47:54
I think the book reads is a pretty good defense of politics. You know, I think, notwithstanding the fact that there are more and more presidents who aren’t so honorable of Article One, and maybe even all the recent ones on both sides. And, you know, it so happens that we got some amazing legislation done, or at least in my view, that we’ve talked about, and climate and on prescription drug costs and gun safety, etc. But man, it came very, very close to that those deals not happening. Yes, in which case, the story might have been very, very different. Well, this will be painfully by a sounding but, you know, I think one thing that comes through in this in this book, and I think, particularly probably relevant to the last president, or the last guy is it said, is the competency of like the sixth, or seventh or eighth, you know, senior people around the president, the sort of both the goodwill, the ethics, the values, the decision making capability, the play it straight, to make strong and tough decisions, the seriousness with which they took their jobs, and you profile a number of them. And I just wanted to say, again, this is painfully biased, because it was an early part of the administration, that you really do have the sense that this is a president who surrounds himself by pros, pure OS, and that poetry press, Ed. And that there is something about that, that is to bake us, I think, should make us feel good. It’s what we wanted.
Frank Foer 49:38
Yeah. And what, you know, one thing we haven’t acknowledged is the fact that you’re a character in the book.
Andy Slavitt 49:44
Yes, that’s right. If that appeals to you, it’s another reason to get the book.
Frank Foer 49:47
Yeah, I’m not saying it’s a reason for people who are loyal podcast listeners to buy the book, but I’m just saying, as a matter of just you know, being transparent, that you were part of that that inner circle Did submerge themselves into the crisis and dealt with it when there were very, very few people in the White House at the time because of because COVID was keeping as though entire staff of the government dispersed.
Andy Slavitt 50:11
Yeah. And look, I actually wasn’t referring to myself, Far be it for me not to brag about myself, I’d be happy to do that. But But yes, I did get I did get a chance to see and meet and work with these people. And I thought there was a premium placed on people who could get done, and who were smart and experienced. And, yeah, it was a small part, and often a fly on the wall. But I even think about what they wanted from me. And I think it speaks to a president who is pretty low ego for someone who’s in politics, and just really wants to make stuff happen.
Frank Foer 50:51
One thing I learned about management from this book, is the way in which you don’t, the way to mobilize government best isn’t necessarily to take the number one expert on a problem and elevate them into the top job. So Jeff zines, who ran the COVID response was somebody who had limited public health experience as Ron Klain would have limited public health experience when he took over the Ebola response. But the point I think, when I think Ron Klain probably had a lot to do with picking Jeff Zions and Biden new designs closely from the transition was that you take somebody who is a manager and somebody who knows how to drive processes and who’s able to kind of extract themselves from the the weeds of all the questions that would probably tangle most people who are experts up and to just really focus on driving this massive apparatus towards a big goal and a very relentless, yes sort of way.
Andy Slavitt 51:53
It’s a different kind of thing, though, Frank, like the guy and I’m blanking on his name, who I really admired who they sent in, from the State Department to to Afghanistan, John Bass, John Bass, very clear mission, you decide what’s important, and you execute like crazy when facing the COVID emergency and the COVID response is a was a perfect kind of assignment for Jeff. And you want someone like Jeff, who basically, constantly every day ask themselves, what results Am I going for? What is everything that I need to do to get there? What’s every stone, I want to turn over and avail myself of every expert that I need to? But he’s a results oriented person, very much like what bass was released, the way I read the chapters you wrote in him when he went to Afghanistan? Yes, yeah. And in both cases, it was a similar mission, save every life possible in this process, and I prize execution at that level over many, many, many kind of big, idealistic strategic topics, because at the end of the day, people will trust the government that delivers. Right, let me ask you one final question. Because we’ve we’ve done a little bit long, which I’ve been thrilled with, to to get a feel for what happens next, you named the book The Last politician. So you must, you must have a sense that we’re going to undergo some transition, or the this era of politics is at the very least, going going to end. What’s it going to be replaced with? Yeah, I’m not asked who’s gonna win the election so much as I’m asking what you think, the end of Joe Biden’s presidency, whatever it happens will mean.
Frank Foer 53:42
And it’s a provocation on my part to call it the last politician I still, the end of my introduction to the book held out hope that the successes of the Biden administration will remind us of, I call it the tedious nobility, of politics, that it’s it’s really the least heroic profession. It’s the most human profession, because it involves concession involves a good politician is somebody who is self aware of their own weaknesses and finds ways to compensate for them. So it’s my hope that we still find a way to salvage politics in the politician, the politician because as you said earlier, I’m not sure that there is a good viable democratic alternative to it.
Andy Slavitt 54:38
Well, Frank, was so good of you to be in the bubble, and really enjoyed the book. Even the parts that I wasn’t in, there’s so many pages without me and that I was a little offended, but I even enjoyed those parts. And it’s really great of you.
Frank Foer 54:56
My absolute and total pleasure. Thank you.
Andy Slavitt 54:58
That was fun. Thank you.
Andy Slavitt 55:12
Let me first of all, thank Franklin for, for coming on our show. By the way, when people come on our show who’ve written books, they always tell me the same thing to a person. This discussion was very different from all the other ones that I’ve been having. I don’t want that mean, gonna be good. It could be bad. Could be that like, people didn’t read the book and could be the people only wanted to talk about the book, it could be that they are superficial questions, I’d like to think it’s my ace in the bubble interviewing skills. That’s really what they’re trying to say. But it’s a much more fun conversation. So thank you to Franklin. Let me tell you, we’ve got some great episodes coming up in a very busy fall. We’re going to look beyond the headlines. David Leonhardt is going to be here. We’re going to have obviously more content about health and the pandemic and what’s going on. We now have vaccines that are available to you. I should have mentioned that in the intro, but I’ll remind everybody next week. Thanks again for listening. And we’ll see you again next week.
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