In his new book, The Last Politician: Inside Joe Biden's White House and the Struggle for America's Future, Atlantic magazine writer Franklin Foer goes deep inside the West Wing. Tracking the new president’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, negotiations with Congress, the Afghanistan withdrawal and the war in Ukraine, Foer provides an intimate look at the first two years of the Biden administration.
Earlier this week, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre disputed some of Foer’s reporting.
Below, five takeaways from The Last Politician.
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1. COVID ruled the administration’s early days
Biden entered the White House while the pandemic remained a potent threat. Foer writes that his campaign manager Jen O’Malley Dillon was tasked with coming up with a plan to keep the virus from spreading inside the West Wing’s tight quarters.
Masking was mandatory. Staffers “were told to eat lunch at their desks behind closed doors. ... Most meetings would be conducted via Zoom, even if a colleague sat next door.”
The usual festivities of a presidential inauguration were canceled, as Washington reeled not only from the pandemic but also from the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol.
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2. HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra refused to take action on unaccompanied minors
Foer writes that Biden was infuriated at Xavier Becerra, the health and human services secretary, for not doing more to help house unaccompanied minors who had entered the United States by crossing the border with Mexico.
According to Foer, Becerra said he would step in if ordered in writing by Biden, an insistence that earned him a chiding from Susan Rice, chair of the Domestic Policy Council: “You won’t get a request in writing. That’s not how the president operates. He’s given you an order.”
Widely known around Washington to be one of Biden's least favorite Cabinet members, Becerra “seemed to only grudgingly accept his responsibilities.”
(Becerra has not responded publicly to Foer’s reporting. At the time of the controversy, Politico reported that Becerra was in favor of a more cautious approach. “There’s just a lot on the plate right now,” a person close to the secretary said.)
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3. Kamala Harris struggled to find her role in the administration
Having served as a vice president himself, “Biden wanted to treat Harris with the respect that he felt Barack Obama hadn’t accorded him,” Foer writes. At the same time, she could be tenuous and intensely sensitive to criticism, some of which could have more than a tinge of racism or misogyny. She was so eager to avoid controversy that she “asked to be placed in charge of relations with Scandinavia,” according to Foer. She got the migration crisis and voting rights instead.
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4. Joy at lifting of mask rules
The Biden administration was routinely portrayed by its critics as excessively cautious when it came to pandemic restrictions. Foer, however, paints a somewhat different picture, describing the joy Kate Bedingfield, then the communications director, felt upon learning that Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky (who has since left the position) was lifting the masking guidance for vaccinated people.
“After she arrived at work, the White House operations team sent an email instructing staff that they no longer needed to wear masks in the building,” Foer writes. “Bedingfield stepped out of her office, ripped the mask from her face, and blurted, ‘Ta-da.’ She walked down the hall to [White House chief of staff] Ron Klain’s office and joked, ‘If I had known this was coming, I would have worn makeup today.’”
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5. Biden mistrusted Zelensky
Today, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is widely revered for standing up to Vladimir Putin when Russia invaded his nation — the second time in eight years — in 2022. And he has no booster quite like Biden, who visited the young leader in Kyiv earlier this year. The audacious journey to Ukraine’s besieged capital, conducted in secret, is even the subject of a new presidential advertisement.
But when they first met in Washington in late 2021, a few months before the start of the war, Biden had found the former actor and inexperienced politician to be grating. During an Oval Office meeting, Zelensky forcefully argued that Ukraine needed to join NATO, only to receive a tepid response from the U.S. president.
In response, Foer writes, Zelensky began to “lecture” Biden about how NATO was about to become irrelevant in any case.
“It was an absurd analysis — and a blatant contradiction. And it pissed Biden off.”
Zelensky, for his part, reportedly thought Biden “weak.”
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