The Last Politician might better have been titled The President Who Saved (And Will Save) America.
Not only did Joe Biden defeat Donald Trump in 2020 but he then went on pass some of the most significant legislation since FDR and LBJ. Foer, a respected journalist for the Atlantic, explains that just after Biden is dismissed as past his time, “he pulls off his greatest successes. He shocks those who only think they know him.” The book details the president’s persistent negotiations to pass the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, which averted economic collapse in the midst of the Covid pandemic. Later in 2021 Biden defied sceptics by persuading 19 Republican senators to join Democrats in passing the Bipartisan Infrastructure and Jobs Act to fix the US’s crumbling roads and bridges, provide high-speed internet to rural areas and tackle the climate crisis.
Then in 2022 Biden mobilised two eminent strategists, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Leader Chuck Schumer, to deliver the $280 billion CHIPS and Science act with 17 Republican votes. Biden’s crowning achievement was the $891 billion Inflation Reduction Act, described by Foer as “transformational – it will change American life”. The act, Foer notes, “helps to stall climate change and allows the US to dominate the industries of the future”.
Foer writes that Biden’s strength is counting votes and being able to read and influence politicians, but he misses the point that “Scranton Joe”, a practising Catholic who identifies closely with the working class, has an acute sensitivity to what ordinary people are suffering under the system of free trade that his Democratic predecessors have championed since the 1980s. As David Brooks, a conservative columnist wrote recently, “Biden’s ethos harks back to the ethos of the New Deal Democratic Party, but it also harks forward to something – to a form of center-left politics that is culturally moderate and economically aggressive”.
As a result of the most legislative successes since FDR and LBJ, Biden will be remembered in history as the president who brought good jobs back to America and ended the neoliberal era, which professed that globalisation, unfettered capitalism and free trade would make everyone more prosperous. Free trade, while it did benefit China and India, destroyed union striking power and gutted the American working class, mostly non-college-educated whites who went from earning $40 an hour in benefits and wages in the 1980s ($150 in today’s purchasing power) to $20-$30 today. In 1990 wealth was equally split between those with and without college degrees, but 30 years later, three-quarters of wealth is owned by college graduates.
The people on the losing side of neoliberalism are the crucial voters who split their vote between Trump and Biden in 2016 and who will decide the outcome next year. As Foer writes, Trump defeated Hillary Clinton (who won the popular vote by three million) because of 40,000 votes in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan. In 2020 Trump lost the popular vote to Biden by seven million but only lost the electoral college because of 22,000 voters in Wisconsin, Georgia and Arizona.
The recent results of voting at state level with Democratic successes in Kentucky, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Ohio suggest voter fears of rule by religious fanatics and contradict polls indicating loss of support for Democrats. Biden’s grateful response was, “Across the country tonight, democracy won and MAGA lost. Voters vote. Polls don’t. Now let’s go win next year.”
Foer’s book is highly readable and fast-paced, making one feel like we are in the room when the president and his advisers hotly debate crucial decisions and handle crises. These include the withdrawal from Afghanistan (Trump as president had agreed the withdrawal date in a deal with the Taliban) and Biden’s rallying of the West to oppose Putin’s invasion to destroy Ukraine. Foer attributes feelings and vivid dialogue to the main White House and administration players in a style made famous by Bob Woodward. But, unlike Woodward, Foer accepts that while “the reconstruction of dialogue is an inherently imperfect activity”, the passages are based on participants speaking on background who relied on scribbled notes or memory.
It is easier to take the anti-democratic route in the United States because, as Klein reminds us ‘America is not a democracy’
Ezra Klein’s Why We’re Polarized remains one of the best books about America’s “identity politics” and helps explain why 74 million Americans voted for a liar and fraud in 2020, and who look set to do so again, despite Trump’s attempts to steal the 2020 election for himself. As in Europe, the success of authoritarian politicians relates to social media polarisation, Russian interference and aggressive microtargeting of voters. In addition, Klein, a New York Times columnist and popular podcaster, lays the blame on Republican leaders such as ousted House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who have “lit a match in a country soaked in gasoline and they should be ashamed”.
“A party that keeps losing the popular vote,” Klein states, has two choices: “It can change itself ... to win over new voters, or it can turn against democracy, using the power it still holds to disenfranchise or weaken the voters who threaten it. The Republican Party has chosen the second path and chosen it decisively.”
It is easier to take the anti-democratic route in the United States because, as Klein reminds us, “America is not a democracy, our political system is built around geographic units, all of which privilege sparse, rural areas over dense, urban ones”. Thirty per cent of Americans elect 70 of the 100 senators, the same senators who appointed the supreme court that tolerates racial discrimination, voter suppression, monopoly capitalism and gerrymandering by Republicans
What to do? Klein’s suggestions include abolishing the electoral college and introducing proportional representation to break the two-party system. Republicans will resist these changes so another idea he offers is to give statehood to Puerto Rico and Washington DC, giving the Democrats four more seats in the Senate.
Klein’s concluding paragraph in his book is stark: “The defining question of this next period in American politics is not whether we will be polarized. We already are. It is whether we will be democratized.” This is why the likely Biden-Trump contest in a year’s time will be one of the most important in recent history. Biden won in 2020, Klein argues, because the “older, moderate, Catholic, white guy from Scranton, Pennsylvania, would seem a safer choice to Trump-curious voters in the Midwest.”
Some Democrats are now expressing concerns about Biden’s age, worried about his tendency to go off script, something Biden has always done and is part of his relatability to voters. Foer paints a picture of a president who is extremely well informed and engaged, a very successful chief executive who directs a team of highly talented and co-operative people who include many Irish Americans such as Jake Sullivan, Mike Donilon, Jen O’Malley Dillon and John McCarthy.
Mark Milley, the former chair of the joint chiefs of staff and a no-nonsense general, concurs. saying on CBS’s Sixty Minutes: “I engage with him frequently and [he’s] alert, sound, does his homework, reads the papers, reads all the read-ahead material. And he’s very, very engaging in issues of very serious matters of war and peace and life and death.”
Those Irish people who viewed a very lively and passionate president Biden on the stage in Ballina last April were also in no doubt as to his engagement and vitality.
Having read these two books, the choice for Americans next year seems clear: vote for democracy and its defence at home and abroad, or vote for autocracy and the decline of America.