The raging—and entirely hypothetical—debate over whether Joe Biden should seek a second term has been framed by right-wing claims of a doddering, incoherent, lost-in-the-fog president. Under this scenario, the federal government is currently being run by (take your pick) Barack Obama, the Clintons, George Soros, the Deep State, or even Kamala Harris.
Franklin Foer’s meticulously researched and consistently insightful account of Biden’s first two years in the Oval Office, The Last Politician, offers a powerful rebuttal to these Biden-is-gaga talking points. In Foer’s retelling—based on nearly 300 interviews rather than cherry-picked news clips—Biden’s old-school virtues of political patience and flexibility have paid major dividends as he has pulled off a string of legislative victories on Capitol Hill almost worthy of Lyndon Johnson.
A key ingredient in Biden’s success has been a disciplined White House staff that doesn’t leak, doesn’t backbite, and doesn’t undermine the president. But as Foer makes clear, Biden is far more than a figurehead president propped by his staff. Instead, he shrewdly has surrounded himself with senior aides who have mostly worked with him before, often for decades. As a result, staffers instinctively know when to directly challenge the president and when to let Biden marinate on an iffy decision for a few days.
Embedded in Foer’s narrative, though, is a worrisome consideration about a Biden second term.
This has nothing to do with conservative scare tactics about senility or a decades-long penchant for exaggeration and verbal gaffes. Instead, the core problem relates to Biden’s future staff: Who will be occupying the West Wing offices beginning in 2025?
Foer explains that Biden “hated how the Obama administration debated policy in the Roosevelt Room, where experts and aides, many of whom the president barely knew, crowded around the table and strutted their wonkish stuff.” What Biden craved instead was “to figure out policy in a safe space, where he trusted the faces and could test arguments and work through frustrations without having to worry about aides rushing to leak his stray, unformed comments to The New York Times.”
But there won’t be much of a safe space for Biden if he is reelected.
Biden inevitably will be surrounded by ambitious assistants whom he barely knows. Historically, even the most loyal aides tend to drift away in a president’s second term. It is an unalterable reality of life in Washington—some staffers decide to cash in, and others simply burn out after too many late-night crises and missed family dinners. At some point, every two-term president looks around the staff table and asks himself, “Who are these people? What happened to everyone I knew?”
The problem will be more acute for Biden, both because of his age and because some of his advisers have been with him—off and on—since he first flamed out running for president in 1987. Age, as Biden has demonstrated, can bring insight, but it encourages rigidity. It would be particularly hard for a president in his mid-eighties to forge new relationships of trust with senior aides who come from the outside or were taking notes at the back of the room in meetings during the first term.
In the coming campaign, prominent Democrats will inevitably tout the strength of Biden’s first-term White House as a selling point to voters who are dubious of reelecting a president who will be 82 at his second inaugural. In contrast, Trump, who will be a rotund 78 years old if (God forbid) he gets another term, would be surrounded by rogues and lunatics who would encourage his worst and most anti-democratic instincts. Biden’s current staff is the opposite: a disciplined team focused on the difficult, delicate work of governing. That is largely true, but it also obscures the likely reality: Most of the president’s closest advisers will be at law firms and strategic consulting outfits at the end of a hypothetical second term.
Even if the Democrats in 2024 retain the Senate (a daunting challenge) and win back the House (much easier given Kevin McCarthy’s shaky grasp on the gavel), Biden will be dealing with a Capitol Hill that he barely recognizes. Old, respected Biden adversaries like Mitch McConnell may be gone from the scene. Even mercurial West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin (who is a central figure in the Foer book) may not be back in the Senate. While Senate Democrats are led by a group of veterans, moreover, House leadership has experienced a generational shift, with Hakeem Jeffries taking over from Nancy Pelosi after the 2022 midterms.
The unalterable truth is that second terms, dating back to Franklin Roosevelt and his ill-fated effort to pack the Supreme Court, are invariably sad. The historical list is daunting: Lyndon Johnson (Vietnam), Richard Nixon (Watergate), Ronald Reagan (the Iran-Contra scandal), Bill Clinton (his sexual entanglement with an intern and impeachment), George W. Bush (Hurricane Katrina and the unraveling of Iraq), and Barack Obama (stymied by an obstructionist Republican House and then by McConnell in the Senate over Merrick Garland’s Supreme Court appointment).
Unlike Obama, Clinton, and Reagan, Biden lacks the rhetorical ability to rally the voters when times get tough. As Foer points out, “At this late stage in his career, he had largely stopped giving speeches with cadences and imagery that aspired to be described as Kennedyesque.” But even when the speech texts make allowances for Biden’s limitations and his suppressed stutter, the president can still spoil everything with an undisciplined ad lib.
In March 2022, Biden in Warsaw marred a major speech supporting Ukraine by improvising this line about Vladimir Putin: “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.” After Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, had to issue a statement stressing that America was not seeking regime change in Moscow, Biden (according to Foer) “fumed to his friends about how he was treated like a toddler. Was John Kennedy ever babied like that?”
These tensions will inevitably grow worse in a second term when Biden finds himself babied by near strangers.
In What It Takes, his riveting look at Biden’s plagiarism-marred 1987 presidential campaign, Richard Ben Cramer describes the candidate as afflicted with “Guru Madness.” In those days, Biden was widely dismissed as a creature of his consultants, particularly pollster Pat Caddell. It was Caddell who gave Biden a speech text with an uncredited passage from Robert Kennedy, which contributed to the scandal that drove him from the race.
Biden, to his credit, has over the years inculcated the kind of loyalty from advisers that brings out the best in him—a far cry from the dueling egos of expensive campaign consultants in 1987. In the White House, Biden has harnessed his aides rather than becoming captive to them. As Foer makes clear, Biden is running the show rather than a shadowy group of puppet masters. But as Democrats brood about a second term, the makeup of the Biden White House in 2025 should loom large. It will be nothing short of the staff of life.