“Maybe we don’t suck as much as people thought.”
That was the email the White House chief of staff, Ron Klain, sent to Chris Whipple at 1.16am after the 2022 midterms, as it became clear Democrats were likely to hold the Senate and lose far fewer seats in the House than almost every reporter predicted.
Whipple’s inside look at Joe Biden’s White House is a ringing confirmation of Klain’s judgment. Though Whipple’s friendships within the Washington press corps prevent him from saying so, this is a book-length rebuke of the incompetence of legions of reporters who have persistently underestimated this extraordinary president.
A crucial reason for Democrats’ midterm success was Biden’s instinct to emphasize the importance of reproductive rights and the Republican threat to democracy. Reporters derided him, insisting voters only cared about the price of gas. And yet, as Whipple writes, “exit polls showed that both concern for democracy and a backlash against the supreme court’s Dobbs decision had been winning issues”.
The brilliant and likable Klain began his career clerking for Byron White, John F Kennedy’s only appointee to the supreme court. Klain is the second-most important character in this book, after Biden. He was a great source with many great stories to tell, and Whipple has a special fondness for White House chiefs of staff, the subject of one of his previous volumes.
One of many mini-scoops in the book is a description of a Zoom meeting Klain had, a month before Biden’s inauguration, with 18 former chiefs of staff, including George W Bush’s Josh Bolten, who in 2016 tried unsuccessfully to get all former Republican chiefs to declare Donald Trump unfit to be president. Dick Cheney and James Baker refused to do so.
At the end of Biden’s first year in office, Klain hailed “the most successful first year of any president ever. We passed more legislation than any president in his first year” – including the American Rescue Plan and the bipartisan infrastructure bill. “We created more jobs than any president in his first year” and – least noted – “we got more federal judges confirmed than any president since Nixon.”
Which was all the more astonishing with a 50-50 Senate and a slim House majority. Sixty years ago, to enact Medicare and the rest of the Great Society, Lyndon Johnson needed huge Democratic majorities in the House and Senate.
In 2022, long after everyone assumed the West Virginia senator Joe Manchin had killed it, the Build Back Better bill came roaring back to life as the Inflation Reduction Act. To corral Manchin, the administration had to give up on an extension of the child tax credit and throw in a pipeline. But in return there was a $391bn investment in energy and fighting the climate crisis.
A big reason Biden struggled in the polls was a decision that required more political courage than anything his three predecessors did: withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Biden understood the folly of the war back in 2009, when generals Stanley McChrystal and David Petraeus begged Barack Obama for a troop surge even after Petraeus acknowledged that the Afghan government was a “criminal syndicate”.
According to Bob Woodward, then Vice-President Biden went to the heart of the matter: “If the government’s a criminal syndicate a year from now, how will troops make a difference?”
Woodward reported that Obama’s special envoy, Richard Holbrooke, was the only other clear-eyed adviser, explaining: “All the contractors for development projects pay the Taliban for protection and use of roads, so American and coalition dollars help finance the Taliban. And with more development, higher traffic on roads and more troops, the Taliban would make more money.”
Obama approved a surge of 40,000 troops anyway.
Whipple adopts the conventional wisdom about the Afghanistan withdrawal, calling it “a whole-of-government failure” in which “everyone got nearly everything exactly wrong”. He assumes an orderly withdrawal was possible without a reliable Afghan fighting force – an idea for which I have never seen any serious evidence.
But unlike other commentators, Whipple at least includes some of the real reasons for the chaos, including a decision driven by Stephen Miller. The leading xenophobe in the Trump White House was determined to destroy the special immigrant visa program, the only way Afghans who worked for the US could come here. In 2020, Trump virtually closed the program, creating a backlog of 17,000 applicants. One of Whipple’s sources described the attitude of the Trump administration this way: it felt America “wasn’t ready to have a lot of hook-nosed, brown-skinned Muslims … coming into this country”.
Leon Panetta, a veteran of the Clinton and Obama administrations always quick to jump on CNN to attack his former bosses, compared Biden’s handling of the withdrawal to John F Kennedy’s disastrous invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs.
To Whipple, Klain shoots back: “Joe Biden didn’t pay a trillion dollars to these people to be trained to be the army. He wasn’t out there saying for years, as Leon was, that we had built a viable fighting force. Leon favored the war. Leon oversaw the training of the Afghan army … if this was Biden’s Bay of Pigs, it was Leon’s army that lost the fight.”
Whipple makes one other point about Afghanistan. “As an operational success,” the evacuation “ranked with the Berlin airlift.” In 17 days and 387 sorties, the US evacuated 124,000 people.
One of the largest sections of Whipple’s book describes Biden’s prescience about Vladimir Putin’s plan to invade Ukraine, and the extraordinary efforts the Biden administration has made to unite Nato and send weapons to Kyiv.
Even Panetta was impressed.
“This war in Ukraine has really strengthened Joe Biden’s image as a world leader,” he said. “His confrontation with Putin is going to determine what the hell his legacy is going to be as president. I think it’s that big a deal.”
The Fight of His Life: Inside Joe Biden’s White House is published in the US by Scribner