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How Biden's campaign strategy has changed from four years ago

TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley. In a new interview with The New Yorker, President Joe Biden says that without a doubt, he believes he is the best option to beat Donald Trump in the November presidential election. Joe Biden makes this declaration despite the latest national polling, including The New York Times Siena College poll, which shows Trump leading among registered voters by 48% to Biden's 43%. As Evan Osnos writes in his latest article titled "Joe Biden's Last Campaign," by the usual measures, President Biden should be cruising to reelection. Violent crime is at a 50-year low. We're also experiencing low unemployment and more Americans than ever have health insurance. But one of the biggest hurdles for the president is his age.

At 81, polls show voters are concerned about his mental and physical agility to run the country for four more years. There's also been fallout on his handling of issues like immigration and Israel's war in Gaza. Evan Osnos is a staff writer with The New Yorker who covers politics and foreign affairs. He's written three books - "Age Of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth And Faith In The New China," "Joe Biden: The Life, The Run, And What Matters Now," and his most recent book, "Wildland: The Making Of America's Fury." Evan Osnos, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

EVAN OSNOS: Thanks, Tonya. It's great to be with you.

MOSLEY: So you met with President Biden in the Oval Office in January, and it was about two days after the Republican caucuses in Iowa. And among the many things the two of you talked about, Donald Trump seemed to take up a lot of the conversation. Biden actually told you point-blank that he thinks he's the only one who not only has ever beaten Trump, he believes he's the only one to beat him again. And I'm just wondering, how was this language and this focus on Trump different from the last time you sat down for a one-on-one with him?

OSNOS: It really was striking to me, Tonya, because the last time I talked to Joe Biden about his presidential hopes, this was in the summer of 2020 during the pandemic, I went and visited him at home and interviewed him from a distance. You know, we sat across the room from each other with our masks on. And at the time, he situated the idea of running for president in this sort of larger set of issues. It was partly about - at the time, it was partly about race, it was partly about economics, it was partly about getting through the pandemic. It was about trying to put the country on a more, in his mind, more normal footing.

And I think what we saw this time, what I saw right away, actually, just from the moment I stepped into the room in the Oval Office, was he sees this about Donald Trump. This is really a moment of decision making for the country about whether it wants to put this person back into power. And I think there's something, Tonya, that's kind of fascinating for Joe Biden after 50 years in politics, to find his life and ultimately, his legacy, entwined with this person who is so different from he is in both his politics and in every way.

MOSLEY: I want to get even more into the strategy behind this, to focus primarily on Trump with the issues being secondary, but I want to also talk about these numbers, these poll numbers. As I mentioned in the introduction, former President Trump is slightly ahead of President Biden across the board on just about every issue voters are asked about. How does Biden view those poll numbers?

OSNOS: With a lot of skepticism, which is a big fact because, you know, typically, it's not surprising, often a candidate who is trailing in polls will question them. But this is a different thing. This is about him and his advisers having a fundamental belief that the science of polling right now is failing us, that it just doesn't capture the way we feel because of a few things. One is that there is this feeling that, well, for one thing, cellphones make it very hard to get people on the phone. It used to be that pollsters could rely on about 70% of people to respond when they called. Now that number has dropped to about 1%. It's just a transformation. But this applies to everybody.

So it's not as if these polls are just harder on Joe Biden than they would be on other candidates. So something else is going on from their perspective, which is that as the incumbent president at a time when we are in a state of, let's call it what it is, there's a real - there's a lot of pain in this country still left over from the pandemic, from the political turmoil over the last few years, that they think that if you ask somebody, are you happy with Joe Biden, that often what people really are answering is I'm not happy with the country. I'm not happy with the sour mood in our politics. So the key fact from the campaign's perspective is that they reason that only about 25% of the voters in swing states that will be so important really have absorbed the reality that this is going to be a choice between Trump and Biden. And they think that until that number goes up a lot, these polls don't really capture his chances in seven months. And that's a very controversial point. I mean, there were a lot of Democrats, strategists...

MOSLEY: Yes.

OSNOS: ...And others, who don't agree with that assessment.

MOSLEY: Yes. OK. I definitely want to get into that. Also, just recently, Vice President Kamala Harris has called for a temporary cease-fire in Gaza. President Biden has said he's called for this in the past and the release of hostages held by Hamas. You asked him in January if he intended to apply more pressure on Israel's leaders. And what did he say?

OSNOS: He said that he was trying, but it was clear that this was a point of some difficulty for him. Like, he believed that the right strategy was to work this from behind the scenes at the very beginning. And I heard very clearly in his comments to me that he was realizing the limits of that possibility. He asked for patience, frankly, from Democrats who are dissatisfied with him. I - as I was listening to him say it, I thought, I'm not sure that's going to really persuade a lot of people who say that this is an urgent matter, but it is a sign of his core political logic. His belief has always been that I'll get more done if I work something behind the scenes, even with people who I have deep disagreements with, like Bibi Netanyahu. But I think what - you're right that the - that Kamala Harris coming forward to talk more explicitly and bluntly about the pursuit of a cease-fire is a real shift in the American strategy. And it's one that Joe Biden has come to gradually, and I think a lot of Democrats would say too slowly, but they're trying to now meet the moment.

MOSLEY: And you also write about how he's asking Americans to wait to hold judgment while he privately negotiates with Israel's prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. But the next day, after you all talked, Netanyahu publicly dismissed his idea, for instance, of a Palestinian state. I'm wondering, how does Biden view the discontent among Americans who are really upset with his handling of Israel's war in Gaza, especially among younger voters?

OSNOS: You know, he understands the depth of feeling about this. One thing that's been a pretty powerful thing to watch is that his public appearances have now become, almost inevitably, the target of protests. And so he went to give a big event on the subject of abortion, and there were protesters there, more than a dozen of them over the course of the speech. It was a kind of collision between an issue that he knows - two issues that he knows are important to young people. One is trying to restore abortion access after the Supreme Court took it away. And then, of course, the issue of Gaza. And these two things are on a collision course.

I could sense in my interview with Biden that there is a way in which he knows that young Democrats are not satisfied and people of color and people of - Muslim Americans and Arab Americans. This is a reality. One of the things that happened, which is unusual and significant, was that members of the administration, not the campaign, of course, went out to Michigan to meet with members of the Muslim community there to say, in effect, we made mistakes. And it didn't satisfy people or solve the problem right away, but it was a sign of a shift in how Biden and his administration are talking about this.

MOSLEY: You also spoke with Muslim voters. And what did some of them say to you?

OSNOS: There is a huge amount of anger there. I talked to a man I've known for a while named Mohammed Kazaz (ph) in in Dearborn, Mich., and he had been a real Biden fan in 2020. They'd had a conversation, curiously enough, they'd met at one point by phone during the COVID pandemic, and Biden had helped him. Basically, the Biden campaign had been linking the candidate up with regular Americans. But this time, when I talked to him, he was infuriated. Honestly, he felt, Tonya, as if the Democratic Party, which he had put so many hopes in and that Joe Biden specifically had failed him in this moment. And he said, look, I think that they expect that we will come back to the party in November. And my message is we're not coming back.

And I think there is a feeling among Biden's advisers that in some ways, the course of the war will shape how many of the voters who are so embittered right now by the war in Gaza, how many of them might ultimately decide that they can't afford to have Donald Trump back in office. But as one of his advisers said to me, it depends on whether this is a three or four-month war or whether it's something more. And we're right now in the fifth month. And I think that remains a very open question.

MOSLEY: My question also, when I hear voters say things like this is my candidate, but I'm so disappointed, I'm not sure if I'm going to vote for this person this time around, have voters talk to you about their alternatives? Are they saying then they're going to vote for Trump, or are they looking at third-party candidates?

OSNOS: I think it's very hard for people to go and say, OK, I now want to vote for Trump because it's not as if we don't know who Trump is. And I don't hear that very often from people. What you more often hear is that the option that is crying out to them is the couch, you know, staying home on Election Day, or if some third-party candidate comes along that might appeal to them. Look, right now, third-party candidates have not generated a movement. You don't see people like Robert F. Kennedy or Jill Stein or Cornel West yet moving the needle in a decisive way. But what we know from history is just really glaringly clear, which is that in a very tight race, something as small as even a 5% share for third-party voters can tip the scales of the election. There's just no question about that.

And so one thing that will become more and more important is whether or not that feeling of protest, which is very strong right now, whether that dims over time as people begin to say I had my time to try to shape policy, but now the way that I will try to shape policy is by putting somebody into the Oval Office who is closer to my values.

MOSLEY: If you're just joining us, I'm talking with The New Yorker staff writer Evan Osnos about his sit-down interview with President Biden and his latest article, "Joe Biden's Last Campaign." We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SLOWBERN'S "WHEN WAR WAS KING")

MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley. And today, we're talking with Evan Osnos, a staff writer with The New Yorker who covers politics and foreign affairs. He sat down with President Joe Biden in January, and his latest article is titled "Joe Biden's Last Campaign." In it, he talks about doubts about Biden's age, his strategy on the campaign trail and the latest poll numbers that show President Biden trailing behind Donald Trump in the run up to the November election.

Another big focus right now seems to be Biden's age. He's 81 years old. Trump, by the way, is 77. But those who responded to several polls say they are concerned about Biden's mental and physical stamina for the presidency for the next four years. You have interviewed Biden several times over the years. What did you see during this latest meeting with him?

OSNOS: Yeah. I've interviewed him on and off since 2014, so I was going in alert to this question. I wanted to see how has he changed? How is he different today than he was when he was 71? And one - the thing that's very noticeable, immediately noticeable is his voice is thin and it's kind of clotted. He has a reflux that makes it necessary for him to clear his throat and cough a lot. And he's kind of - his gestures have slowed. He doesn't say as much as he did before, but I have to tell you, I mean, the thing that really - I was looking for and that was most significant from my perspective was his mind seemed unchanged. He didn't mangle a name or a date or anything like that. It was - in some ways, he struck me as a more solemn person now, Tonya. There's not that - there used to be a quality about Joe Biden that was a little bit of the life of the party. And...

MOSLEY: Yeah. Yeah.

OSNOS: ...There's something about him now that feels grave, and I think it's that he feels on his shoulders both the sense of responsibility not to allow Trump to come back to power in this country, but on some level, it is clear and it's painful to him to realize, I think, that the world doesn't see him feeling young the way he might in his own body, in his own mind, feel young. He came to power as a very young man, and in some ways, that imprint is lifelong. He still sees himself as the young man on the make. And that's been hard to come to terms with the reality that that's not how he seems to people on television.

MOSLEY: Yeah. I thought it was really interesting that you write that Biden can't really separate questions about his age from feelings of being underestimated by the establishment over the life of his career. They're very much intertwined.

OSNOS: Yeah. It is. In some ways, it's - the core of his thinking about so many issues goes back to who he was, even as a very young person. He once wrote of himself talking about his childhood. He says, I was small, I was young for my class. And he says, and this is the key phrase, he said, I made up for it by being gutsy. And there's a way in which that pattern has repeated over his life. And, you know, when he ran for the Senate for the first time against a man who was a real colossus, you know, somebody who had won seven elections in a row and - but there was an element to Biden that has always believed that he can almost will things into being. I mean, he booked his celebration party, his victory party for that election very early in the campaign when he was still polling at 3%. So there's a degree in which he believes that through a kind of determination to game it out, as he says, that's his term, game it out, that he can do things that people tell him he's incapable of.

MOSLEY: I'm wondering - I'd love to now talk with you just a little bit about how his party members are viewing all of this, because you spoke with Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, who told you that Biden is, quote, "not the only option that we had, but once he'd made the decision to go, he became the only option that we have." How much of that feeling did you encounter during your interviews with Democrats? And I'm just wondering, how is it impacting their enthusiasm as they go out as evangelists on the campaign trail?

OSNOS: Yeah. That's - it's a really interesting evolution in how people are talking about it among very influential Democrats. And I had lots of conversations of this kind over the last few months where, you know, maybe a year, 18 months ago, people thought, well, we don't know what's going to happen in the midterms of 2022. Let's see how it goes. And if it doesn't go well, that's going to be an occasion for us to throw open this question. And maybe there'll be people like Gretchen Whitmer, governor of Michigan, or others who might be contending for this.

But after the midterms went better for Democrats than they expected, in some ways, it kind of ended that conversation for a while 'cause Joe Biden at that point had a claim. He had a, you know, in some ways, he felt like he'd earned it, And it was hard for people to say that he hadn't, that he had the chance to go for this. And so at that point, once he decided to do it, a lot of that conversation among not the - I'm not talking about sort of commentators and people out in the world, but really sort of the Democrats in the heart of power who have the ability to shape what this party will do, they basically came to say, all right, this is now our guy, and now the task is to figure out how to make him the strongest possible candidate. And that's something that Sheldon Whitehouse said to me that I thought was very important. He said the formula here is Biden plus offense, meaning, as he said, if you're out there throwing punches against the opposition, against the alligators in the swamp, as he said, people don't spend as much time thinking about your age.

MOSLEY: It's just really interesting, this approach that the Biden camp has taken 'cause he's doing a lot. I mean, I mentioned a few things in the intro, as well as passing an infrastructure bill and canceling some student loan debt. When you spoke with Biden, did you also feel like those were things that we will be hearing more of as this campaign moves forward?

OSNOS: Yeah. There is a way in which - Biden is really proud of the record that he's had. And I think just objectively speaking, it is a fact that they have achieved things in legislative terms that people did not expect to be possible, like an infrastructure bill for the first time in decades, or, you know, chips manufacturing or things like capping the cost of insulin, which has a huge impact on people's lives, that in some ways, Biden is frustrated. I sensed this in his voice. I mean, he said it in a way - he says I've - in effect, I've earned - I should have earned the trust of the public to be able to seek reelection.

And I think what's happening is that there is a way in which achievement is not the same thing as inspiration. And part of the moment now is that people just aren't in a mood to extend a lot of gratitude to our politicians, and that's frustrating to him because he says, look, this is what people wanted, I delivered on it. And now he has to find a way to get that into people's minds over time, reminding them that when their student loan was forgiven, that that was something that the Biden administration did even after the Supreme Court blocked it. You know, they came up with a kind of detour using the Department of Education and other things that has allowed them to then continue forgiving student loans to close to 4 million Americans.

You know, I think that's part of what's in the balance here is this question of in a moment when people are polarized, when there is still this sense of dislocation from inflation and things like that, can the voters settle for the moment to focus on the fact that things really have been passed and implemented that have a meaningful impact just on the economy and on their lives?

MOSLEY: Our guest today is Evan Osnos, staff writer with The New Yorker. We'll be right back after a short break. I'm Tonya Mosley, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF REGGIE QUINERLY'S "MY BLUE HEAVEN")

MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley, and today we're talking to Evan Osnos, a staff writer with The New Yorker who covers politics and foreign affairs. He sat down with President Joe Biden in January. His latest article is titled "Joe Biden's Last Campaign," and in it, he explores Biden's strategy on the campaign trail, his approach to working with Congress and the latest poll numbers that show President Biden trailing behind Donald Trump in the run-up to the November election. I'm wondering, how does Biden's campaign schedule compare to four years ago?

OSNOS: Well, you know what's striking to me? If you look at how these two men started their campaign schedules, it tells you a lot. I mean, Donald Trump's first rally of the campaign was held in Waco, Texas, which is a place with pretty unsubtle significance. It was the site, of course, of the siege between federal agents and a cult back in 1993, which has really become a iconic...

MOSLEY: Yes.

OSNOS: ...Touchstone in the far-right anti-government movement. And Donald Trump held his first rally there and played a song that was sung by members of the January 6 insurrection from inside prison. This was not a - you know, the message here was draped in the aesthetics of anti-government resistance. And it was all about January 6. And what was fascinating was that Joe Biden held his first rally of 2024, and it was also about January 6, but in a very different way. It was held on - near Valley Forge, Pa., of course, where George Washington led troops in the winter of 1775. And the message that he said was that this really is about American freedom on the line. I think you just - it's almost striking, Tonya, to step back and realize we're having a presidential campaign that's not about education policy or health care or things like that. It's really most of all about whether or not the notion of American democracy is actually sound and durable or whether, in fact, you're going to have a president who calls it into doubt from the very first moments of his campaign for reelection. That's not something we've had before.

MOSLEY: At the same time, like, you talked with political consultant David Axelrod, who said he's pretty sure regular everyday people are not sitting at the dinner table talking about democracy every night, that - what he's implying there is that they care about the issues. They want Biden to be talking about the things that impact their day-to-day lives.

OSNOS: Absolutely. This is a really important perspective. And David Axelrod, I think, speaks for many within the Democratic Party who are worried, that they say, look, any political message is a judgment about what you put in the foreground and what you put in the background. It doesn't have to be either-or. But if you talk about freedom and democracy to the exclusion of things like acknowledging that grocery store prices are really high, that rents are high, that interest rates are high, that you - in a way, you might be talking past people and that what you have to do is do both. You know, David Axelrod said something to me that was really interesting. He said, when I think back on the 2020 campaign, sure, I get it. They talked about the soul of the nation, and that was meaningful. But what they also said was Joe Biden is, as he said, one of us. You know, he's somebody who cares about the military because his son Beau was a veteran. He cares about his faith, and he cares about middle-class Americans. And in that way, it was a very tactile, very approachable message. He says I hope I'm wrong, but I worry that by focusing so much on democracy that we're going to leave people behind who don't hear something that means something really immediate to them.

MOSLEY: In this profile, you write about this strategy and some of Biden's loyalists, like Mike Donilon, who's been with Biden for quite some time. Who is Mike Donilon? What are the ways he's contributing to this current strategy that we're seeing?

OSNOS: Mike Donilon is a really important figure in Joe Biden's world. He really understands how he thinks. I mean, he is as close as you can come to asking Biden a question directly, is to ask Mike, and he'll know just intuitively what he thinks. And there is a way in which Mike has made an important strategic choice, which is, he says, based on his own experience. He's been in politics for a really long time. He says this reminds me of 2004, he told me. In 2004, you remember John Kerry was running against George W. Bush for the presidency, and at the time, the Democratic Party tried out a bunch of different messages. They thought, well, maybe voters will vote for us because they are opposed to the Iraq War, or maybe they'll vote for us because they're unsatisfied with the economy or just general hostility to Bush.

And what Mike Donilon concluded was that was a mistake, that really that campaign was always - that election was always going to be driven by the memory and the trauma of 9/11, even though it had been three years earlier, that that was still the dominant fact. And he said, I made a judgment then never to work on a campaign that didn't understand what the election is about. And this time, he says, the election is about January 6 and the fight for saving democracy. And he says that is at the core of it. He told me, I think as we get closer to Election Day, that will occupy more and more space in people's minds, and he thinks that will be effective. And the truth is that there are Democrats like David Axelrod who disagree with that strategy, but it's important for us to hear the strategy and to know what it is. I think that's an important part of this process.

MOSLEY: I also want to talk a little bit more about messaging, because Biden isn't giving many interviews. We're not seeing a lot of videos of him talking, but we are seeing stuff on social media, like that one meme of him firing lasers from his eyes, which seemed to get mixed reactions. Axelrod actually spoke about this, too. He said he was worried about this kind of strategy. What did he say?

OSNOS: Yeah, I've been out on the road talking to voters, and one thing I have heard from people in a number of places is that they just don't feel like Joe Biden is visible enough. He's not in their faces, honestly. And this is an interesting puzzle because the White House sort of decided when they came in back in 2021 that they said we think people are sick of seeing their president because Trump was just so much a part of our lives in this kind of grueling, constant way.

MOSLEY: He set up the expectation...

OSNOS: And so their social media presence...

MOSLEY: Right, that we would see a president ever day.

OSNOS: Yeah, well, that's part of it. I think that's a really important change that we haven't kind of named it, but it's true. He changed our assumptions. Trump made us more or less expect to see a president all the time. And so you're starting to see that the Biden campaign is saying, OK, we have to find ways that we get our message, we get our issues, we get our legislative record out into people's faces. But we also need to do it in a way that plays to Biden's strengths. I heard from voters who said, I don't necessarily need to see him on a stage giving a speech all that many more times. What I need to see is him interacting with people, being the empathetic person that I think and hope he is.

I think that's one of the ways that you draw a contrast between this person of Donald Trump, who - we know what kinds of things he says on social media every day, but trying to find a way for Joe Biden, who is, after all, not of the social media generation but has to be able to meet those voters, especially young voters, who will be making choices partly by the information they find online.

MOSLEY: You know, one thing that - speaking of, you know, what's happening online in the conversations - I mean, we don't typically talk about echo chambers as a positive thing. But you spoke with former Republican strategist Sarah Longwell, who says that Democrats do not build their own echo chambers the way that Republicans do, which has made for this strange set of communications, this communications differential. Can you say more about what she means?

OSNOS: She really clued me into something that I hadn't grasped, which is that, as she said, for years, when Sarah Longwell was working as a Republican strategist, she would just kind of marvel at the fact that Democrats didn't seem to coalesce around a message and then amplify it in unison the way that Republicans do. There are a lot of reasons for it. Democrats like to hash it out internally. There is a kind of - as she put it, a herding cats problem.

But the practical effect is real. I watched it in real time after the speech that Biden gave in Valley Forge. After he walked off the stage, I saw a few tweets from Democrats that were praising the speech, and they sort of came and went. And then I saw a tweet from the Republican National Committee account in which it was mocking him for his age. And that tweet was all of a sudden everywhere on conservative accounts.

And she said, I still to this day don't understand why Democrats, as Sarah Longwell put it, don't prosecute a case against Republicans with a knife in their teeth. Build an echo chamber. She says it's not that hard, meaning get a message, and then say it over and over and over again. And if your candidate's not the right person to do it, then tap into that bench of talent, those hundreds of surrogates who you have out there, who can be making that case effectively.

MOSLEY: If you're just joining us, I'm talking with The New Yorker staff writer Evan Osnos about his sit-down interview with President Biden and his latest article, "Joe Biden's Last Campaign." We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley. And today we're talking with Evan Osnos, a staff writer with The New Yorker who covers politics and foreign affairs. He sat down with President Joe Biden in January, and his latest article is titled "Joe Biden's Last Campaign."

Evan, let's talk a little bit about the way President Biden works with Congress. A few days after you met with him, he went to discuss several issues, including military aid for Ukraine and Israel, as well as the humanitarian crisis at the border with Mexico. Historically, Biden has relished in negotiating with members of Congress. But how has his deference to lawmakers maybe upset progressive members of the Democratic Party?

OSNOS: One of the big ideas that Joe Biden brought into this presidency is something that was the product of all of these years of his in Congress. I mean, as one of his aides just said to me the other day, he misses being a senator. And I think there was a way in which Biden always thought, for all of the disagreements I have with Republicans, I can still meet them on some issues. And they were able to pass bills. I mean, there was a bipartisan infrastructure bill. They passed veterans benefits and things like that.

But on this issue, this really big issue and this strange combination of the border and Ukraine and funding for Israel, that was a case where you sort of saw the limits of that strategy because, ultimately, the Republican Party today does what Donald Trump wants. I mean, there is an interesting observation that Joe Biden made to me that I didn't put in the story but I think is important, is he said to me, look, the Republican Party is gone. That is just a huge difference from how he talked about it four years ago.

He used to imagine there might be an epiphany where Republicans would start to make deals with him, and to some degree, he was able to do that, but not today. And you saw that even though they wrote - the Republicans were writing a bill on the border, they ultimately turned their backs on it because Donald Trump told them to do so. And that means that the strategy of trying to work with Republicans over the years has, in a sense, run its course. And I think for the first time that I've heard Joe Biden say it quite so clearly, he's recognizing that. They have to find other ways of solving problems.

MOSLEY: Can you remind us again what happened with the quest for aid for Ukraine, which at first Republicans said they wouldn't agree on without an immigration deal? And then Donald Trump said something, and things changed.

OSNOS: Yeah. There was - a few months ago, Republicans were adamant that they would only agree to give aid to Ukraine if the United States made changes on its southern border to its immigration policy. And the White House basically said, OK, let's do that. And they put these two strange bedfellow issues together. And they went out and said, let's make a deal on that. And they actually came up with something. Three members of the Senate met for months and came up with a deal.

And then after all of these months of saying, OK, that's what we'll do, that's what we'll sign, all of a sudden, Republicans abandoned it for a very clear reason. Donald Trump came out and said, a border deal is bad for Republicans. What he meant was a border deal is bad for him because it's the issue on which he is basing his campaign. Having a crisis at the border is what justifies Donald Trump's campaign in his mind. And once he came out and said that, Republicans walked away from their own bill almost overnight, and they said, as Mike Johnson, the speaker, put it, it's dead on arrival. And I think you're going to hear a lot about that from Democrats in the months ahead who said, look, we did exactly what Americans want and what Republicans said that they wanted - come up with a deal. But Donald Trump is more interested in having an unsolved issue than having a solved issue, and they're going to flog him with that for the months ahead.

MOSLEY: There was a situation in 2021 with the Build Back Better Bill, where Biden's strategy of working through the complexities within Congress worked in his favor. Can you remind us of this situation with Joe Manchin?

OSNOS: Yeah. There was a really telling moment back in 2021 because Joe Manchin, who is, of course, a conservative Democrat from West Virginia, kind of the nemesis of progressive Democrats because he was digging in his heels against this big proposal known as the Build Back Better Bill. It kind of had all sorts of policy ambitions in it. And at the time, he tanked it. He basically said I'm killing this idea. And there were a lot of progressive Democrats who said I want Joe Biden to come out and publicly rebuke this senator, and, you know, maybe make threats about trying to, you know, limit his power in Congress or something else like that. And Biden didn't do it.

Actually, he did something very different, which is that he, in effect, directed, behind the scenes, one of his people, Steve Ricchetti, who's his counselor who kind of oversees their relationship to the Hill to very quietly maintain a relationship with Manchin. These are two guys who have a - in some ways, a kind of natural rapport. They're both from the mid - from industrial states, Ricchetti is from Ohio, Manchin is from West Virginia. And they kept talking. The whole idea was just keep the door open. If you come out and trash him publicly, you'll lose Manchin forever. And ultimately, the truth was Manchin came around and voted for things like the Inflation Reduction Act, the - he voted for Ketanji Brown Jackson joining the Supreme Court, voted for the CHIPS act. And it was the - that was the Biden theory of the case was even when you have deep disagreements with somebody, never close the door entirely if you can avoid it.

MOSLEY: I want to switch gears just a little bit and ask you about something that's been a focus on the right for many years now. How does Biden view the Republican focus on his son, Hunter Biden? We know that he's awaiting a possible trial in California on federal tax charges, and he leveraged the family name into this much-criticized business venture by joining the board of an energy company in Ukraine. We should note that there's no evidence that President Biden has been involved in any of this, but did he speak about the Republican focus on his son? What has he said about it?

OSNOS: When Joe Biden talks about his son Hunter, there is pretty obvious anguish in his voice. And honestly, it's not about the legal troubles as much as it is about his history of addiction and the way in which his life really kind of came unraveled. And I think that the - this pressure that has been building from Republicans and then from prosecutors around Hunter has actually had the effect of driving this family closer together. I mean, you don't see Joe Biden turning away from his son or not having him at events and things like that. I think people will remember, of course, that the Biden family has...

MOSLEY: Yeah.

OSNOS: ...Been through trial by fire and - first with the death of his late wife and his daughter, and then, of course, his son Beau in 2015. He often refers to Hunter as my surviving son, which is one of those terms that carries a lot of emotion and information. Hunter himself has come out and said that he thinks that the Republican strategy is to put so much pressure on him that it drives him back into addiction and that that would ultimately force his father out of the presidential race. That's how Hunter sees it. He's talked about that publicly. I think for Biden, this - in a sense, this encirclement of his family has sharpened the personal nature of this fight with Donald Trump, that this really is a moment in which he feels like he's defending himself and his family name. It's really inextricable from who he is as a person.

MOSLEY: Let's take a short break. If you're just joining us, I'm talking with staff writer of The New Yorker, Evan Osnos, about his sit-down interview with President Biden and his latest article, "Joe Biden's Last Campaign." We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALFREDO RODRIGUEZ'S "VEINTE ANOS")

MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley, and today, we're talking with Evan Osnos, a staff writer with The New Yorker who covers politics and foreign affairs. He sat down with President Joe Biden in January. His latest article is titled "Joe Biden's Last Campaign."

Something you point out in your piece that feels alarming, half of Americans polled by CBS in January said that they believe that the losing side of the coming election will resort to violence. Has Biden at all responded to that fear?

OSNOS: You know, he talked about it with me because it's clearly, in his mind, something that he's struggling with because it's so at odds with his conception of the country and our politics. As he said to me, I just kind of can't believe that Americans would vote for somebody who has been supportive of violence in politics. I'm paraphrasing there, but that's what he was saying. He finds it almost impossible to imagine that people would vote for Trump again after January 6. And yet at the same time, the reality is he'll be the president at a time when the country faces the genuine risk of more violence in our politics.

And he said very bluntly - he said, I have no question and I have no doubt that Donald Trump will contest this result no matter what it is. He said, I think he'll do anything he can to avoid losing again. And he's preparing, in effect, for Donald Trump to do what he did last time. I said to him, what specifically are you...

MOSLEY: Right. What are those?

OSNOS: ...Worried about...

MOSLEY: Yes.

OSNOS: ...When it comes when it comes to violence in the election? He said, everything from last time plus, meaning last time it was a violent storming of the U.S. Capitol. This time, there could be that, plus more. He didn't spell out exactly what he's talking about, but I think there is a fear among Democrats that there could be efforts to try to disrupt voting, disrupt vote counting, prevent people from getting to the polls.

We saw a deepfake robocall in New Hampshire this year, which was a fake version of Joe Biden's voice telling people not to vote. In that case, it was done by a consultant hired by one of his rivals in the New Hampshire primary. But I think there is a fear that that kind of technology is so much more powerful now than it was even four years ago, that the risks of that are significant this time.

MOSLEY: I'm also interested in how the press is contributing to this because I'm thinking about your interview from the last time you were on this show a few years ago, and you talked about how, from the very beginning, Joe Biden was treated with some skepticism from the media because some press looked at his mistakes on the trail as being out of touch. I just thought that was something really interesting to bring up in this current day with the discourse when that was something that we've been talking about for many years in the media.

OSNOS: There is tension there. I think there's also something important, Tonya, which is Biden said to me at one point that he thought that the press has become numb to the rhetoric of Donald Trump. It's become numb to the idea that he's going to casually threaten to terminate the Constitution or things like that. And I think it bothers Biden, that he thinks that there's too much attention on his age and not enough attention on how much Donald Trump really represents this radical departure from the history of American democracy. I think that really bothers him.

MOSLEY: But he still feels he is the best guy for the job and that he will prevail in the end.

OSNOS: He does. And in some ways, we will look back on this moment, and we'll someday, I think, evaluate whether he was right or wrong. It's a huge bet. It's just a huge bet on himself. He is saying that the polls are wrong and that the pundits are making a mistake and that he has the track record in office and in elections to beat Donald Trump, you know?

He said to me at one point, and it sort of summed up his way of seeing it - he says, you know, if you thought you were best positioned to beat someone who, if they won, would change the nature of America, what would you do? And that idea, that question, it contains a lot of interesting and debatable questions. Is he, in fact, best positioned? He's making the case that he is.

MOSLEY: Evan Osnos, thank you so much.

OSNOS: My pleasure. Thank you, Tonya.

MOSLEY: Evan Osnos is a staff writer for The New Yorker. His latest article is titled "Joe Biden's Last Campaign." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, Hollywood veteran Ed Zwick on his new book "Hits, Flops, And Other Illusions." He writes about casting and shooting TV shows and movies and share stories of actors behaving badly and his own showdown with Harvey Weinstein. I hope you can join us. To keep up with what's on the show and get highlights of our interviews, follow us on Instagram - @nprfreshair.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MOSLEY: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Thea Challoner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Tonya Mosley.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Tonya Mosley is the LA-based co-host of Here & Now, a midday radio show co-produced by NPR and WBUR. She's also the host of the podcast Truth Be Told.
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