When President Joe Biden drops by Jimmy Carter’s two-bedroom ranch house in Plains, Georgia, on Thursday – a pilgrimage to visit a man he vocally supported as a young senator decades ago – it will be at least the fourth time he’s spoken with one of his presidential or vice-presidential predecessors this month.
He phoned former President George W. Bush to alert him to a pending announcement about withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, a war Bush had begun 20 years ago. The conversation, aides said, was short but warm – even if it left Bush skeptical.
Biden made a final call to former Vice President Walter Mondale, then in the last days of his life, from home in Delaware, a coda to a long relationship with the inventor of the modern vice presidency.
And he discussed his troop withdrawal plans with former President Barack Obama, the man he had warned a decade ago against getting jammed by his generals and who, according to aides, he now speaks with regularly about policy decisions, personnel matters and his family.
While Biden has looked to history for inspiration, he appears to value the still-living primary sources of presidential knowledge just as much, seeking advice and comparing notes on a job that can really only be understood fully by the small fraternity of men who have served in the Oval Office. He told CNN earlier this year that speaking to the former presidents provides grounding in a job that otherwise can feel overwhelming in its burdens.
Biden’s consultations with the men who served in the White House before him amount to a robust return to the type of presidential dialogue that went by the wayside in the years before he took office. Except for a birthday call early in his tenure, President Donald Trump’s only interaction with the past presidents was at the funeral for one of them, George H.W. Bush. By the end of his term, he’d publicly insulted them all.
Biden, on the other hand, is making ample use of the advice and knowledge of those who faced similar decisions as he pursues one of the most sweeping agendas in recent history – all the while making clear where he thought mistakes had been made that he hopes to avoid.
His outreach to the exclusive club of former presidents not only underscores his confidence in the role, a longtime ally said, but also points to the ambitions he has long harbored.
“He’s wanted to be part of this group for more than three decades!” the longtime friend told CNN, pointing to the first Biden bid for the presidency in 1988. “It’s a point of great pride for and a mark of a return to decency for the office.”
The President’s planned trip to the Atlanta area on Thursday presented an opportunity to get together with the Carters.
“President and Mrs. Carter were unable to attend the inauguration, so this is an opportunity for the Bidens to see the Carters in Georgia,” a White House official told CNN. The two last spoke the night before Biden’s inauguration, January 19, the official said.
And, the official noted, Biden was the first US senator to endorse then-Gov. Jimmy Carter’s run for the presidency.
Consulting historians and history-makers
Biden’s historic consultations have stretched further back, from devouring accounts of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s early presidency to studying Dwight Eisenhower’s public works initiatives and Lyndon Johnson’s expansion of the social safety net. He has hosted historians at the White House to gauge their assessment of what worked and what didn’t in the past two centuries of presidential history.
“I always in the past looked at the presidency in the terms of Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt and George Washington – like they’re superhuman,” Biden told CNN’s Anderson Cooper at a town hall in February. “But I had to remind myself that the really fine men that I knew well – the last seven presidents – are people who I knew well enough to know that I could play on the same team with.”
The one exception, as before, is Trump, with whom Biden has not spoken since they shared a debate stage in October. Holed up in South Florida plotting a political comeback, Trump did not receive the same phone call ahead of Biden’s Afghanistan decision, though he later released a statement supportive of pulling troops out, even as he questioned delaying doing so until September 11.
The 45th President did write Biden a letter on Inauguration Day, described by somewhat surprised aides as gracious and rather long. But Trump didn’t invite Biden to the White House before the swearing-in.
Carter still plays an active role in the presidents’ club
Biden’s inauguration was the first one Carter had missed since his own swearing-in in 1977. But Biden saluted him for “his lifetime of service” in his speech.
Carter has maintained an active post-presidency, even into his 90s, with a particular focus on global health issues and helping those in need.
He was the only former president who maintained a working relationship with the Trump administration, telling CBS News in 2018 that a White House official had briefed him on the situation in North Korea and he had offered to travel on the Trump administration’s behalf, and speaking by phone with Trump on China trade issues in 2019.
But his ties to Biden run far deeper.
“For decades, he has been my loyal and dedicated friend,” Carter said in a video played at the Democratic National Convention last year. “He understands that honesty and dignity are essential traits that determine not only our vision but our actions. More than ever, that’s what we need.”
Staying close with his former boss
While Biden has spoken to all of his predecessors except Trump since taking office, he has conversed the most with Obama, who is also the only living former president to still reside in Washington. Obama has not visited the White House since Biden took office, though the two men talk regularly by phone, White House officials said.
Among the general topics they have discussed, according to one person familiar with the matter: dealing with Congress, the Affordable Care Act and personnel decisions for administration posts. Obama and Biden also spoke at length during Biden’s campaign, the vice-presidential selection process and the presidential transition, when Biden was selecting members of his administration.
The full extent of Biden’s calls with Obama isn’t known and isn’t likely to become public anytime soon: The two men are usually the only ones on the line, and both have been circumspect in describing them to aides. Yet a person close to both men tells CNN that Obama has been careful to avoid inserting himself into Biden’s presidency, usually weighing in when helpful or as part of a choreographed moment.
While Obama and Biden forged a close partnership during their eight years in office, they speak far less frequently these days.
“It’s Biden’s presidency – not a third term of Obama’s,” a senior Democratic official who worked for both men told CNN. “That was important to establish.”
Biden’s relationship with his Oval Office predecessor goes well beyond professional or political ties; their families are close, and they often discuss matters that have little to do with the presidency.
Biden “doesn’t need my advice,” Obama told CBS late last year. “I will help him in any ways that I can. Now, I’m not planning to suddenly work on the White House staff or something.”
Learning from Obama’s past
Biden has shown a desire to succeed in areas where his former boss may have fallen short and to enact an agenda that surpasses Obama’s in its progressiveness.
Over his first months in office, people familiar with the matter say, Biden has taken a liking to comparisons that show him taking bolder steps than Obama did, including proposing and signing into law a $1.9 trillion Covid relief package that dwarfed the $800 billion recovery measure Obama oversaw during his own first months as president.
Viewed by some in Obama’s orbit as more of an old-fashioned Washington type than a progressive change-maker, Biden has relished the shift in perception, even if the circumstances and political environment have changed dramatically since the 44th President was in office.
Biden has also been open about not repeating what he viewed as a mistake during the Obama years of failing to sell the stimulus measure, suggesting his advice wasn’t accepted in 2009 when he recommended to the then-President that the administration take more credit for the package.
“We didn’t adequately explain what we had done,” Biden told a group of House Democrats in a caucus meeting earlier this year, making his case for a do-over this time around. “I kept saying: Tell people what we did. He said, ‘We don’t have time. I’m not going to take a victory lap.’ And we paid a price for it, ironically, for that humility.”
Biden also faced another redo on Afghanistan after his advice on troop withdrawal during the Obama years – written in memo form and faxed to the White House from his Thanksgiving vacation on Nantucket – went unheeded.
“Listen to me, boss,” Biden told Obama, according to Obama’s recent memoir recounting their conversations. “Maybe I’ve been around this town for too long, but one thing I know is when these generals are trying to box in a new president.” According to the former President’s account, Biden brought his face a few inches from Obama’s and stage-whispered: “Don’t let them jam you.” But Obama surged troops anyway, before eventually beginning a drawdown.
Bush remains involved over his wars
When he was in office, Obama made a point of telephoning his own predecessor, George W. Bush, before announcing changes to the wars started under his watch.
Biden followed that approach, phoning both Obama and Bush before making his announcement. He mentioned his call to Bush in his speech, which he delivered from the same spot in the White House Treaty Room where the 43rd President had announced the first airstrikes on Afghanistan in 2001.
“While he and I have had many disagreements over policy throughout the years, we’re absolutely united in our respect and support for the valor, courage and integrity of the women and men of the United States armed forces who served,” Biden said.
The conversation between the nation’s 43rd and 46th presidents was brief, according to two officials familiar with the call, who also described it as warm and cordial.
Bush has adhered to a strict practice of refraining from commenting on the policy decisions of his successors – breaking from that slightly in an interview with the Texas Tribune in February, saying of Biden: “He’s off to a good start it looks like” – although he has spoken privately about his support for the US military’s mission in Afghanistan.
Still, he hinted at his reaction to Biden’s telephone call in the weeks following the announcement.
“My first reaction was: These girls are going to have real trouble with the Taliban,” he said in an interview on NBC’s “Today,” where he was promoting a book of portraits he had painted of immigrants.