As Running Mate, Biden Offers Foreign Policy Heft but an Insider Image
WASHINGTON — While other potential vice-presidential nominees were appearing on the Sunday talk shows, Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. spent the weekend in Tbilisi, Georgia, meeting with the country’s embattled president, Mikheil Saakashvili. The trip was made at the request of the Georgian leader, who is trying to rally international support after Russia invaded his country this month.
Mr. Biden’s visit to Georgia (he was expected to return to Washington on Monday) highlighted his standing as an expert on foreign policy — he is the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee — who is known and respected in capitals around the world. But it also emphasized his status as a Washington insider at a time when Americans say they are hungering for change.
The two sides of Mr. Biden’s extensive résumé are likely to be receiving a closer look as Senator Barack Obama prepares to announce his running mate, probably sometime this week.
Only Mr. Obama and a handful of close and very discreet aides know where the vice-presidential selection process stands with the Democratic National Convention in Denver just a week away. But several people close to the campaign say Mr. Biden, of Delaware, is among those who are under consideration.
Political etiquette requires potential vice-presidential picks to deny any interest in the post and assert how much they love their present job, all the while coyly batting their eyelashes at the nominee to signal their availability.
But Mr. Biden, anything but coy, has left little doubt that he wants the job.
Asked in May whether he would accept the vice-presidential slot, he said, “You’d have to consider it. I mean, how could you just blow it off?”
A month later, he was asked again. He first told Brian Williams of NBC on “Meet the Press,” “I am not interested in the vice presidency.” But with very little prodding, a moment later he said that if Mr. Obama asked him to be his running mate, “Of course I’ll say yes.”
Mr. Biden’s strengths and weaknesses as a vice-presidential nominee are glaringly obvious and in many cases overlap. At age 65, he would bring heft, knowledge and nearly four decades of experience in Washington to a ticket headed by a relative political newcomer. But that experience — he was first elected to the Senate at age 29 and has served for nearly four decades — would undercut Mr. Obama’s image as an agent of change.
Mr. Biden is among the best-informed lawmakers on international affairs, a gap in Mr. Obama’s résumé. But Mr. Biden’s broad knowledge, his committee chairmanship and his longtime membership in the most exclusive debating club in the nation also feed his biggest flaw: a verbosity and love of his own voice that drive many, including, by some accounts, Mr. Obama, nuts.
Mr. Biden supported the 2002 Iraq war resolution and thus is at odds with Mr. Obama, who opposed the war from the start and has made his judgment on the question a centerpiece of his campaign. But Mr. Biden tempered his support for the conflict by saying it should be limited to ending Iraq’s weapons programs, and he has been a sharp and persistent critic of the war’s conduct.
Last year, he said giving the Bush administration the authority to wage war was a mistake. “I regret my vote,” he told Politico, the politics Web site. “The president did not level with us.”
Mr. Biden’s appeal as a national candidate is suspect. His first bid for the presidency, beginning in 1987, famously flamed out after he was caught stealing passages from a speech by Neil Kinnock, the leader of the Labor Party in Britain at the time. His 2008 campaign never really got off the ground, little noticed in a field of well-financed candidates. He finished fifth in the Iowa caucuses, edging out “uncommitted.” He promptly dropped out and, diplomatically, declined to take sides in the slugfest between his Senate colleagues Mr. Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton.
After the primaries ended, he enthusiastically endorsed Mr. Obama, though Mr. Biden had offended many around Mr. Obama early in 2007 by describing him as “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.” If there were any hard feelings, they appear to have been forgotten.
Mr. Biden, normally among the most accessible of senators, declined to be interviewed for this article.
Despite his poor showing in the presidential race, Mr. Biden was generally thought to have acquitted himself well. His debate performances were uncharacteristically crisp, and he delivered two of the more memorable lines of the campaign.
Asked in an April 2007 debate whether he had the self-discipline to lead the free world, Mr. Biden answered, “Yes.”
The moderator, Mr. Williams, and the other candidates waited for a soliloquy in explanation, but Mr. Biden stood mute and smiling. The panelists and audience cracked up.
At another debate, in October, Mr. Biden lacerated former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani of New York, a Republican, with a pithy one-liner: “There’s only three things he mentions in a sentence: a noun, a verb and 9/11.”
Senator Bill Nelson, Democrat of Florida, said Mr. Biden’s age was an asset, not a liability, particularly among many of his constituents in Florida, a perennial swing state. “You can’t do better than Joe Biden for vice president,” Mr. Nelson said. “He appeals to the kind of swing voters in Florida you have to have to win here because of his gravitas.”
Mr. Biden is a Roman Catholic who supports abortion rights. He grew up in a working-class family in Scranton, Pa., helping him with a group of voters that Mr. Obama had trouble attracting in the primaries.
Though his principal portfolio in the Senate now is foreign affairs, Mr. Biden has been chairman of the Judiciary Committee and oversaw the hearings on Robert H. Bork’s nomination to the Supreme Court. He has written a number of major crime and civil liberties bills and is popular among police groups and firefighters.
He also has a compelling personal history.
Between his election to the Senate in November 1972 and his swearing-in two months later, his wife, Neilia, and 13-month-old daughter, Naomi, were killed in a crash with a drunken truck driver. His two young sons suffered severe injuries but fully recovered. One, Beau, is now the attorney general of Delaware. The other, Hunter, is a lawyer in Washington.
He has a daughter, Ashley, by his second wife, Jill, whom he married five years after the accident. Mr. Biden has commuted home to Wilmington on Amtrak every night since he took office.
Mr. Biden also suffered cranial aneurysms in 1988 that almost killed him.
He is up for re-election this fall, against token opposition, so the worst outcome for him would be to continue as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee in a Senate that is likely to be more Democratic than the current one.
Friends and supporters of Mr. Biden say he would be an asset as a vice-presidential candidate and as vice president, provided that he could subordinate himself to a rookie senator nearly two decades younger.
“He would bring to any administration a tremendous credibility and talent,” said Richard C. Holbrooke, a former ambassador to the United Nations and a potential secretary of state in a Democratic administration. “He knows the world leaders, he knows the Congress, he knows the issues and he passes the first test — he’s qualified to be president. In the end, it’s just a question of personal chemistry and the choice of the nominee.”