Obama Veepwatch: Joe Biden

by Andrew Romano
from the Newsweek blog Stumper

Name: Joe Biden
Age: 65
Education: University of Delaware (undergraduate), University of Syracuse (law)
Resume: Five-term Democratic senator from Delaware, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, two-time Democratic presidential candidate
Source of Speculation: He’s suddenly acting the part. Earlier this week, Biden introduced legislation (with Republican Sen. Dick Lugar of Indiana) that would triple non-military U.S. aid to Pakistan–legislation that just so happened to materialize the same day Obama was set to deliver a major speech in Washington on the future of U.S. national security. Miraculously, Obama announced in the aforementioned address that he would be “cosponsoring” the bill, immediately boosting his bipartisan foreign-policy cred. Talk about a tag team. Meanwhile, Biden rushed to the Illinois senator’s defense Thursday over charges that he has not adequately addressed Afghanistan as chairman of a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee, deftly defusing the issue with a letter to South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint (R) that the New Republic’s Noam Scheiber calledabout as impressive a case as I’ve seen a VP candidate make for himself.” Oh, and then there’s the fact that Biden has come right out and confessed that he’d “make a great vice president.” If he does say so himself.
Backstory: Biden’s interest in the No. 2 slot is nothing new. Last November, a group of NEWSWEEK editors (including yours truly) asked the senator over lunch whether he’d consider serving as Hillary Clinton’s vice president. His response? “I love Bill Clinton, but can you imagine being vice president? I’m not looking for a ceremonial post.” He ruled out Secretary of State for the same reason. At the time, that was the news. But looking back, what’s striking is how he didn’t nix the idea of signing on with Obama as well. “In a Barack administration, I’d probably be looked to a whole lot more,” he told us. “Now, I don’t think [he] would ask me. But I think [he] would look to me more.” This was two months before Iowa. Since dropping out of the race, Biden has become even more candid, recently telling Brian Williams, “Of course I’ll say yes”–a rare deviation from the candidates’ standard coyness.If the presidential nominee thought that I could help him win,” he added, “I’m [not] going to say to the first African-American candidate about to make history in the world, no, I will not help you.” So where does Biden actually stand? According to a report this week in the Washington Post, he’s “believed to be high on Obama’s list.”
Odds: It’s no suprise that Biden’s in the running. The main reason is that his greatest strength–foreign-policy experience–is widely seen as Obama’s greatest weakness. The Democratic Party’s leading voice on foreign affairs–he’s chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee three times during his 35 years in Washington–Biden is perhaps the only potential veep who could immediately and credibly go toe-to-to with Republican nominee John McCain on Iraq, terrorism, Afghanistan and Pakistan. As E.J. Dionne recently noted, “Biden has been critical of Bush’s approach to Iraq and the world for the right reasons, and from the beginning.” In the fall of 2002, he tried (with Republican Sens. Lugar and Chuck Hagel) to pass a more modest war resolution that put additional constraints on Bush, and, like Obama, he was warning of the costs of a lengthy occupation even before the war began. Since then, Biden has presented and pushed a realistic proposal to divide Iraq into semi-autonomous Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish regions–a plan that may appeal to Obama as he works toward a responsible withdrawal–while arguing that the U.S. should refocus its resources on Afghanistan, Pakistan and loose nukes instead. (Conveniently, Obama agrees.) What’s more, Biden’s son Beau, the attorney general of Delaware, will be deploying to Iraq this fall with his national guard unit–meaning that Biden will be one of the few politicians (like McCain, whose son Jimmy is also serving in Iraq) for whom the war is viscerally, inescapably personal.
Obviously, the Delaware senator is not the only older, whiter foreign-policy pro on Obama’s list. But unlike, say, Sam Nunn or Jim Webb, he’s expert at using his experience to score points on the trail, whether by attacking Republican inanities–a role he relishes–or clarifying Democratic proposals. In other words, he’s good at policy and politics. As Ezra Klein has written, Biden dispenses with the traditional Democratic presumption that “Republicans are strong on national security, and voters needed to be convinced of their failures and then led to a place of support for a Democratic alternative,” choosing instead to start “from the position that Republicans [have] been catastrophic failures on foreign policy, and their ongoing claims to competence and leadership should be laughed at.” Obama can’t do that on his own–but he could use someone who can. When Rudy Giuliani said, “America will be safer with a Republican president,” for example, Obama spun out some airy sentences about taking “the politics of fear to a new low” and believing that “Americans are ready to reject those kind of politics.” Biden, in contrast, mocked “America’s Mayor.” “Rudy Giuliani [is] probably the most underqualified man since George Bush to seek the presidency,” he said. “There’s only three things he mentions in a sentence –a noun, a verb, and 9/11. There’s nothing else!” This serene self-confidence–even arrogance–made Biden the breakout star of the Democratic debates, and it would likely add a necessary dash of bareknuckle candor to Obama’s “high road” bid. In other words, he’d actually make an effective sidekick.

Biden’s positives don’t stop there. As a working-class Catholic with an average-Joe speaking style and a heartbreaking personal story–his wife and infant daughter died in a car crash just a month after he was elected to the Senate in 1972–he could woo the blue-collar whites who were reluctant to back Obama in the primaries. Even though Delaware is a lock for the Dems, Biden was born in purple Pennsylvania and has been a regular in the Philadelphia media market for decades. Plus, he’s already survived the public scrutiny of two presidential campaigns–meaning no surprises.

Biden, of course, is far from perfect. He’s famously long-winded. He tends to generate gaffes–like, say,  calling Obama “clean” and “articulate”at semi-regular intervals. His thousands of Senate votes would provide Republicans with a treasure trove of oppo research. He was forced from the 1988 presidential race after plagiarizing a speech by Neil Kinnock, then-leader of the British Labour Party. He kowtowed to Delaware’s credit card industry by supporting a bankruptcy bill despised by liberal activists. Despite his 2002 maneuvering, he ultimately voted to authorize the use of force in Iraq–another unpopular position on the left. And his decades spent swimming in the swamps of Washington may dilute Obama’s call to “change our politics.”

In the end, the Democratic nominee has to decide which factor carries more weight: Biden’s motley assortment of drawbacks–none of which disqualify him outright–or his unique ability to neutralize McCain’s greatest advantage. If it’s the latter, Biden could very well top the list.

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Filed under Barack Obama, Joe Biden, ObamaBiden08

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