The vice presidency of the United States is not big enough for Joseph R. Biden. Less than a year into a job that has him overseeing the $787 billion stimulus package, chairing a middle-class task force, and functioning as the Obama administration’s West Wing “high point of contact” on Iraq, Biden is already encouraging speculation that he’ll run for president again in 2016 — even though he would be 74 on Inauguration Day. “I won’t rule that out. No,” he told David Gregory on NBC’s Meet the Press.
My first glimpse of Joe Biden, up close and personal, was near Market Street in Denver, Colorado. As office workers sat outside eating their lunches out of Styrofoam takeout containers, the Democratic vice presidential nominee emerged in shirtsleeves ready to work the crowd. There were a few chants of “Joe! Joe!” His hairplugs glistening in the late summer sun, Biden’s hands were outstretched as if he were moving up and down a rope line.
“Hey, how ya doin’?” he asked a man he caught in a firm handshake. “How ya doin’?” From the back I shouted, “Senator!” and fished for my press credentials. For my trouble, Biden flashed me a Cheshire Cat grin. “How ya doin’?” This was the picture Democratic convention planners wanted to paint of the number-two man on their ticket: Joe Biden, man of the people.
It just goes to show how low of an opinion the political class has of the people. Before Barack Obama plucked him from Capitol Hill obscurity, Biden lived a dual life. In Washington, he was a Very Important Person, a six-term senator, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, past chairman of the Judiciary Committee, and the latter committee’s ranking member during the chairmanship of fellow Hair Club for Men member Strom Thurmond. The Beltway’s Joe Biden was part wise man, part wise guy.
Out in the rest of the country, Biden was regarded as a bit of a joke, to the extent that people thought about him at all. His 1988 presidential bid collapsed after he ostentatiously lifted lines from British Labour leader Neil Kinnock for his own speeches. During that campaign, Biden was also accused of plagiarizing John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Hubert Humphrey, continuing a practice of borrowing that carried over from his law school days. His second presidential campaign ended 20 years later when he failed to garner more than 2 percent of the vote in the Iowa caucuses.
Behind closed doors, even some Washingtonians found Biden’s outsized personality a little absurd. His long-winded opening statements during committee hearings and questions that seemed less about gathering information than establishing Biden’s bona fides as the smartest person in the room stood out even in the gassy corridors of the Senate. “That’s Joe being Joe,” says a Republican staffer who watched a number of Biden’s orations. A reporter who covered the Hill in the 1990s recalled Biden stuffing an entire Snickers bar in his mouth as he disembarked from an elevator, devouring it like a mouse tossed into a snake’s cage. Quite a sight, to be sure, like watching Biden try to fit into the vice presidency.
THAT THERE WAS LIKELY a bigger constituency behind electing Dennis Kucinich president failed to dent Biden’s ego or detract from his Joe Populist shtick. In what is intended to be a sharp contrast with his predecessor, Biden eschews undisclosed locations. Promising “unprecedented transparency,” the vice president’s office releases a “daily guidance” informing reporters of his whereabouts. Biden’s task force for developing policies that benefit the middle class pointedly publishes its schedule and meeting attendees on a website — unlike, the Wall Street Journal noted, “Mr. Cheney’s energy task force, which he fought to keep secret in court.” If Dick Cheney was linked in the public mind with Darth Vader, Biden intended to be Al Smith, the Happy Warrior.
Ironically, Biden won the vice presidential nod for very Cheney-like reasons: he was an insider intended to balance a relative outsider, a steady hand who could show an inexperienced president the way Washington works. While Obama benefited from the enthusiasm of antiwar primary voters, Biden had voted to authorize the Iraq war and fit comfortably within the neoliberal-to-neoconservative foreign-policy consensus (though he did occasionally pal around with soi-disant realists like Chuck Hagel). Thus what had been a liability in his own presidential bid made him a reassuring presence on the Democratic ticket for some voters worried that Obama wasn’t ready to be a wartime commander-in-chief.
But in terms of what Biden brought to the ticket, there was one big difference: he was the one who passed the “guy you’d most like to have a beer with” test. George W. Bush had a certain charm and natural rapport with his party’s base. While Cheney was also adored by die-hard grassroots Republicans, he was a reserved and uneasy campaigner even in their presence. Though Obama is a gifted orator who can make his devoted following swoon to the sound of his voice, he can come across as somewhat cold and aloof. When he has to hug a constituent at a town hall meeting, like an unemployed father of five or an uninsured woman suffering from cancer, Obama does so with all the enthusiasm of a small boy whose parents have forced him into an embrace with octogenarian Great-Aunt Heloise.
Joe Biden is a natural hugger and squeezer, an exuberant pol who can laugh or cry almost on cue and yet still seem authentic. After 36 years in the Senate and nearly a year as vice president, he still carries himself like someone handing out campaign literature outside the barbershop in support of his first run for town council. As ridiculous as his hugginess and hyperbole appear to some people, they do help him connect emotionally with others. The Boston Globe reported last fall, “The crowds Biden attracted on the campaign trail last week looked much more like Hillary Clinton’s than Obama’s — hard-core Democrats, elderly folks, teachers, union members.” To them Biden, like Bush, was the better man to drink a beer with, though they are both tee-totalers who quaff the same brand of non-alcoholic beer.
SOMETIMES BIDEN’S BACKSLAPPING and glad-handing reaches odd proportions, however. In a 2008 interview with Shalom TV CEO Mark Golub, Biden expressed what he described as his strong support for Israel. While the substance of his comments was mostly unremarkable-aside from raising eyebrows in the fever swamps — Biden was almost bizarrely effusive in his efforts to woo the interviewer. At one point, Biden stopped mid-hand gesture and wrapped his arms around Golub like a boa constrictor strangling its prey. As Biden awkwardly ended the embrace, he concluded, “You know I used to say when I was a young kid, when I was a young senator, if I was a Jew, I’d be a Zionist. I am a Zionist. You don’t have to be a Jew to be a Zionist.”
Campaigning with the Obamas in Beaver, Pennsylvania, Biden recited a litany of facts designed to bolster his working-class credentials, hoarsely shouting, “I’m a senator because the first guys to endorse me in 1972 were the United Steelworkers of America!” He went on to praise Michelle Obama’s speech at the Democratic National Convention and proclaim, “I tell you, man, I always liked Barack but I love her.” The footage was later posted on YouTube under the headline “Joe Biden drunk on the campaigntrail.” The claim is untrue — it would take many cases of Buckler to achieve that result-but it was not far off as a description of the future vice president’s diction and demeanor.
Other times, Biden tries too hard to show that he’s more than just one of the guys. He is known as a serial exaggerator who strains to demonstrate his importance. “When Russia invaded Georgia, I got a call from Misha Saakashvili. He said, ‘Joe, will you come over? Will you come?'” Biden said, in a foreign policy speech in Cincinnati during last year’s campaign. “I went to see him in Tbilisi. I sat there while Russian tanks were still on the outskirts of the city. And we laid out a specific proposal. We made it crystal clear what Barack and I would do…to preserve the territorial integrity of Georgia.” Not as dramatic as facing “sniper fire” like Hillary Clinton, but there it is.
When Biden gets into this mode, his populist mask can even slip a little, in ways reminiscent of John Kerry’s famous query “Do you know who I am?” Questioned about his academic back-ground during the 1988 campaign, he asserted, “I think I probably have a much higher IQ than you do, I suspect,” before he began to rattle off every moot court competition he’d won and how many credits he had earned in college (“165 credits, only needed 123 credits,” he claimed). High IQ or not, some of these details turned out to be untrue, hastening his departure from the presidential race.
It is this tendency that makes Biden and the vice presidency an uneasy fit. When Delaware governor Ruth Ann Minner announced an interim appointment to replace Biden in the Senate — Ted Kaufman, a Biden loyalist tapped to keep the seat warm for the vice president’s son Beau — vice presidential chief of staff Ron Klain suggested Biden inform the president. “Why the hell should I tell the president?” Biden later told reporters he remembered thinking.
LEARNING TO BE DEFERENTIAL to his new boss has “been the hardest part” of becoming vice president, Biden said to the Politico. “I don’t know how to explain it, but I hope I’m getting better at it. Because I’m confident the other part is really working well. I am really satisfied with and actually excited about my ability to be value-added and to be involved in this.” The same story quoted an unnamed senior Obama aide as saying Biden “is always prepared to be the skunk at the family picnic” — though only to “make sure we are as intellectually honest as possible,” of course.
There’s one area where Biden’s musk-spraying at the White House picnic has been particularly well advertised: the internal debate over the war in Afghanistan. When the president came out in favor
of sending more troops, Biden, according to New Republic senior editor Michael Crowley, “urged the president to consider a narrow counterterrorism mission.” Crowley attributes Biden’s shift from — liberal hawk to latter-day realist to some ill-fated meals with Afghan president Hamid Karzai, but acknowledges that the vice president’s much-publicized shift suits his desire to be seen as the antithesis of Cheney: “a devil’s advocate in policy debates who tries to ensure that hard questions don’t go overlooked” — or, more importantly, that hard power is used less frequently.
Public discussions of the vice president’s deep thoughts on foreign policy also help keep alive his Beltway image as Joe Biden, the seasoned statesman. That’s no easy task when Biden’s predominant public image is, as TAS online contributor David Bass put it, “the gaffe czar.” During the campaign, Biden’s oddball comments could be drowned out in the constant media focus on Sarah Palin. Now his foot-in-mouth syndrome plays out for the entire world to see.
Consider one of Biden’s main assignments: selling the American people on the fiscal stimulus package, chiefly by reassuring them that the money was being well spent. In a June conference call with reporters, Biden recited the White House talking point that the massive, unfunded expenditure had “created or saved” 150,000 jobs. But when Jonathan Riskind of the Columbus Dispatch asked him to back those numbers up, Biden demurred.
“I’m sorry, I’m not an economist,” Biden replied. “My background is foreign policy and the Constitution.” Although outranking even the Obama administration’s “stimulus czar” as an over-seer of how the funds are spent, Biden said, “I’m a little above my pay grade here as I try to explain in more detail how they count spinoff effects of actual jobs created.” Concerning the methodology — to which he insisted “there has been no challenge” — Biden could say little more than, “It’s complicated.”
In February, Biden said of the stimulus, “If we do everything right, if we do it with absolute certainty, there’s still a 30 percent chance we’re going to get it wrong.” The president and some of his aides reacted to Biden’s comment like bemused Hill staffers who had heard “Joe being Joe.” Confronted with the remark at a White House press conference, Obama replied, “I don’t remember exactly what Joe was referring to. Not surprisingly.” David Axelrod responded to a similar question by CNN’s Wolf Blitzer by saying, “Well, I don’t know — I don’t know exactly about what that math was.”
The public relationship between Obama and Biden seems cordial. “Joe Biden is a guy who speaks his mind. Barack Obama knew that when he chose him for vice president,” Axelrod once explained to NPR. “It’s one of the reasons he wanted him, because he knew he’d be thoroughly candid. Now sometimes that’s a trait that gives you a little heartburn.” But sometimes the president’s heartburn shows. When Biden decided to rap Chief Justice John Roberts’s flubbing of the presidential oath of office while swearing in senior staffers, Obama was visibly displeased. There were later conflicting reports about whether Biden called Roberts to apologize.
The administration has had to “clarify” Biden comments about the U.S. position on the Russia-Georgia conflict and a possible Israeli strike against Iran. (Biden was more pro-Georgia and pro-Israel than the president.) There was a similar need to clarify comments made in an interview by Biden’s wife claiming that Joe had his pick of the vice presidency and the secretary of state’s job. Gaffe-making and résumé-gilding run in the family, apparently.
BUT THE ADMINISTRATION’S HEARTBURN is sure to intensify as the midterm elections approach and Biden once again hits the campaign trail. The Democrats are on the defensive in nearly 40 traditionally Republican-leaning congressional districts they captured in the 2006 and 2008 elections. “If [the Republicans] take them back,” Biden said at a fundraiser for three freshmen Democratic congressmen from Virginia, “this is the end of the road for what Barack and I are trying to do.” Gesturing to the event’s host, former Sen. Chuck Robb, Biden continued, “These guys are smart. Some of the guys Chuck and I have campaigned for are turkeys. Not all Democrats are created equal, while most Republicans are.”
How did such a blowhard make it so far in American public life? Hailing from a small media market, sheltered by the Senate since he was 30 years old, Biden has been able to block out the snickering in
the background and climb slowly to the top. A November trip to Iowa has sparked rumors that he isn’t done climbing yet. What others see as flaws, Biden and his admirers think of as passion.
“It seems to me that if you can speak, you’re at a liability in the Democratic Party anymore [sic],” Biden told a crowd during his 1988 campaign. “It seems to me you’ve all become heartless technocrats!” Joe Biden can speak from the heart. Not all politicians are created equal. Not even the turkeys.