Joe Biden: Pros and Cons

            By the time you read this, there’s a good chance John McCain will already have named his VP.  Maybe I’ll write about that for next week’s blog, but for now let’s look at the choice of Barack Obama: Joe Biden.

            I actually had a student, Zak Bednar, say to me months ago that he thought/hoped Obama would pick Biden, but at that time I was thinking Obama would want more star power.  I was guessing he would go with John Edwards, or if Obama was backed into a corner, maybe Hillary Clinton.  Edwards’ window of opportunity closed due to his self-indulgence, and Obama stood his ground against Team Clinton, thus Joe Biden became the Democrats’ number two man.

            Obama’s candidacy has been wrapped up in the idea of change.  He is the outsider candidate; the man who can change the way Washington works because he has not been swallowed up in the system for too long.  Some people might be surprised—given Obama’s theme—that he picked Biden but it’s actually a logical choice.  From Jimmy Carter onward all of our Presidents have been change-promising outsiders with one exception.  George H. W. Bush was pretty much a Washington career guy (and his time in office turned out to fall somewhat short of wildly popular).  From Jimmy Carter onward all of the men who became Presidents picked a VP who had more experience in the ways of Washington except for the first Bush who chose Dan Quayle (again not so wildly popular). 

            Outsider candidates need to surround themselves with insiders if they want a successful presidency.  Carter and Clinton had experienced Washingtonians as their VP’s, but these two Presidents relied too much on the men they brought with them, outsiders themselves who were inexperienced in the ways of Washington.  Both of those Presidents found it difficult to manage either substance or style once in the White House.  Clinton learned from his mistakes and brought in veterans to help him run things.  Carter didn’t and got challenged from within his own party when he ran for re-election.  He survived that crisis only to get throttled by Reagan in 1980.

            George W. Bush on the other hand relied heavily on insiders when he first became President.  Of course Bush had problems too, as critics complained that he was just the puppet of Dick Cheney.

            This brings us back to Joe Biden, who has three important strengths.  He knows how to get things done in Washington, he’s friends with the Clintons (thus, he can act as a healing agent in the Obama-Clinton rift), and he relishes making the political attacks that seem to be part of the job description for vice presidential candidates.

            For some Obama supporters, though, Biden is a troublesome pick.  Those who really did have a grand vision of sweeping changes taking place could take this as a sign that by pairing himself with an establishment figure, Barack Obama will not fundamentally alter either Washington or the United States.  Whatever changes he ushers in will be slow because that is Washington’s way (with rare exceptions).  Also, there is the issue that torpedoed Biden’s own presidential aspirations back in the 1980s.  In some speeches, Biden plagiarized a British politician’s rhetoric and aspects of the man’s life story, too.  It raised issues about the honesty of his words and the honesty of the image he portrayed.  And the fact that Biden couldn’t quite figure out what the fuss was about was/is disconcerting. 

            Anyone Obama picked would have their strengths and weaknesses of course, and usually the VP doesn’t really make or break many votes anyway.  Sill, it’s interesting to write about if you like this sort of thing.