by Jeff Fleischer(BuzzFlash, August 26, 2008)
What with his obvious rhetorical gifts and youthful charisma, Barack Obama has drawn plenty of comparisons to John Kennedy almost since the day he emerged on the national political scene.
This past weekend, he ripped a page directly out of the Kennedy playbook.
In 1960, of course, Kennedy selected Lyndon Johnson, a former opponent from the primary process and one of his party’s most effective and senior senators, to serve as his running mate. The image was a perfect pairing for the ticket, with the history-making young leader with lofty goals backed by the savvy, experienced pol with a track record of getting things done. Obama and Biden will have a better working relationship — it would be hard for them not to — but Biden completes Obama’s ticket in the same way. And unlike Kennedy, who often ignored Johnson’s advice once in office (Vietnam standing as the most obvious example), Obama has always said he would make his VP a key part of decision making in his administration.
“I am thrilled that Joe Biden will be my vice president,” Obama said last weekend. “I think he can help shape a long-term strategy to keep America more secure after the disastrous economic and foreign policies that characterized the last eight years.”
Few politicians in America — not John McCain or, for that matter, Hillary Clinton — can match Biden’s foreign policy credentials, particularly his work regarding the former Yugoslavia. As chairman of the Senate Committee of Foreign Relations, he’s long been considered the clear choice for Secretary of State in a Democratic administration and has a truly enviable wonkiness level when it comes to international affairs.
So for obvious reasons, a lot of the instant analyses of the choice pointed to Obama, in the words of The Washington Post, “shoring up his foreign policy credentials.” What’s most interesting, and so far underrated, about the Biden pick is its lack of safety or obviousness.
The day of the announcement, the Politico blog argued that one of five things the choice shows about Obama is “he’s a lot more conventional than advertised.” Ron Fournier of The Associated Press led his report by saying, “the candidate of change went with the status quo.” What they’re missing is that the opposite is true.
A safe choice would have been to pick someone such as the other rumored finalists for the job, Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine or Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh. Both are perfectly capable, would bring gubernatorial experience to balance the ticket, would help in a swing state — and would never deviate from playing second banana to Obama.
Biden is an enormous national presence in his own right, a man who’s twice sought the highest office in the land. Someone will command no shortage of attention. Obama said just days before the announcement that he wanted someone, “who is going to be able to challenge my thinking and not simply be a yes person when it comes to policymaking.” That’s the route he went. (And, yes, there’s a risk as Biden has been known to make the odd gaffe on the campaign trail. Though, in all the roughly 1.82 million Democratic debates held during the primary season, perhaps the most memorable line was Biden’s simple “yes” when asked if he could be trusted to fix that).
Unlike Kaine or Bayh, Biden definitely doesn’t bring a state with him (Delaware would probably have gone Democratic even if the party ran an actual donkey), but he does help the ticket this fall. His working-class roots and Irish-Catholic heritage can’t help but boost Obama’s appeal to the party’s base in states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania, and Biden is one of the all-time greats when it comes to retail politics. Veteran political reporter Walter Shapiro described him as “both the Democrats’ most compelling spokesman on foreign policy… and a smile-and-a-beer glad-hander who campaigns with brio among blue-collar voters. There is a scrappiness and a forthrightness to Biden that makes him an outsider despite his establishment perch.” That scrappiness will be crucial, with Biden well-suited to the traditional vice-presidential role of going after the opposition and letting the presidential nominee stay a bit above the fray. Certainly more so than Joe Lieberman or John Edwards in recent cycles. He’s already shown he’s not afraid to literally call “bullshit” on unfair attacks against Obama.
More importantly, Biden gets it on the main issues of the day. While he supported the 2002 Iraq resolution, he did so only after trying (with Republican Dick Lugar) to advance a negotiated course rejected by Bush, and has since apologized for his error. During the primaries, Biden had the most creative and concrete solutions for Iraq — including a possible partition — and was the one candidate on the Democratic side to present detailed post-withdrawal plans to minimize damage in the country the military invasion broke. (To be fair, Tommy Thompson on the Republican side also did so, but dropped out long before Iowa). On domestic issues, he’s consistently earned high marks from progressive organizations, particularly on issues of civil liberties.
Also lost in the obvious age gap is how much Biden and Obama have in common. Biden was only 27 when he first sought political office, and 29 when he made his successful first run for the Senate. When he first ran for president in 1988, Biden was the best orator in the race, the one who drew the comparisons to the Democratic voices of the 1960s that Obama now receives. Both men have taught constitutional law at the university level, a welcome development after the battering the Constitution has taken of late.
With the evolution of the vice president’s role since Jimmy Carter made Walter Mondale a major voice in his administration, Biden is a perfect fit for the job. Someone who can provide wise counsel to Obama without hedging his views, and who can smoothly steer the ship of state when the president is overseas. A choice that makes political sense this fall but makes better policy sense for the years ahead.
No matter what happens next, this race just got a lot more interesting.