Introducing his newly-minted running mate, Barack Obama had a slip of the tongue. "Let me introduce you to the next President... the next Vice President of the United States of America," Obama told a crowd of 35,000 yesterday on the steps to the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield, the same site where Obama announced his bid for the White House. The crowd laughed but, in many ways, Obama was telling the truth. The choice of Biden was meant to complete the Presidential candidate.
Whether you see Biden's strengths as augmenting Obama or highlighting the Illinois senator's weaknesses, there's no doubt the two fit like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Where Obama may be criticized for inexperience, Biden has 35 years in the Senate to his credit. Some have fretted about Obama's lack of foreign policy depth; Biden is chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and the guy world leaders call in a crisis he was in Tbilisi this past week at the behest of embattled Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili. Obama has had a hard time appealing to working class white voters and the elderly; Biden, a Catholic, prides himself on his humble roots and has a Sean Connery-like appeal to older folks, who seem him as a star of their generation. "You want to pick somebody who complements you and strengthens you," says Dick Durbin, the senior senator from Illinois whom Obama consulted three weeks ago on a bus trip through Florida about the choice. "I'm glad that Joe will be sitting in the Oval Office working with Barack on the important decisions. He brings a wealth of experience."
Durbin bristled, though, at any comparisons with another relatively inexperienced candidate who chose an older adviser with strong foreign policy credentials and little chance of running in eight-years time as a running mate: George W. Bush. "Please," scoffs Durbin, "other than the office, I wouldn't want to make any parallels."
Still, another top advisor acknowledged, Biden's long resume played a large part in his selection. It would have been a surprise choice for those who remembered Obama telling voters for the past month that he didn't want a Washington insider. Two of the other four finalists were from outside the Beltway Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius and Virginia Governor Tim Kaine (the fourth being Indiana Senator Evan Bayh). To vaccinate against GOP attempts to paint Biden as an insider, the campaign has been careful to underline Biden's distance from Washington. "He never moved to Washington," Obama said while introducing Biden. "Instead, night after night, week after week, year after year, he returned home to Wilmington on a lonely Amtrak train when his Senate business was done."
The McCain campaign was quick to launch a commercial recycling Biden's criticisms of Obama while campaigning against him in the primaries. "I think he can be ready but right now, I don't believe he is," Biden is quoted as saying in the ad. "The presidency is not something that lends itself to on-the-job training." Biden dropped out after the caucuses after garnering less than 10,000 votes. In Springfield, Biden made it clear he changed his mind after following Obama's path to the nomination. "Over the past 18 months, I've watched Barack meet those challenges with judgment, intelligence, and steel in his spine," Biden told the crowd. "I've watched as he's inspired millions of Americans, millions of Americans to this new cause."
Back in those snowy Iowa days, Biden was known for his blue-haired audiences. He would linger for hours, answering questions in a folksy way that seems to have an appeal to many white working class voters. Talking about his wife in Springfield, Biden invoked a bit of bawdy humor tailor-made for the beer-drinking crowd. "Ladies and gentlemen, my wife Jill, who you'll meet soon, is drop dead gorgeous," he said, placing such emphasis on the last three words that you got the impression he'd rather be smooching his wife than giving the speech.
"As an Irish Catholic, with arguable working class roots and with much appeal to white ethnic voters in places like Pennsylvania, his presence on the ticket may help with key demographic groups in the East and Midwest," says Steve Schneck, a political science professor at Catholic University in Washington. It also doesn't hurt that Biden's not afraid of the role of bare-knuckled boxer. Biden often told audiences, as he did again in Springfield, that his father used to coach him that life was not about how many times you get knocked down, it's how many times you get up again.
The Delaware senator wasted little time laying into John McCain. In the second paragraph of his speech he ridiculed the man he acknowledged is "a close friend," for never having to sit around the kitchen table worrying about how to make ends meet. "He'll have to figure out which of the seven kitchen tables to sit at," Biden quipped, needling McCain who, in an interview with Politico earlier this week, couldn't say how many homes he owns.
But Biden's greatest strength is his foreign policy expertise an area where McCain has consistently beaten Obama in polls. "My thoughts are along the lines of the line in the Jerry McGuire film 'You complete me," says Karl Inderfurth, an international relations expert at George Washington University. "Obama needed a helping hand from his vice presidential pick on the foreign policy front, the recent Russia-Georgia crisis underscores this. And that's what he will get."
Biden's Achilles heel has always been his own tongue. Indeed, when Obama flubbed his introduction of Biden in Springfield, the McCain campaign pounced calling it not only a "Freudian slip" ("Obama sounded as though he turned over the top spot on the ticket today to his new mentor," said McCain spokesman Ben Porritt) but the Republicans also alluded to Biden criticisms of Obama's campaign, when both were still rivals for the nomination. Said Porritt: "The reality is that nothing has changed since Joe Biden first made his assessment that Barack Obama is not ready to lead. He wasn't ready then and he isn't ready now."
"The hidden time bombs are the thousands of votes cast by Biden in the Senate, and the millions of words uttered by him publicly over 36 years," says Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. "There has got to be rich material for negative ads in there. But then again, people don't vote for or against the vice presidential nominees." Indeed, perhaps with his choice in mind, Obama last week underlined that he would be the one making foreign policy decisions in the Oval Office, while acknowledging he was looking for someone to challenge his thinking on the issues. Given Biden's verbose tendencies, he is sure to let Obama know what he thinks again and again and again.