Obama and Biden's Chemistry Test

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Jim Young / Reuters

Barack Obama introduces his running mate Joseph Biden in Springfield, Illinois

On Saturday morning Barack Obama and his newly minted running mate, Joe Biden, stopped at a diner outside Youngstown, Ohio, for some breakfast. Obama made a few brief comments to the press about Hurricane Gustav's imminent threat before turning to greet the diners. Five minutes later, it was Biden's turn to be asked about the gathering storm. His answer was three times as long as Obama's and included details of his daughter's time at Tulane University in New Orleans. As he talked, Obama, about 10 feet away, kept glancing over at Biden. For an awkward 20 seconds or so, the Democratic nominee looked a little concerned about Biden's soliloquy. But soon enough, he left Biden alone, turning toward the door to chat with other patrons.

After 19 months of campaigning as the sole focus of attention, the moment was a telling one for Obama, who is learning to share the spotlight — for better and for worse — with a man whose personality is almost the polar opposite of his own.

Historians like to say that chemistry between a candidate and his running mate is of little importance — ultimately, the public is electing the nominee, not his sidekick. Certainly recent history is littered with successful tickets whose candidates were not exactly in love with each other: Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard Nixon, and John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson come to mind. But the last two Vice Presidents, Al Gore and Dick Cheney, have changed the way the public views the office by elevating the importance of the role — and, in the process, the importance of the rapport between the two highest office holders in the land.

So far, in the 10 days since Obama chose Biden as his Veep nominee, the two seem to have a good relationship. In their first joint television interview, with 60 Minutes, they didn't interrupt and talk over each other the way John Kerry and his running mate, John Edwards, did four years ago — an early omen of the bad blood that would flow between them. Obama and Biden genuinely seem to look out for each other, a relationship strengthened by the immediate and strong bond between their wives. When practicing their remarks before Obama officially named Biden his vice-presidential candidate in Springfield, Ill., for example, Biden had a moment when he couldn't read the teleprompter because he had just put in eye drops. Before Biden could say anything, Obama asked to make the letters bigger, saying he himself was having trouble reading them. The two talk easily about sports and gossip about mutual friends on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the panel that Biden leads and Obama sits on. When Obama spoke to Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal about the hurricane on Saturday, Obama interrupted the governor in order to put the call on speakerphone so Biden could listen in.

To a large degree choosing a running mate — someone who by definition is your deputy standard bearer — is a leap of faith. Obama wanted someone not only qualified to be President but who could challenge himself and also be relied upon to effectively attack the other side. During the vetting process both Gore and Kerry warned Obama to be very careful in his selection on that last point, telling him that, at times, each had felt alone in running against George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.

But Obama didn't always have faith in Biden, aides say. The long-serving Delaware Senator is a gregarious extrovert who, upon learning your profession, will regale you with stories of one of his zillion relatives who, coincidentally, does the same thing. Obama is an introvert who spends more time asking people about their lives and concerns and talking about what solutions are important to them. When they met, Biden still had presidential ambitions of his own, and Obama was a precocious, very ambitious freshman. On the campaign trail, though, the two bonded through a dozen sometimes heated debates.

Even so, when Obama first started shopping for a Vice President, Biden didn't quite believe he would be considered. He knows his own faults, most notably a notorious verbosity that made the Obama campaign nervous when Biden was being vetted. Still, despite his long record of exaggeration and long-windedness — including Biden's famous remark that Obama's was "clean," which marred the launch of Biden's campaign — the Delaware Senator pointed to the rest of his campaign as evidence that he can (mostly) stay on message. Once in the running, Biden actively sought the role. As it increasingly looked like he might actually be the one, the elder statesman who thought he'd run his last presidential race became excited about the role he could play in an Obama White House. Biden seems to be throwing himself into Obama's candidacy, asking how he can help on many levels, says Obama spokeswoman Linda Douglass.

For Biden, a man who was elected to the Senate at age 29 and has effectively never had a boss, the new experience of playing second fiddle isn't as grating as one might imagine. With the end of his own campaign in January, Biden peacefully said goodbye to his presidential ambitions. "For Joe, that was his last race, and if it worked out, great — if not, he still had this great future as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee," says David Wilhelm, a close adviser to Biden who ran the Delaware Senator's Iowa campaign in 1988 and who endorsed Obama early in the campaign. "He was really at peace throughout the whole process."

Although Biden has been in the Senate 32 years longer than Obama has, the past week has been his first introduction to the unique phenomenon of Obamamania, speaking in front of roaring crowds of 20,000 or more. Far from being jealous the way Johnson reportedly was of Kennedy, Biden — for whom this could potentially represent the beginning of an eight-year political swan song — is savoring every moment of it. At a restaurant in Hamilton, Ind., on Sunday, Biden chatted with a table of diners. "John Kennedy often joked, 'I once had two brothers: one went to sea and the other became Vice President, and neither were heard from again,' " he said.

There is certainly no danger of not hearing from Biden, and indeed the next two months are going to be an exercise in self-discipline for him. Following this past weekend's funeral of Ohio Congresswoman Stephanie Tubbs Jones, who died of a brain aneurism, Biden was asked by reporters about his own aneurisms that nearly killed him 20 years ago. Four hundred and sixteen words later Biden abruptly stopped talking, right in the middle of a train of thought that at any other time could've easily gone on for another 3,000 words. Looking like a smoker trying to resist a pack of cigarettes, he seemed to be reminding himself of all the important reasons to quit cold turkey. Then Biden visibly reined himself in, excusing himself to make a beeline for the buses, leaving Obama to shake hands alone for 15 minutes.