I did not get my text message –until 1:04 am PST. After a long day in which CNN and every other news organization was chomping at the bit big time wondering who Barack Obama would select as his vice-presidential running mate, we finally have word that it is Senator Joe Biden of Delaware. That bit of news came courtesy of CNN, and chief Washington correspondent John King at 12:42 am EST –a full three hours earlier–from a well-placed source. It was a bit disappointing that the news had leaked and that it didn’t go to the supporters first via SMS. Millions of Obama supporters who signed up for this bit of news was significant because it symbolized the Obama campaign’s taking this to the people first and notifying them before anyone else.
My cellphone buzzed at this ungodly hour while I was already sleeping. I knew what it was, and I didn’t bother getting up to read the SMS. I knew who Obama had chosen, and in fact, I had just switched off the TV with a bleary-eyed Larry King with the same talking heads that he had on six hours earlier. Honestly, CNN had been apoplectic and snappy all day long, promising that “at any minute now” they would tell us who the VP pick would be. That meant that all of the newscasts featured mostly speculation, but also updates from the also-rans like Tim Keane and Evan Bayh, who sent word that Obama had called them to say they would not be the choice. How do I know all this? I had CNN on virtually all day too, thinking too that they would have the answer first, even though I tried to convince myself that my cellphone would go off first. I was wrong. I was misled. But OK, let’s get on with this.
Joe Biden. 35 years in the Senate. Represents Delaware, all of two electoral votes. Ran for President twice, including this year. Chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, an extremely prestigious post that confers strong foreign policy credentials to Biden and, by extension, to Obama. Biden knows practically every foreign leader and just last weekend, there he was, sunglasses and all, talking to Georgian leaders about their current crisis with the Russians.Biden has to be considered one of the most eminent and experienced Senators in the Democratic Party, someone who also has credentials in finance and banking, and someone who, if he hadn’t been Obama’s choice for VP, could certainly have served as Secretary of State. (If Obama wins, that will now probably go to Richard Holbrooke).
The minuses about Biden are few, but significant: he is verbose to the point of lacking finesse. Satirist Andy Borowitz has a tiny piece this morning called “Biden Prepares 50,000-Word Acceptance Speech”, in which Biden is hard at work already. “According to those familiar with the speech”, the article says, “the Delaware senator will begin delivering the speech on Wednesday night of the Democratic convention and conclude it on Thursday night.” Indeed, Biden has more than a gift of gab. He has managed to make a verbal gaffe or two, and these moments will surely be brought back by the McCain camp in the days and weeks to come. Biden remarked early on that Obama “sounded intelligent” as if this was a surprising fact for a Black man. He has remarked that convenience stores are managed by Indians “like Apu”. He has savaged Rudy Giuliani as a one-issue (9/11) candidate. (OK, this one was funny.) Biden clearly doesn’t always muzzle himself and this could be somewhat of a liability. He did show Brian Williams of NBC News on a debate earlier this winter that he could actually shut up when responding to this criticism.
But despite this and a somewhat oversized ego, I believe that Obama’s people have told Biden in no uncertain terms that he is not the main attraction here. It’s a conversation that Obama and posse probably had with every other also-ran they considered. Kaine is smart but he is unknown. Bayh is bland and underpowering. Sebelius, while daring because she is a woman, ultimately does not inspire. Even Texas Rep. Chet Edwards, whom House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was pushing recently, who became a finalist as late as earlier this week, would have had millions thumping their heads this morning. And Hillary? Apparently her senior people have confirmed that she was never vetted, so all the talk that Obama might ultimately appease her 18 million supporters never truly materialized. One can imagine the talk that Obama would have to have had with her —and her husband—in order to get them to accept that he was in charge. The good news is that her supporters should be comfortable with Biden, and so too will the Clintons.
McCain’s minions are already on the attack, of course, and this is natural. Almost instantly –indeed, given all the speculation that it would be Biden, they had time to prepare this—if you go to the McCain website you will see a snappy response that Biden makes to ABC’s George Stephanopoulos earlier this year, who asks him whether he still believed Obama was not fit to be President. Watch how quickly Biden still maintains this viewpoint and does not expound too much on it and remind yourself that the two Senators were rivals on the stage that night.
The attacks that Obama’s choice is an admission that he lacks foreign policy experience are understandable. The McCain people want to portray their candidate as the war veteran, the hero, the one who was correct about the surge in Iraq. But they don’t want to admit that their candidate is essentially changing nothing about the Bush White House policy, as if this too is faultless and something to be proud of. Or that the American people are most concerned with foreign policy at all (Where is Georgia again?) when they can’t make their house payments or fill their gas tanks.
The choice of Biden is forceful and brave. It is a powerful message that the Democratic party has a ticket of prestige and experience, one speaking change, one able to deliver the content and experience that are needed to take this campaign into Denver next week and the fall sweepstakes that will be unveiled during the Presidential debates. It is hard to make the argument that Biden does not help Obama. It’s a reassuring choice but in many ways it shows that Obama has the self-confidence to be able to share the spotlight and eventually the White House with a partner who really does know a lot about how power is wielded in Washington. The obvious comparison in Obama’s choice is when Bush chose Cheney in 2000: the younger upstart brings in an older, serious and seasoned veteran. That worked very well in Bush’s favor. Biden is not Cheney in that he would overpower Obama. Biden knows that powersharing is necessary to mend all of the fences that are so important as the Democrats take their roadshow into Denver next week. The timing is unmistakable and almost impeccable. Obama knows that party unity has to happen in Denver and with this choice, he is geared to deliver the kind of speech on Thursday night that should galvanize everyone and leave no gap unfilled.