What a difference a summer makes. Barack Obama began the summer as he began the campaign: the Agent of Change. With the summer drawing to an end, he has chosen a running mate who is as old school as they come and as familiar as a worn-out shoe.
Joe Biden was born during World War II, was the fifth youngest man ever elected to the Senate (back in 1972), and has run for president twice. He is not known for discretion or staying on message, his questioning of Supreme Court appointees is the stuff of political satire, and he became infamous for his misbegotten plan to partition Iraq. But he is a grown-up, an experienced Washington insider, and one not known for political extremism. The image from this pick is: safe, comfortable, and knowledgeable.
The pick raises several questions: Will it help? What does it say about the state of the race? And will it impact John McCain’s choice?
As to whether it will help, it is a truism that voters don’t vote for the VP; they vote for the top of the ticket. While it might be reassuring to have a steadier hand close to the Oval Office the fact remains that the presidency, despite the Clintons’ “two for the price of one” slogan, is a one-man job. We either trust the commander-in-chief or we don’t. A slightly more experienced number two on the ticket may offer some comfort, but it is Obama himself who must clear the hurdle of presidential believability. (There are also small matters such as Biden’s vote in favor of the Iraq war, but certainly an abject confession of error by him can cure that problem.)
Moreover, the selection of Biden as VP seems to cast doubt on the entire premise of the Obama campaign which is that experience doesn’t matter. If we are back to including that criteria why not select the more experienced candidate for the top spot? It won’t take very long for the McCain camp to point out that Obama’s own underwhelming record compares unfavorably to his own VP. (We will also be treated to a good share of “His VP is smarter than he” clips, highlighting the areas of disagreement such as the initial Iraq war vote.) And Biden is not exactly a “safe” pick. If a secret ballot were taken among pundits and politicial office holders asking, “Which politician is most likely to make a jaw dropping, news cycle-stopping gaffe?” Biden would like be the unanimous winner. For a presidential candidate with a gaffe problem of his own, Biden might magnify this unwelcome attribute. Late night comics and pundits are already tabulating their top ten list of favorite gaffes, but it is no laughing matter for Obama who is struggling to get back on message and convince the voters he is ready for primetime.
The pick does say a fair amount about the Obama camp’s level of confidence and perspective on the race. Had the Obama team put doubts about Obama’s “3 a.m.” credentials behind him, Obama might not have had to go down the experience road in selecting his VP. Had he performed better in the Georgia crisis, he might not have felt compelled to choose someone who really does understand Russian imperialistic ambitions. After all, if the theme of “change” was really working, Tim Kaine (or some similar new face on the scene) would have been the ideal pick, right?
But after the Berlin Obama-mania overreach, Obama’s misjudgment on the surge, his rocky reaction to the Georgia crisis, and the weak showing at the Saddleback forum (with the attendant fever swamp speculation which followed), it is plain that a steady hand is long overdue. In short, the Biden pick belies a nervousness and defensiveness: our guy needs help. It is hard to dress it up as anything else.
Finally, it is worth mulling as to whether this selection changes John McCain’s options or suggests alternatives that might not have made sense with another Obama VP pick. Will Rep. Eric Cantor’s stock rise now as part of an effort to nail down Virginia (in the absence of a comparable effort, — a Kaine selection — by the Obama team)? Will McCain try to choose an out-of-the-box VP (e.g. Meg Whitman) to make the point that he is the more innovative of the two candidates?
All of these may be considerations, but I suspect the McCain team will make (or maybe has already made) a decision based on considerations quite independent of Obama’s pick. Remember, the McCain advisers were the ones who pressed the commander-in-chief and “celebrity” themes. Their goal all along has been to portray Obama as an elite lightweight. So I suspect the choice for McCain will be aimed (as has been his entire offensive of late) to hammer home the point: Obama is the one running for president and in effect his VP pick confirms he is not up to running the country. If anything, that game plan has been proven successful by their opponent’s desperate effort to find ballast and gravitas in his number two.
So Democrats may be relieved that the VP likely won’t lose them many voters and will pass the smell test of credibility. That said, it is not the sign of a campaign confident in its core message or the qualifications of its own presidential nominee.
Indeed, it makes it painfully obvious that many of the qualities which make Biden an acceptable pick should rule Obama out as president. And that is why, many Republicans will be smiling. They suspect they have Obama on the run.