Thursday, October 14, 2010

In Defense of Joe Biden

For the past several months, political pundits concerned about Barack Obama's reelection prospects have suggested that he improve his chances by replacing Vice President Joe Biden with Hillary Clinton on the 2012 ticket. In a recent interview with "The New York Times", Biden addressed this issue:

I tell you what, there’s real trust, that’s why he’s asked me to run again. 'Look,' he said, ‘We’re going to run together, are you going to run?’ I said, ‘Of course, you want me to run with you, I’m happy to run with you.’

The first question being asked by political observers, naturally, is whether Joe Biden is telling the truth.

In a sense, that line of inquiry misses the point completely. If what Biden says is true, the relevance of the story speaks for itself; if it isn't true, then Biden deserves credit for doing what it takes to ensure his political survival. It is easy to forget that being discarded by one's commander-in-chief - regardless of what consolation prize is offered in return - is widely considered to be nothing short of a public humiliation for the incumbent veep. While such an embarrassment is rendered acceptable if the vice president has worked to undermine the president's agenda (such as when Franklin Roosevelt replaced John Garner in 1940), it constitutes nothing short of brazen ingratitude if the vice president has been a loyal servant to his boss. This fact goes a long way toward explaining why vice presidents who were far more damaging to their president than Biden has ever been to Obama were retained in spite of movements to substitute them with more politically appealing alternatives (Spiro Agnew in 1972, Dan Quayle in 1992, Dick Cheney in 2004). Indeed, the last president to dump his Number Two in the name of being reelected - Gerald Ford, who forced Nelson Rockefeller to step aside and replaced him with Bob Dole in 1976 - admitted later in his life that he felt terrible guilt for having betrayed his subordinate. In short, even if Biden's statement was a lie intended to pressure President Obama to remember his political obligations, it is one rendered not only understandable, but admirable, in light of the personal issues Biden has at stake.

What's more, the political advantages of replacing Biden with Clinton in 2012 are not as certain as that plan's proponents like to claim. Although Biden has proven a tad gaffe-prone since Obama took office, there isn't any evidence to suggest that he is actually harming the president's image overall. Polls undertaken to explain the president's plummeting approval ratings have found that issues involving Obama's actual performance (especially on economic matters) are primarily responsible for public dissatisfaction with him, with people generally lacking any strong feelings about Biden one way or the other. When combined with the fact that Obama's personal approval ratings (i.e., how people feel about him as a man instead of as a president) remain very high, this not only discredits the notion that Biden's presence on the ticket would harm Obama's reelection chances, but strongly suggests that replacing him - with Hillary Clinton or anyone else - wouldn't do much to improve them. After all, the main advantage of having Obama choose a new running mate in 2012 (apart from replacing a damaging one, which Biden is not) would be the ability of that replacement's personal popularity to compensate for any weaknesses Obama has in that area. Since Obama's chief problem isn't how he is viewed as a human being but rather whether he is believed to be an effective president, the issue of who runs with him makes little if any difference. In fact, removing Biden could even prove detrimental to Obama for precisely this reason; as more and more high-profile officials leave his administration (Rahm Emanuel, Larry Summers, Peter Orszag, James Jones, Christina Romer, David Axelrod), losing the vice president himself could only exacerbate the image of an administration in the midst of falling apart.

Yet apart from purely political considerations, there is also the fact that Biden has - in many ways - proven himself to be an exemplary vice president. For nearly two centuries, the vice presidency was at best a ceremonial position and at worst so irrelevant that it constituted something of a cruel joke on its occupant. That began to gradually change in the mid-to-late twentieth century as a stream of vice presidents were entrusted with increasingly greater responsibilities by their presidents (Richard Nixon under Eisenhower, Walter Mondale under Carter, Al Gore under Clinton). That trend, unfortunately, titled too far in the wrong direction during George W. Bush's tenure, when concerns proliferated that Vice President Dick Cheney had acquired undue influence and power.

Fortunately, with the permission and direction of Obama himself, Biden seems to have found a middle-ground between these two extremes. By tapping into his considerable reservoir of political acumen (one accumulated by thirty-six years, more than half his life, spent as a United States Senator), Biden played a key role in helping Obama pass some of his administration's most important legislative achievements, helping in areas ranging from the economic stimulus package and health care reform bill to increasing regulations on Wall Street firms and credit card companies. In addition, as a long-time member of the Senate's Foreign Relations Committee, Biden quickly became a central figure in Obama's development and implementation of Iraq War policy, a status that he used to help draw that seemingly inextricable conflict to a much-needed close. Finally, and perhaps most significantly, he remains a prominent voice of independent-mindedness and dissent for a presidency that, much like the one preceding it, shows signs of cloistering itself inside a cocoon of like-minded individuals, thereby diminishing the extent to which it can recognize and correct its mistakes.

Appropriately, that last observation touches upon what is by far the most important point of all. Although pundits have been effective at distracting the public with a smoke screen of miscellanea, the only issue that truly matters at this point in American life - the only one that has any meaningful effect on the immediate lives of its citizens and, as such, on Obama's ability to get reelected - is the high unemployment, diminished purchasing power, and overall economic suffering caused by the Great Recession. If Obama pursues the policies necessary to effectively address these issues, his political fortunes will improve; if not, they will continue to worsen. Unfortunately, Obama seems to be inclining toward the latter course, for in spite of growing evidence that the only way to create an economic recovery is to increase stimulus spending (the previous stimulus package, as its liberal critics noticed at the time, was only one-fourth the size of what would be needed to have a discernible impact), personal stubbornness is combining with a misplaced hope of winning conservative votes in causing him to refuse to push for adequate stimulus measures. That is why it's worth noting that, on this issue, insider accounts indicate that Biden's populist touch and decades of policy expertise have caused him to advocate precisely the type of aggressive job creation measures that, if followed, would trigger the economic recovery this nation needs. Ironically, that means that such policies are also exactly what Obama needs in order to get reelected in 2012 - which is perhaps the most compelling reason of all why the last thing he should do is replace Joe Biden.

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