At 3:21 am on Saturday, Barack Obama’s campaign sent out the mass e-mail and text message: He had chosen Senator Joe Biden as his running mate. It was a remarkably wrong-footed start for the pairing, with media reports of the choice having reached many of us almost 8 hours earlier despite the campaign’s promise that reporters subscribing to Obama’s website would be the first to know.
Senator Biden beat out other leading contenders including Virginia governor Tim Kaine and Indiana senator Evan Bayh, as well as more long-shot possibilities such as Kathleen Sibelius, Bill Richardson, and Chet Edwards.
Joseph Robinette Biden, Jr. was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, in 1942 before his family moved to Delaware ten years later. In college, Biden double-majored in history and political science, then going law school and becoming a member of the Delaware Bar in 1969.
In 1972, just before being sworn in after his first Senate election victory, Biden’s first wife, Neilia, with whom Biden had three children, was killed, along with their infant daughter, Naomi, when a tractor-trailer crashed into their car. In 1977 Biden remarried, to Jill Jacobs, with whom he has one daughter. Senator Biden has five grandchildren.
Biden is a Roman Catholic with middle-class roots and at least some tie to the possibly-in-play state of Pennsylvania, all of which likely played into his selection as Barack Obama’s running mate.
Senator Biden has twice run as a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, in 1988 and again this year. Although he initially seemed a strong candidate in 1988, his campaign was torpedoed by two apparent instances of plagiarism (once in a then-recent speech and once in a paper in law school), as well as misstatements by Biden about his past, namely that he had graduated with three degrees in the top half of his class after attending law school on a full scholarship. All three of those assertions were untrue.
Joe Biden’s political career made an unusually giant step, from County Councilman in 1970 to becoming US Senator in 1972 at the age of 30, a job he has held for six six-year terms, after edging out an incumbent Republican senator.
Senator Biden’s best-known political experience is his twenty years serving on the Judiciary Committee, which he chaired from 1987 to 1995, and twenty-three years on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which he chaired from 2001 to 2003 and again from 2007 and continuing through today.
As chairman of the Judiciary Committee, he made news running the hearings for the Supreme Court confirmations of Robert Bork (1987) and Clarence Thomas (1991). In 1987, the New York Times reported that Biden “assured opponents of the nomination of Judge Robert H. Bork today that he would lead the fight against his confirmation…” The Judiciary Committee voted 9-5 against confirming Bork.
Although opponents of Clarence Thomas threatened to “Bork him”, the Judiciary Committee sent the nomination through to the full Senate without a recommendation to confirm or deny his appointment to the Court. In his book, “My Grandfather’s Son”, Clarence Thomas remembers: “Senator Biden was the first questioner. Instead of the softball questions he’d promised to ask, he threw a beanball straight at my head”, with Biden quoting from a speech four years prior and suggesting that Thomas was arguing for an activist Supreme Court. Thomas then explains how Biden took Thomas’ words out of context and that “the point I’d been making was the opposite of the one that Senator Biden claimed I had made.”
Biden claims as his landmark legislation, the 1994 “Biden Crime Bill”, officially called the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which funded the hiring of more police officers, helped states build prisons, created “drug courts”, and, according to Biden’s web site, “banned 19 of the deadliest assault weapons”. Biden also authored the Crime Bill’s companion Violence Against Women Act (“VAWA”), “the first federal law to comprehensively address domestic violence and sexual assault”. While much of VAWA remains in place, a section which “provided a federal civil remedy for the victims of gender-motivated violence” was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 2000.
Senator Biden’s long service on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was no doubt the key factor in his selection by Obama whose lack of international policy or diplomacy experience has been characterized as a substantial weakness throughout his campaign.
Biden was initially a relative moderate on the Iraq War, supporting the October, 2002 final resolution supporting the war but only after partnering with Senator Richard Lugar in a failed attempt to require more diplomacy with Saddam Hussein before military involvement. However, in 2007, Biden wrote a resolution calling for the repeal of the 2002 measure, making opposition to “the surge” a key tactic in getting his new resolution passed. In April, 2008, Senator Biden proclaimed the surge a failure before hearing the testimony of General David Petraeus, later saying that nothing Petraeus said had changed his view.
Biden was a leading author of the 2007 Biden-Gelb plan, which passed the Senate 75-23, to divide Iraq into Kurdish, Shiite, and Sunni regions, to guarantee the Sunnis a share of Iraq’s national oil revenue, and to “ask our military to plan to responsibly withdraw most U.S. forces from Iraq by 2008.”
Most of what voters hear about Senator Biden comes from his work on his two committees. Therefore, less is known of his positions on domestic policy, such as economics, health care, social issues, etc. Biden is in fact one of the most liberal members of the Senate, with the non-partisan National Journal raking him the third most liberal Senator (behind Barack Obama and Sheldon Whitehouse, and ahead of the self-avowed socialist, Bernie Sanders.) He ties several Senators as the most liberal on economic issues and has by far the most liberal voting record on foreign policy matters.
On the key domestic issues of the day, Biden’s positions are uniformly liberal: On energy, he wants to “prohibit price gouging, roll back market speculation, and take on OPEC”. And while he supports an “Apollo Project for energy” and such things as “green building codes”, “energy-efficient appliances”, and “requiring major gas stations to sell alternative fuels”, he opposes increasing offshore drilling and almost any other development of domestic gas and oil resources.
On taxes, Biden wants to “direct tax cuts away from the very rich to the middle class” and “expand the Earned Income Tax Credit”. In other words, he supports raising taxes on those who already pay almost all the income taxes collected in order to transfer money to those who pay little or no income tax.
Biden is a strong supporter of unions (and they are a strong supporter of him), including supporting “Card Check”, the unions’ attempt to eliminate the secret ballot requirement to unionize a company’s workers. In case Biden’s anti-business credentials weren’t clear, Biden has said that he “will make sure that pro-union officials play senior roles at the Departments of Commerce, State, Agriculture, Homeland Security and Health and Human Services.”
Senator Obama knew that he needed an old white guy with foreign policy credentials to fill in his electoral gaps. Joe Biden is the perfect fit on that score, and his being Catholic was an added bonus for Obama. However, with economics surpassing foreign policy, even in these obviously dangerous times, as the subject voters are most concerned with, Biden’s selection is at best a neutral for the Democrats’ election prospects. (Obama’s choice of a running mate with no economic credentials may make Mitt Romney that much more compelling a selection for John McCain as Romney would be the only person on either tickets with a strong reputation for understanding business and economics.)
A potentially important piece of news near the end of the Veepstakes was that Hillary Clinton was never vetted. According to a Democratic official quoted at politico.com, “She was not asked for a single piece of paper. She and Senator Obama have never had a single conversation about it.” Given the raw nerves among Hillary supporters who feel that their history-making first-woman-president has been badly treated by Obama, one wonders why the Obama campaign wouldn’t have made a least a show of considering Hillary.
A July poll by CNN showed that nearly a third of Clinton supporters will not vote in November, and an August Wall Street Journal/NBC poll said that 21% of Clinton supporters will vote for McCain. Both of these results were worse for Obama than in recent prior polls. And that was before the news of Hillary being “dissed” in the VP selection process. The wounds may be ripped open again, rather than healed, at the Democratic National Convention because of the decision to allow a roll call vote to include Hillary, reminding many how close she came to being the nominee.
It remains to be seen how many people will pick up on the fact that beyond having very similar left-leaning views, Obama and Biden have other things in common: They both have reputations (Obama’s increasing weekly) as, quoting an AP description of Biden, “long-winded orators.” And they have each given speeches in someone else’s words without attribution. Is that “just words”, as Obama has said (that statement itself an act of plagiarism)? Or will it represent, in the minds of voters, a more fundamental question about both men?
A much larger Biden-thorn in Obama’s side may be Senator Biden’s repeated assertions during the primary season that Obama is not ready to lead the nation and that the presidency is no place for on-the-job training. Indeed, the McCain campaign is already making the most of Biden’s recent views on his now-senior campaign partner. One McCain spokesman issued a statement within hours of the Biden announcement: “There has been no harsher critic of Barack Obama’s lack of experience than Joe Biden. Biden has denounced Barack Obama’s poor foreign policy judgment and has strongly argued in his own words what Americans are quickly realizing — that Barack Obama is not ready to be president.”