It’s Biden Time!

Will Obama’s new running mate help or hurt the campaign?

Joe Biden

If Barack Obama is any kind of sport, he’ll announce at his big rally in Springfield, Ill., this afternoon that he picked Joe Biden because he’s “articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.” When Biden said that about Obama, it overshadowed the first few days of Biden’s presidential run as he tried to explain the implied slur. By quoting Biden, Obama might get a laugh, as well as show the two are close enough that they can kid about it now.

The reference would also help defuse a big question everyone has about Biden: Can he keep the gaffes in check? One way to defuse a gaffe, of course, is to dismiss it as irrelevant. If it doesn’t bother me, Obama would be saying, it shouldn’t bother anyone else.

Obama has made a serious pick. He didn’t choose his Delaware colleague because Biden would generate buzz, and Biden brings no Electoral College benefit. Delaware is a blue state, and being born in the swing state of Pennsylvania doesn’t really count. Obama picked Biden because, as chairman of the foreign relations committee and former chairman of the judiciary committee, he has extensive experience.

Biden doesn’t scream change (Obama’s got that account covered). But he does offer stability and weight in a dangerous world. His credentials as the author of the 1994 crime bill might be most important of all, say some Democrats who expect Republicans to paint Obama as soft on crime. Obama’s central pitch is about just how much is at stake in this election. Biden affirms that.

This isn’t to say Biden is without political benefit. He’s a practicing Catholic, and Obama has had trouble with that constituency. Despite the fancy-looking suits, Biden isn’t rich (a convenient thing when you’re making fun of houses-by-the-dozen John McCain), and he knows how to reach out to blue-collar voters. (He’s the son of a used-car salesman.) Obama has to hope that, this time, those benefits can transfer; they didn’t when he practically bolted himself to Sen. Bob Casey in Pennsylvania during the primaries to win over those same voters.

The problem with picking a vice president who balances your own lack of experience is that it, well, highlights your own lack of experience. Obama famously told CBS’s Lara Logan that he never has any doubt about his ability on the world stage. He will of course say this—but regular folk might not see it that way, and the McCain team has quips at its disposal that could play into their concerns. You can almost see the ads already: The Democrats should have reversed the ticket to put the experienced guy at the top. When there’s an international crisis at 3 a.m., the phone doesn’t ring at the vice president’s house.

Immediately after Obama made his announcement, the McCain campaign put an ad on the air with Biden asserting that Obama would require on-the-job training as president and that he thought John McCain was an honorable man. This isn’t all Obama’s opponents have to work with. Biden has long (and at length) extolled the virtues of experience; it was the theme of his 1988 campaign (there’s this great video), and it was again this year.

Another puzzling thing about the Obama pick is that, though he is supposed to be the candidate of change, he’s picked a Washington insider (much the way outsider Jimmy Carter picked Walter Mondale in 1976). And Biden looks and sounds the part, talking about himself in the third person and constantly referring to the legislation he’s passed. “Next to John Kerry, Joe Biden may be the most self-referential senator in town,” says one Democratic veteran who is nevertheless thrilled with the pick.

Biden’s insider status may also affect Obama’s arguments against McCain. He is running against McCain as a Washington politician, arguing that McCain has been in the town so long that it has clouded his vision and made him incapable of reform. But if McCain has Washingtonitis, doesn’t it afflict Biden, too?

Picking Biden isn’t going to help with the Hillary account, either. Her supporters are wary about Obama. It turns out he never seriously considered Clinton, and now he’s picked a man from the mostly male club of the Senate?

And then there’s Biden’s mouth: the comments about Indians and doughnut shops, the exaggerations and fictions that have dogged Biden throughout his career. Those will be replayed, and there’s no doubt that Biden will add to his gaffe track. Gaffes are a challenge because the number of days left in the campaign is shrinking, and any news cycles spent chuckling over something Biden says will be ones stolen from getting out Obama’s message.

But the greater challenge may be what Biden says when he’s not making a gaffe. Biden, God love him, likes to talk; his conversational style is wonderful and wide-ranging. He speaks in little archipelagos of thoughts. When he says “in conclusion,” it often means he’s just warming up. It will be like 75 days of fungo practice for his press secretary. He is going to have to listen very closely to every one of Biden’s many words, poised to head off any trouble. (In this sense, his job will be similar to that of the press guys for John McCain.)

Biden likes to talk because he has a quick and agile mind and he loves politics. (It may also be the residual product of his childhood stutter.) But it presents a challenge because he may be willing to explore contradictions or seeming contradictions in his boss’s positions. He can also be intellectually honest—if for no other reason than the desire to have a good discussion. This is not allowed in campaigns, particularly the Obama campaign, which is careful to a fault.

The upside of the Biden mouth is that it can be very effective. He was often the best on stage in the Democratic debates. He will be able to stay in John McCain’s face on foreign-policy debates, which will leave Obama time to talk about the economy, the issue that’s likely to turn this election. Biden can also deliver a blow. He walloped Rudy Giuliani during the primaries (see his “a noun, a verb, and 9/11” quote) and could easily fit in to Obama’s new, more aggressive strategy.

Biden also knows how to be brief and can get emotional in a way that Obama, thus far, has not (though he is increasingly trying). He drips with the kind of enthusiasm Barack Obama could use a little more of. Yes, there’s that clip of him acting like a boob when he tells a voter that he has a higher IQ, but I’ll offer another one. During his run, Biden was stopped by a man who had lost his wife. The supposedly pompous blowhard Biden, who lost his own wife and child just after he was elected to the Senate at age 29, spoke to the guy about loss and living with loss in a human way.

Analysis of the vice-presidential choice can be overblown. (Lord knows, the speculation about it was.) On the other hand, George Bush’s selection of Dick Cheney is almost a perfect template for what his administration became. It happened in secret and with a lot of hoodwink—many of the other possible contestants were shuttled through the process even though the decision had already been made. Only in retrospect did everyone realize how much Cheney was running the show.

So, in the coming days we’ll be able to draw some conclusions about Obama as he describes his thought process and how he came to settle on Biden—that is, if he decides to tell us. The candidate can be stingy about sharing his thoughts. Fortunately, we can now go ask Biden.