August 26, 2008

Biden His Time

The following article appeared in The Indian Express on August 26, 2008.

Barack Obama’s once healthy lead in polls has sagged in recent weeks, seemingly the result of a number of converging trends and occurrences. Firstly, his rival John McCain’s hawkishness against Russia appeared validated by that country’s intervention in Georgia. Secondly, McCain’s prescription of off-shore drilling for oil as a panacea for high petrol prices resonated well with voters, many of whom have been hit hard by rising energy costs. Thirdly, Obama seemed to have lost his touch for translating policies into punchy slogans and media-friendly sound-bytes, a talent which had helped him secure the Democratic Party’s nomination during the gruelling primary process. Finally, media fatigue and a holiday in Hawaii diminished the spotlight on Obama for a few weeks. With the race effectively tied just over two months before the elections, Obama’s choice of running mate was suddenly imbued with particular significance.

The revelation on Saturday that Senator Joseph Biden would be Obama’s vice presidential nominee is surprising, though perhaps mostly for its conservativeness. Biden beat out several other reported contenders, including Indiana Senator Evan Bayh and Virginia Governor Tim Kaine, in what was certainly a carefully calculated decision by Obama and his advisers. However, it is too early to know what kind of impact Biden will have as the vice presidential nominee. His personality, background and policies mean that he could prove either a boon or a liability for the Obama campaign.

Biden’s biggest assets are experience — he has served more than half his life in the Senate — and foreign policy expertise, both traits that Obama is widely perceived as lacking. Yet until this point, Obama has downplayed McCain’s years of experience, arguing that his own sound judgement is of greater value in a president, despite his greenness. Obama cites his opposition of, and McCain’s support for, the Iraq War as ample evidence. Obama has also claimed for many months that his personal experiences, living in Indonesia and visiting such places as Pakistan and Kenya, set him apart from other American politicians, and more than compensate for his lack of diplomatic expertise.

In addition, the Obama camp is no doubt hoping that Biden’s working-class background and Catholic upbringing will help their campaign gain traction with blue-collar and Catholic constituents. However, Biden himself failed to rally those voters during his own unsuccessful presidential bid, with most of them gravitating towards Hillary Clinton or John Edwards.

One significant advantage Biden has over several of the younger politicians considered as Obama’s potential running mates is a certain level of national recognition, a result of his many years in the Senate on high-profile committees, and his own bids for the presidency. However, unlike many others under consideration, Biden appears unlikely to excite many still-undecided voters. Also, the fact that he comes from Delaware, a small state with few electoral votes, means that the direct impact of his nomination amongst the electorate will be limited.

Biden’s other shortcomings may gain greater attention in the following weeks. Like Obama, he lacks the executive experience of a state governor or cabinet member, having spent his entire national political career in the Senate. Moreover, his long-serving tenure in Congress means that Biden is seen as an entrenched Washington insider, which contrasts somewhat with Obama’s self-depiction as a harbinger of change. Finally, Biden is popularly seen as a gaffe-machine. His bluntness occasionally translates well into sound-bytes, and he frequently added colour to dour Democratic presidential debates, but his verbosity has also often put him in hot water.

Potential negatives aside, Biden is seen as centrist among Democrats, and is well-respected in Congress on foreign policy matters. On the dominant foreign policy question of Iraq, he has opposed a strict timeline for American troop withdrawals, unlike some of his Democratic colleagues in Congress. However, like Obama, he also opposed the American troop surge, which has been widely credited for reducing the level of violence in Iraq. Biden’s own plan for Iraq, upon which he elaborated during his own unsuccessful bid for the presidency, involved establishing a federal structure with autonomy for Iraq’s three main ethno-religious groups.

Biden has a history of favourable interactions with India. As early as August 2001, Biden - then, as now, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee - indicated his support for the Bush administration’s development of strategic ties with India. More recently, during a visit to New Delhi, he urged that the US-India nuclear agreement be consummated, and his backing of the deal during the legislative process that led to the Hyde Act was crucial in ensuring its passage.

Two questions concerning Biden and his impact on the presidential election will be answered in the coming weeks: Can his performance on the campaign trail, or even his very presence on a ticket, help tip key states such as Ohio, Indiana, Virginia, Colorado and Michigan in Obama’s favour? And can he help digest Obama’s platform from wordy and nuanced expositions into easily-digestible catchphrases? If the answer to both is yes, Obama would have made his smartest decision yet since clinching his party’s nomination for president.