Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Joe Biden Is Not the Problem

I first heard the rumblings nearly two years ago.

In August of 2010, I wrote about former Virginia Gov. Doug Wilder's suggestion that Barack Obama should replace Joe Biden with Hillary Clinton in 2012, but my tendency then was to dismiss it as idle talk by people who really didn't know what they were talking about.

The topic reappeared last fall, and, when I heard it said that good ol' Joe Biden had to go, that he was a drag on Obama, I responded by writing that "too much emphasis is placed on the vice presidential nomination."

I wrote that "I don't think replacing Biden with anyone, Hillary or anyone else, is the answer for what ails Obama."

And I still believe that, even though I read articles at least once a week now suggesting that Obama needs to drop Biden.

It seems to me that, whenever incumbent presidents have been preparing to run for a second term, this kind of talk always seems to surface.

Sometimes it makes sense. In 1992, for example, there was a lot of talk about how George H.W. Bush needed to replace Dan Quayle on his ticket. Quayle had gained a reputation, whether fairly or unfairly, for always saying something stupid, and some people felt he was a drag on the ticket.

Now, in 1992, I was never going to vote for Bush, anyway, but I could sympathize with the sentiment. Quayle was ridiculed so much in those days that it really didn't take much persuading to convince anyone that Bush was bound to do better with someone else on his ticket.

Bush wound up keeping Quayle on the ticket, though, and, in hindsight, it is hard to imagine anyone who could have helped Bush win more than 100 electoral votes from Clinton. I think the challenger was going to win that election.

Some years are like that. I have to say that 1980 was like that. President Jimmy Carter was on shaky ground in all aspects of his presidency, and the talk that surfaced during his battle with Ted Kennedy for the Democratic nomination about dropping Vice President Walter Mondale probably had a lot to do with strategy and little, if anything, to do with Mondale's actual performance in office.

Mondale remained on the ticket, and I can't see how any other Democrat could have helped Carter avoid his landslide defeat to Ronald Reagan.

Usually such talk is frivolous. I don't know where it comes from. Perhaps it is a trial balloon to see if there is any way the incumbent can ratchet up his vote total with a fresh face.

If that is what it is, the conclusion usually is that changing the running mate won't make that much difference. Voters judge incumbent presidents on their records, and the voters' sense of fairness (to which Obama ceaselessly, relentlessly, seeks to appeal) tells them that, unless a vice president is guilty of some egregious offense — that if he has been doing his job (which, constitutionally, only requires him to preside over the Senate and break ties when they occur) — he does not deserve to be dropped.

So Reagan kept George H.W. Bush in 1984. Clinton kept Al Gore in 1996. George W. Bush kept Dick Cheney in 2004. Each was, at some point in those re–election campaigns, the focus of a drop ______ movement.

If Obama does drop Biden, my sense is that the voters, many of whom have become super sensitive to workplace fairness in recent years, would demand to know the reason — and, of course, there are few things that the administration could plausibly blow out of proportion to justify such a move.

The truth is that there is precious little that Obama can point to that will validate his claim that he needs and deserves a second term.

He can't run on his economic record. Unemployment was 6.5% nationally when Obama was elected in November 2008. It has been well above that level throughout his presidency.

His signature achievement, Obamacare, is likely to be overturned by the Supreme Court in the next few weeks.

Instead of bringing people together, Obama has polarized this nation to a greater extent than it was before he was elected.

None of those things can be blamed on Biden. Democrats knew when he was chosen to be Obama's running mate in 2008 that he was gaffe prone — but, for the most part, he's been a good soldier, doing the heavy lifting when he was asked to do it and generally keeping his tongue in check.

Gallup reports that Americans are divided on Biden. The latest survey is, as Jeffrey Jones observes, "the first time opinions of Biden have tilted negative since he became Obama's vice presidential pick," but the numbers are "not materially different" from the public's assessment of him from 2009 to 2011.

And this survey was conducted after both Biden's comments about same–sex marriage on Meet the Press and Obama's comments in an interview a few days later in which he said he supported the legalization of such marriages.

In the week that has passed, Biden has been criticized for forcing the president's hand. But I think it was done deliberately. Obama knows that the polls have shown a general softening in public opposition to gay marriage, and I believe this was an excuse for Obama to give lip service to an issue that he believes will energize groups who helped him win last time.

And, with the last president's experience fresh in his mind, Obama is doing the same thing — he's using gay marriage to distract attention from the real issues.

I knew several women who supported Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Democratic primaries. When John McCain picked Sarah Palin to be his running mate, it was mostly a ploy to attract Hillary's supporters, many of whom were thought to be up for grabs in the early fall of 2008.

That ploy failed for several reasons. Polls were showing a pretty close race between Obama and McCain until the economic collapse in September 2008. That, combined with Bush fatigue, pretty much assured that Obama would win.

Ironically, though, Obama had chosen his running mate in large part to bolster his ticket's foreign policy credentials. Biden was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at the time he was chosen to run with Obama, and there had been some international tensions that summer.

But foreign policy is way down the list in 2012. And, even if it wasn't, Obama has been trumpeting his role in the killing of Osama bin Laden last year. He doesn't need Biden's help in that category anymore.

Of course, Hillary has been secretary of state under this president so her greatest selling point — other than her gender — is her expertise in foreign policy.

And foreign policy is not on most voters' minds this year.

All that Obama has left is class warfare, which is hardly the inclusive, hope and change banner under which he campaigned four years ago. It is the divide and conquer politics that people have been complaining about for years.

Changing running mates won't alter the fundamentals of this campaign. The voters will do what they always do when an incumbent is on the ballot — they will assess the incumbent's record and decide if they want four more years of it.

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