Is Joe Biden a liability for Obama?

August 17, 2012

The White House made it clear Thursday: No matter what the blogosphere says, Joe Biden will remain President Obama's running mate.

But is that a good thing for Obama?

The fact is, barring a disaster much bigger than the one that has taken place over the last few days, Biden was going to stay on the ticket. Obama, quite plainly, wasn't going to change his running mate.


Click here for a photo gallery of Vice President Biden and Paul Ryan

But just because that was basically his only option doesn't mean it was a good one. And polling tells the story of a vice president who has grown more and more unpopular over the last four years -- even before his recent foibles.

Almost every recent poll has shown Biden's numbers at a low point, with more voters viewing him unfavorably than viewing him in a positive light -- though in most cases, it's only by a few points.

Biden's favorable rating, which was well into the 50s when he and Obama won the 2008 election and took office in 2009, has fallen to around 40 percent in most polls. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll recently pegged his favorable rating at 35 percent (37 percent negative), while a Fox News poll showed the split at 41 percent favorable and 44 percent unfavorable.

Also, swing state polls conducted recently by Purple Strategies showed Biden has an even more negative image in the four states tested -- Colorado, Florida, Ohio and Virginia. In the four combined, his favorable rating was 41 percent and his unfavorable rating was 48 percent.

This isn't exactly pariah territory. Those numbers, in fact, look a lot like the numbers we've been seeing for GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney. And they're about where Dick Cheney's were when he was on a successful reelection ticket in 2004. Indeed, given that much of Biden's job on the campaign trail is to draw contrasts with Romney, it's not surprising that his numbers aren't good (vice presidents are generally used as "attack dogs").

In addition, most people don't pay much mind to the vice president, so even their unfavorable feelings toward Biden tend to be less visceral than they might be for a president or presidential candidate. In other words: We have a hard time seeing a case where Biden's presence on the ticket would push an Obama voter into Romney's camp.

But that doesn't mean it's not a problem. Biden, after all, is Obama's top surrogate. And he's going to take the stage next to Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) in October at a debate. What he says is going to matter and can affect the overall debate.

And some Democrats worry it could go badly.

"There’s no secret about it, especially with the week that Biden has had; I think Paul Ryan is going to school him at the debate," said one Democratic strategist granted anonymity to speak candidly. "Everybody knows we don’t elect a vice president, but they can be like Sarah Palin was for (John) McCain."

In large part thanks to Palin, the debate over Biden's utility on the Democratic ticket is four years late. When Obama tapped Biden for his VP slot in August 2008, there was some consternation that Biden's history of gaffes could cost the ticket. But suddenly, with the GOP's selection of Palin, Biden's gaffes took a back seat (and seemed relatively minor).

Since then, Biden has earned a reputation for being able to talk to some audiences that Obama has a harder time speaking too -- in particular, white working-class voters. The Obama campaign notes that Biden has done more than 100 events for it already and got strong reviews in speeches to Latino and African-American groups.

"He has a unique ability, speaking from personal experience, to lay out what the stakes are for the middle class in this election," Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt said. "And on the stump, his candidness is an asset. Americans know he speaks from the heart and he doesn’t come across like a typical politician using warmed-over talking points."

But Biden isn't overwhelmingly popular with many demographic groups, and only 10 percent of Americans have a strongly favorable view of him, according to a recent Pew Research poll. The Pew poll -- the one recent poll that actually had Biden's favorable rating higher than his unfavorable rating -- shows Biden's favorable rating with those making less than $30,000 a year is 40 percent. Even among Hispanics, whom Biden seemed to hit it off with at the National Council of La Raza conference, his favorable rating is 38 percent.

(The one group where a majority view Biden favorably? African-Americans.)

The fact is that we don't know yet whether Biden will be a liability for the Democratic ticket, in much the same way we don't know whether Paul Ryan will be for the GOP.

But at least for now, Ryan seems to be winning the vice presidential race (for whatever that's worth), thanks to Biden's gaffes and an effective GOP pushback on Ryan's big potential liability: Medicare. And if you told Democrats a week ago that that would be the case, they would have been concerned.

All of this can change, and this week is likely to be a distant memory in early November. But Biden has a tougher task than he did in 2008, when it was all about Palin. And he's starting off on his heels.

Obama camp fights back on Medicare: Obama's campaign is fighting back against the Romney campaign's efforts to distance itself from the Medicare cuts in Ryan's budget and play offense on the issue.

The Obama team is launching a new ad that notes the AARP has praised the president's Medicare plan, while it has criticized the Ryan budget's plan to turn the entitlement into a voucher program.

And on a conference call Thursday, the Obama team accused Ryan of flip-flopping by moving away from his own plan.

“It’s kind of sad to see Congressman Ryan be forced to flip flop on this issue by Gov. Romney,” Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said on an Obama conference call. “They will hasten the insolvency of the Medicare program by 8 years, that’s according to the Medicare trustees. So what they’re announcing is that by the end of their term if they were to be elected, Medicare would have begun to go bankrupt by the end of their term."

Romney's campaign has announced that it would restore the $700 billion in Medicare cuts contained on Obama's health care bill -- even though many of those same cuts were in Ryan's budget.

By doing so, the GOP is better able to contrast itself with Democrats.

Fixbits:

Jesse Jackson says Biden's "chains" comment has knocked Obama off his message.

Van Hollen, who is the ranking member on Ryan's House Budget Committee, will play Ryan in  Biden's debate prep.

Both Obama and Romney will pull their ads on Sept. 11.

White House senior adviser David Plouffe and former president Bill Clinton both raised money for the pro-Obama super PAC Priorities USA on Thursday, even as the White House and Obama campaign continue to distance themselves from a controversial ad being run by the super PAC.

The Republican National Committee raised $37.7 million in July.

Ad spending has now topped $500 million this campaign season.

A poll from Democratic-leaning automated pollster Public Policy Polling shows Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) leading his reelection race 40 percent to 36 percent.

The first general election ad from Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) in the Wisconsin Senate race hits Tommy Thompson for supporting the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy.

Sen. Jon Tester's (D-Mont.) campaign is greeting Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who is in town to campaign for Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.), with a full-page ad noting that McCain opposed the Citizens United Supreme Court decision and Rehberg supported it.

Must-reads:

"Old Obama acquaintance voices South Side’s disillusionment with his former ally" -- Michael Leahy, Washington Post

"The Medicare feud explained: both sides would cut but GOP more" -- James Rainey, Los Angeles Times

"Bill Clinton and the Journalists Who Love-Hated Him" -- Adam Kirsch, Bloomberg

"Mitt Romney, Obama camp spar on Medicare plans" -- Philip Rucker, Washington Post

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix, the Post’s top political blog.
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