Biden Stumbles at the Starting Gate

Comments About Obama Overtake Bid for President

Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 1, 2007; Page A06

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) joined the 2008 race for the White House yesterday, declaring that he has the right skills and experience to extricate the United States from Iraq without destabilizing the Middle East. But he spent much of the day extricating himself from a controversy over his comments about Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), and he eventually issued a statement of regret.

Biden, who unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nomination in 1988, is staking his presidential hopes on more than three decades of experience in the Senate, where he has risen to become chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and one of the Democratic Party's leading spokesmen on national security and foreign policy.

Biden said he believes he has the unique set of attributes to get the United States out of the most divisive conflict since the Vietnam War without further damaging U.S. interests around the world. "The next president of the United States, because of the policies of this president, is going to have no margin for error," he said on ABC's "Good Morning America," adding, "I think I have the most experience there."

He is a co-sponsor of one of the Senate resolutions opposing President Bush's plan to send 21,500 more troops to Iraq, but also has been critical of other Democrats who have called for what he believes would be a precipitous withdrawal of U.S. forces from the conflict. Last fall, Biden proposed a plan that called for a political settlement in Iraq and for Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds to be given responsibility over specific regions of the country.

Biden sought to highlight his experience on the day he declared his candidacy, but an interview he gave to the New York Observer, a weekly newspaper, overshadowed his announcement.

In the interview, Biden described Obama as "the first mainstream African American [presidential candidate] who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy. I mean, that's a storybook, man."

Asked during an afternoon conference call with reporters to explain his choice of words, Biden said he meant no offense in describing Obama the way he did, then lavished praise on the Illinois senator as a "very special guy" who has caught "lightning in a jar" like no politician he has seen before. "This guy is a superstar," he added.

Biden also said that he had called Obama after the remarks became public and that Obama had taken no offense from them.

Obama later issued a statement that absolved Biden only in part. "I didn't take Senator Biden's comments personally," he said, "but obviously they were historically inaccurate. African-American presidential candidates like Jesse Jackson, Shirley Chisholm, Carol Moseley Braun and Al Sharpton gave a voice to many important issues through their campaigns, and no one would call them inarticulate."

After Obama's statement, Biden issued a statement further backtracking. "I deeply regret any offense my remark in the New York Observer might have caused anyone," he said. "That was not my intent and I expressed that to Senator Obama."

It was the second time in months that Biden has been forced to explain a comment that some interpreted as racially insensitive. In a videotaped exchange with a supporter last June, he said, "You cannot go to a 7-Eleven or a Dunkin' Donuts [in Delaware] unless you have a slight Indian accent. I'm not joking."

In the Observer interview and in a television interview, Biden also criticized Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's proposal to cut funding for Iraqi security forces if the Iraqi government fails to meet a series of benchmarks.

"I think it would be a disaster, if that is her plan," he said of the New York senator on "Good Morning America." "They're the people we're supposed to be training so that we can rely on them to aid us in the efforts that we undertake."

Biden called Clinton "clearly qualified" to be president but told the Observer the fact that so many Democrats do not support her gave him hope that he could win the nomination. "My point was she's known by 100 percent of the people and has had the legitimate and understandable support from her husband, and there are still 60 percent of the people up for grabs," he told reporters.

Biden was also critical of another presidential rival, former North Carolina senator John Edwards. "I don't think John Edwards knows what the heck he is talking about" on Iraq, he said.

With his remarks about Obama, Biden began his second campaign for the White House much as the first one ended, arguing that his public comments were being misinterpreted. He quit the 1988 campaign after being captured on videotape adopting the rhetoric and in some cases the life story of British Labor Party leader Neil Kinnock. The video was sent by the campaign of Michael S. Dukakis to the New York Times and eventually led to Biden's withdrawal.

Biden won election to the Senate in 1972 when he was 29 years old. He turned 30 in time to be sworn in the following January. Tragedy struck almost immediately after the election when his wife and daughter were killed in an automobile accident, leaving Biden with two young sons. He later remarried and still commutes daily between his home in Delaware and the capital.

A gifted orator, Biden has been plagued by a reputation for being windy and verbose, whether while chairing a Senate hearing or speaking at political gatherings around the country.

"I think one of the reasons we're in trouble is we reduce the political discussion to sound bites," he told ABC's Diane Sawyer. "The American public's a lot more sophisticated than we all give them credit for. And on complicated issues, I'm going to give them straight answers. And if it takes more than three minutes, I'm going to do it."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company