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Assessing Joe Biden

Barack Obama has tapped Delaware Sen. Joe Biden as his vice presidential running mate. Biden has more than 35 years in the Senate and is a respected voice on international matters.

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Sunday, August 24, 2008

In this edition of Topic A: Mary Beth Cahill, Ed Rogers, Thomas Vilsack, Alex Castellanos, Celia Cohen, Michael S. Berman, Todd Harris, John Diamond, David Greenberg, Laura Nichols

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MARY BETH CAHILL

Manager of Sen. John Kerry's presidential campaign and former chief of staff to Sen. Edward Kennedy

This is a good first decision by Barack Obama. Sen. Joseph Biden has many obvious strengths that make him a good running mate: unassailable foreign policy credentials, personal relationships with many world leaders, long and deep service on the Hill. He will be a valuable voice of experience in an Obama White House.

The fall campaign, however, will highlight an equally important attribute: Biden likes to campaign. He enjoys mixing it up with voters and meeting different people. He has a down-to-earth way with people regardless of their social or economic status. He also has a loyal and talented group of advisers who have known him long and well. Biden will understand completely the role of the vice presidential nominee and will unhesitatingly lead the attack on Sen. John McCain.

This year, whoever wins Catholics will win the election. Joe Biden and his family can be given the critical assignment of reassuring Catholics that their concerns would be central in an Obama-Biden administration.

ED ROGERS

White House staffer to Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush and group chairman of BGR Holding

There are three reasons Republicans should be satisfied with Obama's selection.

First, all Americans should be glad that Obama did not choose another lightweight left-wing snob for the ticket. Joe Biden is good-natured, serious and truly qualified. Everyone who cares about good government and serious politics can imagine him as president, unlike Obama.

Second, Obama did nothing that will help him in a swing state. Biden has no following in a key state or among any particular voter group that will help Obama appeal to the center, nor does Biden reinforce Obama's appeal as an agent of change . All previous Biden attempts to build support with voters outside his native Delaware have been spectacular failures.

Third, Biden is famous as a lengthy and reckless talker. On any given day, there is a good chance that he will say something that could destroy the Democratic ticket or at least hurt its chances in November. The media will be on gaffe watch with fine-tuned antennae for Biden to be off-message. This should be interesting and fun to watch.

Whew, as a concerned citizen and McCain supporter, I am relieved and encouraged by the Biden selection.

THOMAS VILSACK

Governor of Iowa from 1998 to 2006 and national co-chairman of Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign

Whether this election turns on foreign policy or the economy Joe Biden helps. Yes, Joe Biden knows the world and world leaders know Joe Biden. But Biden is not of Washington: He was raised in central Pennsylvania and is often described as the third senator from Pennsylvania. John McCain can forget Pennsylvania and Tom Ridge can probably forget a spot on the ticket. And the liberal label will not stick on this team. Biden's values are pure middle class. He goes home most every night to Delaware and has for all of his career. He will fight for those who dignify life by working to better their families and serve their communities. Elections are won in the middle -- people who are middle income, middle aged, from the middle of the country and from the middle of our political spectrum. Joe Biden connects with them and they see him as one of them. People vote for people they like and against people they don't like. Both Barack Obama and Joe Biden are easy to like.

ALEX CASTELLANOS

Media consultant to Mitt Romney's presidential campaign and unpaid, occasional adviser to Sen. John McCain's campaign

Every vice presidential nominee should come with an off button. Sen. Joe Biden does not have one. The Delaware senator has one of the longest careers in Washington and has talked his way through all of it, leaving a 36-year trail of opinion and political misstatement. This choice promises to be a boon to late-night talk show hosts and a persistent bone spur to Obama himself.

Obama's refusal to consider tough-as-nails Hillary Clinton, as if he were afraid of her and her husband, had lent his campaign an air of weakness. In picking Biden, a partner understood to have the political maturity and foreign policy gravitas he lacks, Obama displays self-confidence and strength. With no economic credentials, however, the Biden choice makes a McCain-Romney ticket a better bet.

Strong vice presidents, such as Al Gore and Dick Cheney, can be productive partners in governing. However, a VP is also a spare tire on the presidential car: He should be ready if needed and roll smoothly in the direction the administration travels. Joe Biden's inflated sense of self leads one to wonder if Obama has picked a tire that is a little too big for this car. That could make for a bumpy ride.

CELIA COHEN

Author of "Only in Delaware: Politics and Politicians in the First State"

The last time there was a media frenzy around Joe Biden, he was hounded out of the presidential race. In 1987. He never even made it to 1988.

This time, the swarming was kind of sweet, like wanting to go steady. Joe Biden for vice president! He needed 20 years to reinvent himself, one Sunday talk show at a time.

Who knew that tanking in Iowa could lead to co-starring in Denver? That and Russia's invasion of Georgia. It no doubt helped Biden's prospects that he is someone who hears "Georgia" and instantly thinks "access to the Black Sea," not "peaches."

People are agog here in Delaware, the state that is 49th in size and peaked when it was the first to ratify the Constitution. Expectations are very low for national recognition. Delaware would happily take "home of a vice president."

Biden's emergence is more evidence he is either the luckiest unlucky man alive, or the unluckiest lucky man. There always has been something Shakespearean about him, his greatest strengths as his tragic flaws. He can do himself in like Othello, but he is also one of the rarest creatures in politics -- a second act.

Whatever impulsiveness the Democrats are getting in Biden, it will not be boring. Delaware knows Biden as the politician windy enough to filibuster himself, the senator itching to show Supreme Court nominees that he's smarter than they are, the world-wise Foreign Relations Committee chairman whose speech on Sept. 10, 2001, warned that the terrorists were coming.

The state has lived with his supernova life since he was elected at age 29 in 1972, buried his wife and baby daughter after a car crash, blew his first presidential run over plagiarism, and barely survived brain aneurysms -- but always, always came back.

All of Delaware is divided into Biden idolizers and Biden haters. The backers are more numerous, the detractors more intense. He will be on the ballot twice, because he also is running for reelection. This could put the Biden haters in therapy.

MICHAEL S. BERMAN

Former counsel and deputy chief of staff to Vice President Walter Mondale and president of the Duberstein Group

Something that Biden brings that is not so obvious: his knowledge and his relationships.

He brings on-the-spot knowledge of Sen. John McCain and McCain's legislative record in practice, enabling Biden to engage McCain in ways and with authority that others cannot.

He brings knowledge of Congress, its players and its ways. Even though Democrats are likely to increase their majority in the next House and Senate, the Senate is where a President Obama will have the most difficulty passing his programs. A well-connected vice president, especially one as respected as Biden, is effectively the administration's best lobbyist in the Senate and in the House of Representatives.

Biden brings knowledge of the government as a whole and the system that Obama plans to change. To change a system you have to know how it really works. Biden knows how it works.

TODD HARRIS

Former spokesman for Sen. John McCain and a partner at Navigators LLC

It is no coincidence that the buzz surrounding Joe Biden began to increase just as the conflict in the Caucuses began to escalate. Obama's vague notions of "hope" and "change," as well as the vice presidential aspirations of fresh-faced but inexperienced governors such as Tim Kaine and Kathleen Sebelius, were no match for the realpolitik of Russian tanks.

Obama's lack of experience is keeping this race as close as it is. Recent polls show that less than half of all voters think he has prepared himself enough to be president. Enter Joe Biden. He brings decades of foreign policy experience to the ticket -- and more than a little baggage.

Obama's choice is an admission that as much as the country wants change, in a dangerous world it wants experience and leadership more. That's good news for John McCain. And, as it happens, Joe Biden.

Biden will thank many people when he accepts the nomination for vice president. But the person who had the most to do with his selection, Vladimir Putin, will probably not get the credit he deserves.

JOHN DIAMOND

Author of "The CIA and the Culture of Failure," a forthcoming book on the post-Cold War CIA

Obama now has a potentially more important decision to make concerning the vice presidency. After eight years of secret, no-accountability decision making by Dick Cheney, Obama must decide how much authority he plans to confer on his No. 2.

As a career consensus-builder, Joseph Biden is unlikely to conduct the vice presidency in the fashion of Cheney under any circumstances. Still, it is important for Obama to send a strong signal that, in contrast to the Bush administration, the Office of the President will be run by the president.

Such a signal would be welcomed by Democrats appalled by the decisions made by Cheney and imposed seemingly without check from the Oval Office -- decisions favoring harsh interrogation methods, detentions without trial, warrantless eavesdropping on U.S. citizens and the handover to the oil industry of energy policymaking.

Reasserting the primacy of the presidency will also serve Obama well by counteracting the undermining view that the reason he picked Biden was to provide the Democratic ticket with qualities and experience that Obama lacks.

Obama's challenge is to make clear that the function of Biden's experience will be to implement Obama's own foreign policies, not providing a hybrid form of leadership operating behind closed doors in the West Wing or from some undisclosed location.

DAVID GREENBERG

A professor of history and media studies at Rutgers University

Obama blew it.

He dragged things out for days, teasingly dropping hints and misdirection. This over-the-top coyness damages him three ways.

First, it feeds the idea that he's a narcissist. It encourages voters to picture him and his inner circle relishing the fevered speculation they generated.

Second, after so much hype, the choice could only disappoint. And really, we waited three months for Joe Biden?

Third, the protracted process short-sightedly allowed Hillary Clinton's name to reenter the veepstakes -- a move bound to further alienate her backers when she wasn't selected. Once the conjecture about her became rampant, Obama should have doused it instantly and unambiguously.

Apart from Clinton, Biden was the best choice of the finalists. His foreign policy knowledge and instincts will serve Obama well, as the two men's first reactions to the Georgia crisis showed.

But it cannot escape comment that Biden is a serial plagiarist.

Few remember the details surrounding the many incidents of word-theft, dating to law school, that disqualified him from the 1988 presidential race. Biden lifted words from Bobby Kennedy, Hubert Humphrey and the British politician Neil Kinnock; in the last instance, Biden stole autobiographical material, in effect making false claims about his own life. That suggests something pathological about Biden, for wholesale deceptions aren't easily explained away. The media opted not to reopen those incidents when Biden ran for president this year, but they should have. Character doesn't change easily; something troubling may still lurk beneath the smile and the logorrhea.

LAURA NICHOLS

Longtime spokeswoman for House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt and senior fellow at the Center for American Progress

A man's mode of transportation speaks volumes about who he is. On most days, Joe Biden rides an Amtrak train 80 minutes to and from work. Like millions of commuters, his day depends on the reliability of public transportation. That alone gives him a better vantage of America than our current, sheltered vice president.


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