The Democratic Ticket

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.
Sunday, August 24, 2008

PICKING UP our dusty copy of Joseph R. Biden Jr.'s autobiography the other day, we were struck by two points that underscore his value to Barack Obama as his running mate. The first was the degree to which the young Biden's message, when he was a 29-year-old Senate candidate in 1972, anticipated the themes struck by Mr. Obama more than three decades later. "We must have public officials who will stand up and tell the people exactly what they think," Mr. Biden said in announcing his candidacy. "Our failure in recent years has not been the failure of the people to meet the challenges placed before them, but rather the failure of both our great political parties to place those challenges honestly and courageously before the people." The young Mr. Biden, like Mr. Obama now, emphasized the importance of unity over division. "We have too often retreated behind our differences when no one really tried to lead us beyond them," he said.

That Mr. Obama finds the same faults in a Washington that Mr. Biden has inhabited for more than three decades underscores the difficulty of achieving the transformative politics that Mr. Obama promises. Mr. Biden may share Mr. Obama's outlook, but with an idealism tempered by years in the trenches. Which points to Mr. Biden's second advantage: experience. Mr. Obama's willingness to reach out to the kind of seasoned insider that he has, at times, derided suggests a heartening recognition that time in Washington can be useful. The Democrats end up with a ticket short on executive experience. But given that a President Obama would have to deal with the realities of an often-recalcitrant and gridlocked Senate, having a vice president with a feel for the quirky institution can only be a positive.

Mr. Biden's expertise may reassure those who worry about Mr. Obama's thin résumé in world affairs. We haven't always agreed with his judgment, such as his advocacy of de facto partition of Iraq when the war was going badly. Mr. Biden stuck to that plan long after it was convincingly debunked as impractical by U.S. military commanders and Iraqi political leaders, and, like Mr. Obama, he wrongly bet against last year's troop surge. But he is a committed internationalist, and he has used his chairmanship of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee to promote intelligent U.S. engagement. The hearings he held before the Iraq war, which he supported, pointed both to the danger posed by Saddam Hussein and the daunting challenges that would follow military action.

With a knack for self-defeating and insensitive verbosity, Mr. Biden at times has been his own worst enemy. It has been said that, having been lampooned for this filibustering, he became more disciplined. Perhaps, but we saw a glimpse of the old Biden when he met with The Post's editorial board during his short-lived presidential campaign. Asked about failing schools, Mr. Biden seemed to suggest that one reason so many of the District's schools fail is the city's large minority population and contrasted D.C. schools with those in Iowa. "There's less than 1 percent of the population in Iowa that is African American," Mr. Biden said. "There is probably less than 4 or 5 percent that are minorities. What is in Washington? So look, it goes back to what you start off with, what you're dealing with." The Biden campaign quickly issued a statement asserting that the candidate was referring to socioeconomic status, not racial differences. The lesson we took was not to think that Mr. Biden is a racist -- we don't -- but to worry about his tendency to speak too much before he thinks enough.

Still, anyone with as long a record as Mr. Biden's will have made statements and taken positions that he comes to regret. Mr. Obama fairly decided that bringing experience onto the ticket was worth that price.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company