After nearly five decades in public life, the former vice president certainly has a long enough track record of his own to put before voters. But it is his partnership with Obama over eight years that has been front and center in his third campaign for the White House. There may then be no better time for the first in-depth exploration of that relationship, offered by Steven Levingston in the simply and appropriately titled “Barack and Joe.”
The nonfiction book editor for The Washington Post, Levingston sets out in his fourth book to trace the origins of a most unlikely “bromance” that substantively and symbolically made history in American politics.
“Together, Barack and Joe filled in the spaces that were missing in the other man and created something bigger than their separate parts: young and old, black and white, they melded into a whole that was brainy, goofy, standoffish, gregarious,” Levingston writes. “Barack and Joe were real and imaginary all at once.”
The thesis Levingston sets out to explore is no surprise to those who have followed the relationship closely. My own experience with it began in earnest more than a decade ago, in the driveway of the then-senator’s Delaware house in the days leading up to his selection as Obama’s running mate in August 2008 and through the end of that historic campaign; I covered Biden as a reporter for NBC News, then for most of the Obama-Biden administration at the Los Angeles Times, and I’m now reporting on Biden’s campaign again for NBC.
In what is by his own admission not a comprehensive accounting of their relationship, Levingston traces its evolution by delving deeply into a handful of key moments before their election and then in the White House.
His best insights revolve around their earliest days as colleagues — not in the White House but in the Senate. Obama entered the chamber as a political phenomenon in 2005 but quickly felt stifled by its traditions, its hierarchy and what he saw as its glacial pace. “Biden, that creature of the Senate, reared on its conventions, was a symbol of all that Obama found frustrating about the institution,” Levingston notes. Listening to his very senior colleague speak at a confirmation hearing early in his tenure, Obama passed a note to a top aide at one point with three words: “Shoot. Me. Now.”
Both men had eyes on the White House in 2008, “not fertile ground for a friendship.” And it wasn’t long after Biden entered the race that one of his trademark gaffes threatened to put the two men permanently at odds: Biden’s description of Obama in an interview as “the first sort of mainstream African American who is articulate and bright and clean.”
But as a top aide, David Axelrod, recalled to Levingston, Obama brushed off the dust-up, and Biden would apologize shortly after. Axelrod said it was an important benchmark “because he could have turned the screws and he didn’t.” And Obama’s opinion of Biden evolved over time, especially through his performance in the primary debates. Biden’s blunt style, though at times a liability, “came across as authentic in a world of political calculation.”
If Obama saw Biden early on as an avatar of his frustrations with the Senate, Biden also viewed Obama skeptically, as an “impatient freshman senator.” But it wasn’t long after his own candidacy flamed out that Biden had what a longtime adviser, Tony Blinken, called a “click moment” — when he watched Obama deliver a major address on race after a controversy over previous comments by his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
“That is maybe the best speech I’ve ever heard a political leader give,” Blinken recounts Biden telling him. As the aide put it to Levingston, “Biden saw Obama in a different light than he’d seen him before, and there was a newfound respect and admiration.”
When it came time for Obama to choose a running mate, Biden had become a favorite. Whether he wanted the job was another question. He laid out terms that would become the basis of their work together in the White House: to be Obama’s chief counselor, to be the last guy in the room weighing in on every major decision and to be able to speak with total candor.
Nearly half of “Barack and Joe” is devoted to this pre-White House period. But after the inauguration, one of the book’s main strengths can become its biggest disappointment. With great attention to detail and extensive research, Levingston puts the reader at critical moments in the Obama-Biden administration as they relate to the men’s personal ties. But with only limited cooperation from key figures in their orbit, and no interviews with the two principals, Levingston concedes that his “rough draft” of this recent history leaves much more for others to uncover.
Amid his largely favorable accounting of the Obama-Biden relationship, Levingston often holds out two entities for criticism: the president and his staff’s “fortresslike approach” to the press, and the press itself. In the case of the latter, Levingston notes how news outlets frequently overplayed supposed Biden gaffes, even when they “scented nothing of great relevance but nonetheless hammered away for the sake of drama.” In the process, though, the media also “helped shape positive perceptions of the [Obama-Biden] partnership,” broadcasting images of the pair together in serious and less-serious moments.
And while Levingston takes the press to task for focusing on Biden’s gaffes, several chapters of “Barack and Joe” are dedicated to how the president, the vice president and their respective teams grappled with those moments — mostly Biden’s missteps, but also Obama’s own. There was the joke Biden made at Chief Justice John Roberts’s expense about the misdelivered presidential oath of office, and the time he deviated from the administration’s careful script about a flu threat to say he would advise his own family to avoid air travel.
In Obama’s case, Levingston explores the president’s blunt appraisal of a Cambridge, Mass., police officer, who he said acted “stupidly” by arresting Henry Louis Gates Jr. after a report of a potential breaking-and-entering at what turned out to be the Harvard professor’s own home. Levingston notes how Biden’s presence at the “beer summit” Obama later convened in hopes of moving beyond the incident served to underscore the historic nature of their arrangement.
“Just by its existence and daily workings, his partnership with Joe Biden served as a badge of racial harmony. He and Joe needed to say nothing, draw no attention to the racial aspect of their unique collaboration; it spoke for itself,” Levingston writes. “Through their relationship, Barack and Joe led by example, without either man drawing attention to their obvious racial trailblazing.”
Levingston documents Biden’s lead role in deliberations over the administration’s Afghanistan strategy and how his bond with Obama was strengthened when the president stood by him, firing Gen. Stanley McChrystal after a Rolling Stone article captured the general’s closest aides candidly critiquing top White House officials, including Biden — whom one McChrystal adviser called “Bite Me.”
Levingston also spoke to former aides about how Biden’s adaptation to the role played out behind closed doors. His “overwhelming, attention-attracting personality vanished during the moments most important to Obama.” And ultimately, Biden’s private loss — his son Beau’s brain cancer diagnosis and death a few years later — cemented the bond between both men. Axelrod recalls Obama worrying in one private meeting about how his No. 2 would endure the loss of his eldest son, one of several instances when the president’s concern about Biden’s welfare was expressed inside the West Wing. Obama’s emotional eulogy to Beau Biden in 2015 “helped unlock a warmth in Barack that may not have been fully realized in public until he got Bidened,” Levingston notes.
So why hasn’t Obama endorsed Biden now? Levingston saves a brief exploration of this question for an epilogue, based again on contemporaneous media reports. He recalls how Obama advisers had been allowed to explore replacing Biden on the ticket in 2012, which, combined with the 2020 non-endorsement, paints “a pattern of political expediency from Obama that put a strain on his relationship with Joe, especially as they went their separate ways after the White House.” Where Biden had proved a loyal soldier for eight-plus years, “Obama’s loyalties were often hard to gauge.”
In that sense, what reads mostly as a favorable portrait of the Obama-Biden bond ends with some question about just how much Biden’s contributions to it were reciprocated. They “had come together for a specific purpose: to win an election and govern as president and vice president,” Levingston writes. As for how their partnership evolves now, “there is still much to tell.”
The Making of an Extraordinary Partnership
By Steven Levingston Hachette.
352 pp. $28