5/13/19

Joe Biden is a retreat from the age of Obama

Joe Biden is going to spend the next year selling his campaign as a return to the era of Barack Obama. And this means, of course, that every other candidate will spend a lot of time reminding us that Joe Biden is not Barack Obama - that everything about him, from his record to his philosophy to his vision for the future, is if anything a step back from Obama's legacy.

Usually, this is going to just involve the tedious work of wading through Biden's fifty year political career and dredging up all of the votes and quotes he'd rather we forget. Instead of delving through all of that, however, I want to look at something different: how people have talked about Biden. Specifically, about what they had to say about him before it became useful to hype his progressive bona fides and position him as an ally of the liberal-left.

Because that's not how anyone talked about him before. In fact, when Obama selected Biden as his VP in 2008, this was almost universally regarded - even among mainstream liberal pundits - as a move to pacify white, establishment, conservative critics who were squeamish about voting for a young black president running as an agent of change.


David Brooks, for example, praised the Biden pick as a move away from Obama's "romantic" message of change back towards the "realistic" politics of John McCain:
When Obama talks about postpartisanship, he talks about a grass-roots movement that will arise and sweep away the old ways of Washington. When John McCain talks about it, he describes a meeting of wise old heads who get together to craft compromises. Obama’s vision is more romantic, but McCain’s is more realistic...If Obama hopes to pass energy and health care legislation, he’s going to need someone with that kind of legislative knowledge who can bring the battered old senators together, as in days of yore...Biden’s the one. The only question is whether Obama was wise and self-aware enough to know that. (NYT, 8/11/2008)

Here's how Chuck Todd put it in How Barack Obama Won:
Despite all of the cable chatter by uninformed hype-analysts about putting Hillary Clinton on the ticket, the campaign believed Obama needed someone safe, and safe meant an older white guy... Obama, himself, wanted to be a bit more daring.... 
[But] much of Obama's goal for the final months of the general election campaign was making voters who didn't like Bush and wanted change feel comfortable with him. Biden did that. As the candidate himself would say, Obama is the change...[but] he needed to surround himself with folks who were reassuring...the folks he picked were the conventional, experienced choices, not risky change agents. (19-20)
Here, Todd seems to underestimate just how daring Obama wanted to be. Subsequent reporting shows that he took the possibility of a Clinton pick quite seriously, for example: in Game Change, Heilemann and Halperin report that Obama
kept raising a name that wasn't on any ledger: Clinton...Let's just run through the Hillary option again, he would say to his brain trust. She's tough, she's smart, she's prepared to be president, she has a constituency - she got eighteen million votes. You can't just dismiss that. (339)
The lure of a safe, right-leaning pick ultimately proved to be too seductive, but the authors add that "right up until the moment he rendered his decision as final, Obama kept chuckling, shaking his head, and thinking, I can’t believe I’m picking Biden." (341)

Even Obama's own advisors - the voices of caution and centrism in that selection process - were uneasy about Biden. In The Audacity to Win, David Plouffe recalls a meeting with him that "confirmed what we suspected: this dog could not be taught new tricks." During that meeting, Plouffe and David Axelrod confronted Biden about an issue that both Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have taken him to task over in recent weeks: his stance on consumer bankruptcy protections.
...we asked him how he would answer questions about differences in views or voting record with Obama. We used a bankruptcy bill, where, put simply, Biden had taken the position of the banks, and Obama, of the consumers. Delaware was the state with the largest number of financial corporations, so this was not a small matter in terms of how Biden would approach it. (291)
Obama's team was right to worry. Biden's cozy relationship with the Delaware credit industry - and his work on that bill in particular - was rightly regarded as a betrayal of the working class and a serious liability for a populist campaign running on a message of change. Will Bunch, writing for the Philadelphia Inquirer, captured the standard reaction:
The sad truth is that Biden not only supported but aggressively pushed for a conservative, anti-working class bill that made life a lot harder for that family he talked about...So why would Obama go ahead and pick someone with this kind of baggage? ...It just means that Obama, who was on the people's side on this one, now won't be able to his this issue as hard as he could. (8/25/2008)
The anti-war movement - which had returned control of Congress to Democrats in 2006's wave election, and then propelled Obama to the nomination on the strength of his opposition to the Iraq War - also regarded Biden's nomination as a step backwards. Even then, Biden had developed a reputation as one of the most hawkish Democrats in the Senate: he had been agitating for a unilateral attack on Iraq since at least 1998, and infamously called for the country to be partitioned in the wake of Bush's invasion. Stephen Zunes, writing for Foreign Policy in Focus, offered a typical reaction:
Incipient Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama’s selection of Joseph Biden as his running mate constitutes a stunning betrayal of the anti-war constituency who made possible his hard-fought victory in the Democratic primaries and caucuses....Early in his presidential campaign, Obama pledged to not only end the war in Iraq, but to challenge the mindset that got the United States into Iraq in the first place. Choosing Biden as his running mate, however, raises doubts regarding Obama’s actual commitment to “change we can believe in.” (8/24/2008)
From Brooks to Cockburn, from Todd to Greenwald, this was the 2008 consensus: Obama chose Biden to shore up his right flank. There was of course significant controversy over whether this pick was a good thing - a savvy concession to get a black progressive in office, or a base capitulation to the reactionaries - but there was never any question about who Biden was. Nor should there be today. Joe Biden isn't a step back to Obama - he's a step back from Obama, a point that, until quite recently, we all took for granted.