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Joe Biden’s case for himself is this: “If I was good enough for Barack Obama, I’m good enough for you.” Biden literally made the good-enough-for-Obama argument when challenged during a recent debate about his occasional racial gaffes: “Barack Obama knew exactly who I was,” he said. “He had ten lawyers do a background check on everything about me on civil rights and civil liberties, and he chose me, and he said it was the best decision he made. I’ll take his judgment.” It’s the ultimate “My Black Friend” card.
But Joe Biden does not seem to understand Barack Obama’s judgment on the interesting matter of Joe Biden.
Biden may not remember, but Barack Obama was in a peculiar position in 2008.
He had been sworn in as a senator on Jan. 3, 2005, and announced his presidential campaign on Feb. 10, 2007. Before that, he’d been a relatively obscure member of the state senate in Illinois and mainly was known for having made one rousing speech at the 2004 Democratic convention. He was inexperienced and callow — no less a Washington fixture than Joe Biden himself had declared Obama “not yet ready” to run for the presidency — but he had some reason to be confident: Hillary Rodham Clinton had been running for the Democratic nomination since the day after her husband’s reelection, if not earlier, gloried in a Senate seat formerly occupied by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, enjoyed easy access to money and a vast network of political connections, and signed her autograph with what was, at the time, the best brand name in Democratic politics short of Kennedy or Roosevelt. And Obama, a gifted nobody, had dispatched her — and been cocky while doing it: “Likable enough,” etc.
Obama makes a great deal about the racial aspect of his political career; and, of course, that was a big deal — probably the most significant thing about his presidency — but he either misunderstood or misrepresented it. His being black was, on balance, probably an asset, even given the reality that there remain a non-trivial number of Americans who would vote against him based on that and nothing else. There is race hatred, but there also is a hunger in our nation for some event that will allow us to in some sense close the book on the saga of race in America. This is, of course, wishful thinking: Neither Gettysburg nor Brown v. Board nor the Civil Rights Act of 1964 nor the election of Barack Obama was going to do it, because it cannot be done. But still Americans, including Republicans, were eager for the historical milestone of an African-American president. A great many Republicans would have danced all night long after the swearing in of President Condoleezza Rice.
But that eagerness does not liberate us from seeing public events within the inescapable frame of race. Obama’s understated radicalism was not the radicalism of the Black Panthers or Louis Farrakhan — it was Harvard Law radicalism, but Obama was correct that his African ancestry and his exotic-sounding name set him apart and together were apt to imbue him with an alien quality among many voters. Mrs. Clinton’s campaign, along with Donald Trump and the rest of the “birther” conspiracy nuts, were clever to emphasize Obama’s “lack of American roots,” as Mark Penn’s strategy memo put it.
Race inflects our views in ways great and small: The Black Lives Matter critics exaggerate the problem of police conduct, but it is reasonably well-established fact that black men are perceived as being more dangerous and more threatening than white men; black men are even perceived as being larger than white men of the same size. Obama understood that much. The racial frame is inescapable, even in trivial things: Obama likes gold Rolex watches but never wore one as president. Dwight Eisenhower wore one, and so did Lyndon Johnson. Why not Barack Obama? Because in America a gold Rolex means something different on a black man. Practically every line of criticism directed at President Obama was dismissed at some time as a racial dog-whistle; again, an exaggeration, but there certainly was a racial resonance to the endless talk-radio complaints about Obama’s travel spending, and especially that of his wife. The fact that Democrats make similar complaints about white Republicans does not really change that.
And so Obama’s balancing act: a Wilsonian-Johnsonian commitment to expanding the welfare state and regimenting critical sectors of the economy under Washington’s direction; all that dopey, content-free “hope and change” stuff that worked so well for Bill Clinton; and, in both international relations and sensitive domestic cultural affairs, a politics of respectability, which was often enough in practice a politics of condescension — and insincerity. Senator Obama, you’ll recall, was too much of a social conservative to stand a chance in today’s Democratic party — he opposed homosexual marriage and cited his religious beliefs in service of that position, meaning that 2008’s great progressive hope is 2019’s irredeemable hate monster. Not many people thought that he actually believed any of that, but they admired the calculation and the so-called realism of his self-conscious positioning. Democrats do not mind being lied to if they are skillfully lied to — Bill Clinton left the White House a hero.
Barack Obama is famously unsentimental, including on racial questions, for instance in shaping his romantic life in a way that would comport better with his political ambitions. When it came time for him to choose a running mate, his short list consisted exclusively of white, moderate, establishment Democratic figures, mostly with Catholic backgrounds: a governor of Kansas, a governor and senator from Indiana, a governor of Virginia, and Joe Biden, an eternal Senate fixture who had chaired two committees important to the Obama campaign: Foreign Relations, which might help provide some heft on international relations that Obama’s own résumé wanted, and Judiciary, which would make the vice president a potential asset in high-court confirmation hearings. It was put out that Mrs. Clinton was under consideration, but Obama himself apparently never took that idea seriously.
It is common for a presidential candidate to seek “balance” from his vice president, though Bill Clinton chose another young, moderate, white man from the South as part of his “double Bubba” ticket. The “balance” that Biden brought wasn’t exclusively racial. Part of it was age: Biden was an old hand and a known quantity, and Obama uncharacteristically miscalculated that his age would dissuade him from a presidential run of his own. But it is very difficult to imagine Obama’s having selected another African American for the No. 2 spot, or anything other than a moderate, familiar, white male. Given the ways in which unreasoning racial fear historically has been wrapped up with reasonable fears about violent crime and good-faith efforts to combat it, Biden’s role as author of an important Clinton-era crime bill might also have been considered a vaccine against a particularly enduring strain of American racial politics.
Obama did not bring a designated driver to the party — he brought a designated white guy.
“In other words,” Ed Kilgore writes in New York magazine, “Team Obama was looking at Biden strictly as a veep, and perhaps as someone who could help out with congressional relations and international matters — but not as any sort of heir apparent or successor as leader and shaper of the Democratic Party.” And yet Biden, at this moment, leads in the Democratic primary polls, 13 points ahead of the pack overall, up only four points in California but nine points in Iowa and 21 points in North Carolina. That may not actually mean very much. In the summer of 2015, former Florida governor Jeb Bush — a respectable conservative with a very good record in office and practically universal name recognition — was leading the Republican field; in the actual primary elections, Republicans went a different way. It may be only that Democrats know the name “Biden” and that they remain personally fond of Barack Obama, even as his policy record among Democrats has turned rancid faster than gas-station sashimi in August. If it is the case that Democrats really are well disposed toward Biden rather than merely familiar with him — why?
Sometimes, organizations that are redefined for a time by a single charismatic leader pull back and reconsolidate their ranks once that leader has left the scene: The Catholic Church chose the quiet and retiring Cardinal Ratzinger to follow the world-shaking and sainted John Paul II; the Republican party after Ronald Reagan leaned away from crusading ideologues, nominating Vice President George H. W. Bush and then Senator Bob Dole, an admirable man who possesses the cure for charisma; Apple replaced the visionary Steve Jobs with Tim Cook, a logistics man who once compared the firm to a dairy operation. Seen from that point of view, Biden’s promise to the Democratic party in 2020 would be the same as it was in 2008: that he is a reliable and steady hand on the steering wheel and not shy about using the brakes if needed.
That is an unlikely case for Biden: For one thing, he no longer seems very reliable or steady to anybody, possibly even to himself. His once-endearing penchant for blurting out whatever is passing through that three-pound wad of meat in his skull is a considerable liability in this age of hysterical and performative social-media outrage politics. He is an atavistic creature that evolved in a different environment and is ill-suited to thriving in this one. And the Democrats looking toward 2020 do not seem to be very much in search of a brake pedal. They are the mirror image of Republicans in 2016 contemplating the prospect of nominating Donald Trump as their presidential candidate: They do not merely want to win the upcoming election — they also want a national cultural repudiation of the incumbent. It is not enough that they win the office; it must be understood that their doing so is a precondition for their cultural project, which is, of course, to “Make America Great Again,” as they understand it.
Joe Biden is an unlikely instrument of that deliverance.
“The assumption that Biden would be too old to run for president in 2016 is rather interesting now that he’s running four years later,” Kilgore continues. “But it does help explain why there was little apparent worry over Biden’s touchy history on racial issues. The Obama–Biden ticket had more than enough biracial bona fides to cover a multitude of old sins and associations.” That may in fact be too meek of an explanation. It may be that 2008 Biden’s value came from his prefiguration of 2019 Biden. Professor LaFleur Stephens-Dougan, writing in the Washington Post, detects something deeper in Biden’s awkward racial talk:
Biden’s “gaffe” may have been more strategic—an example of what my research calls “racial distancing.” Racial distancing is a political strategy whereby politicians try to win over racially moderate and conservative whites by making it clear they will not disrupt the existing racial hierarchy, with white Americans at the top of social, political and economic institutions.
This would suggest that Obama chose Biden in 2008 for the same reason he pretended to be morally opposed to homosexual marriage: His “hope and change” talk, and his promises to “fundamentally transform” the country, were by design amorphous and lacked well-defined focus or boundaries; the caution on homosexual marriage almost certainly was intended at least in part to signal a wider and more general cautiousness and moderation on questions of cultural or even economic radicalism, a concern that was intensified in the general electorate by his racial identity and his Muslim name. Biden, who spent decades courting and flattering Democratic segregationists in the Senate (from the unreconstructed to the reformed), offered another indication that President Obama would emphasize conventional Democratic lunch-bucket issues — the creation of new welfare benefits and other modes of income redistribution — that he was not, in spite of his millenarian happy-talk, looking to usher in the Age of Aquarius, that his banal speechifying on racial issues was likely to be, in effect, the extent of it.
That is one promise President Obama mostly kept.
Paul Begala and other critics are correct to point out that there is a deep division in the Democratic party between “pain-in-the-ass white liberals,” as Begala calls them, and more old-fashioned Democrats more oriented toward issues touching jobs, wages, and economic security. In today’s Democratic party, the moderate wing is largely black and Hispanic, while the more radical left wing is disproportionately white. That’s a funny little pickle for the 2020 primary candidates: Joe Biden, Barack Obama’s designated white guy, is probably closer to most black and Hispanic Democratic primary voters than is, say, Cory Booker, who is trying to present himself as the racial-justice candidate. Kirsten Gillibrand has spent a great deal of time lecturing other well-off white women about “white privilege,” while Kamala Harris is fending off criticism that she is too much of a law-and-order candidate, in part because she worked as a prosecutor during a period in which legal norms were deeply influenced by Joe Biden’s sweeping 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law-Enforcement Act and its famous “three strikes” provision. It is a funny old world.
What can be derived from all this is that almost none of what made Joe Biden attractive to Barack Obama as a vice president in 2008 is likely to prove helpful to the candidate in 2020, and that much of it is likely to prove encumbering to him. He is the designated white guy in a party that does not want one this time around or believe itself to need one. And three cheers for that: Joe Biden’s political redundancy might, from this point of view, be welcomed as a kind of milestone in American racial politics, not quite so significant as Barack Obama’s election to the presidency but certainly complementary to it.
Barack Obama is, as of this writing, maintaining an absolutely prudent and practically monastic silence on the 2020 Democratic primary. If he had been so circumspect as president — if he had had just a slight touch of Calvin Coolidge upon his soul — he might have become the great unifier that had been so intensely hoped for by many of his admirers and more than a few of his critics. But he was what he was, and his presidency’s main bequests to the country are an even more deformed body of health-insurance regulations and a heightened feeling of whatever product you get when you multiply cynicism by paranoia.
Whatever we do, let us please abandon the notion of Joe Biden as an avuncular, conciliatory, reasonable politician of the courtly old school. Whatever his contribution to Obama’s presidency, Biden’s legacy already is fixed and has been since long before anybody cared about that stirring young state senator from Illinois: Joe Biden will be remembered for his central role in the Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas hearings, during which he arguably did more than any other living American to convert ordinary partisanship into scorched-earth culture war. Dopey old “Uncle Joe”? He is as vicious and conniving a man as the politics of our time has thrown up. But even his viciousness will not save him in 2020. In that, the teacher has been surpassed by his students. If they tear him apart, as I expect them to, there will be some poetic justice in the spectacle.
Joe Biden was good enough for Barack Obama in 2008. This is not 2008.