What does Barack Obama’s choice of Biden tell us?

What does the selection of Joe Biden to be Barack Obama‘s US Vice-President candidate tell us about the state of Barack Obama’s campaign and where it is headed?

Joe Biden is a long-time white male senator in his mid-60s from the East coast with two previous Presidential bids behind him. It’s certainly not a choice based on reinforcing Obama’s message of change: white male senators are hardly a novelty in US politics, especially Presidential politics, and the selection continues the overwhelming Democrat preference for picks from the eastern third of the US. Oh, and did I mention that he’s also one of the longest-serving senators?

In all those respects, Biden is as much ‘Democrat politics as usual’ as you can get. He’s not a candidate of change.

What he does though bring is long years of foreign policy experience, including currently chairing the powerful Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. In that respect, he is a good fit for for Obama, but it’s a very defensive choice.

Selecting someone to offset your weaknesses can work electorally (think Dick Cheney) but there’s none of the mold-breaking ambition shown by, for example, Bill Clinton in 1992 when by selecting a fellow southerner in Al Gore to be his running mate he dramatically reinforced the message about being a different sort of Democrat.

It’s also a risky choice given that so much of the recent Democrat electoral successes has been driven by opposition to the Iraq war, yet Biden voted for the war, has consistently supported it and has called for more troops to be deployed. In his defence, he did also attempt to give diplomacy one last opportunity to work before the invasion and has called for stronger international collaboration.

Biden has also recently gone on record criticising Obama as being “not yet ready” to be President. That’s a quote likely to be very regularly wheeled out to reinforce McCain’s attacks on Obama’s lack of experience.

The quote has already featured in a McCain TV advert that was released very promptly which you can watch here:

On the other hand, Biden does have a very punchy style of political debate that should make him well suited for the ‘attack dog’ role often taken up by running mates.

The overall caution of the selection most likely reflects the fact that, for all the Obama buzz, he has held only a small polling lead over McCain and he and his campaign have decided that the only way to move forward with confidence is to start addressing some of Obama’s weaknesses.

One footnote: despite all the Obama campaign rhetoric about putting its supporters at the centre of the campaign and how it would tell them first via text message who was to be the Vice-President pick, in reality the media ran the story first and the text message notifications went out late, rushed and at a poor time (around 3am East Coast). It’s a rare stumble from the Obama campaign, and one that will most likely quickly be forgotten as the Democratic Convention starts, but a reminder that even the Obama campaign is human.

The other aspect of the stumble is that having hyped the selection so much in advance, ending up with a conventional, cautious selection has left rather a sense of anticlimax. The technical tactics have been out of kilter with the campaign strategy:

“There was too much build-up for Biden,” says Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “He lacks a ‘wow’ factor. I don’t think anybody is bowled over after all this drama. And to have a text message go out and disturb many people in the middle of the night?” [Politics Magazine]

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