Biden, to be sure, has been here before; in 2008, his debate with Palin garnered a larger audience than any of the televised tangles between Obama and John McCain. The task before Biden this time around will be different, though, and not just because he isn’t seen as the prohibitive favorite. With Ryan now providing the ideological and intellectual heft on the GOP ticket, the Democrats intend to spend the next 60 days talking as much about him as about Romney. Yet the vice-presidential debate will be their only opportunity for direct engagement with Ryan—and Biden, not Obama, will be the one doing the engaging.
Thus is Biden facing the last great challenge of his last campaign. Unless, of course, it isn’t. Biden will turn 74 in 2016, and his poll numbers have sagged since he took office, but he and his people have been hinting that he might have another presidential bid in him. Some political observers regard this prospect as ludicrous: They see Biden as a clownish gasbag. Others greet it with delight: They see him as a national treasure. This is how it’s always been for Biden, with opinions about him diverging radically as if at a fork in the road of life—one that seems as fundamental as whether, deep down, you’re a Beatles or a Stones person.
But the truth about Biden is, in fact, more subtle and complex: that his greatest asset, what Obama strategist David Axelrod calls his “bluntness and ebullience,” is equally his gravest liability; that his old-school m.o. makes him almost uniquely unsuited to this postmodern political-media moment; that in a culture that pines ardently for authenticity and then punishes it cruelly, his utter incapacity for phoniness (and, yes, his grievous inability to control his yap) endows him with enormous charm and guile—and also renders him a human IED.
Biden is acutely sensitive to all of these perceptions of him. Some he shares, some he tolerates, others drive him batty. What he can’t abide is the concept that he has reached the end of the line. In a career riddled with tragedy and disgrace, with episodes of emotional, political, and even physical disaster and defeat, Biden always recovered, because he always had something left to prove. And whether it comes to Ryan or 2016, he apparently still does. “My friends are always kidding me about it—I can’t fathom the idea of thinking of retiring,” he declares. “Hell, man! I can still take ya!”
On election night four years ago, after Obama and Biden climbed down from the stage in Chicago’s Grant Park, the ticketmates shared a moment with Biden’s mother, Jean (who was then 91 and now is in a better place, as they say). As Biden tells it, his mom walked up, took Obama’s hand, and said, “Honey, come here, it’s going to be okay”—and then grabbed her son’s and offered him reassurance, too: “Joey, he’s going to be your friend.”
Among those who knew either man remotely well, this was not a common forecast back then. As much sense as Biden—a white guy with gray hair, blue-collar appeal, and foreign-policy cred—made as Obama’s V.P. pick, temperamentally and stylistically the two were chalk and Camembert. The campaign had done nothing to generate warmth between them; in fact, it brought a chill. Following the Democratic convention, they rarely stumped together and barely spoke by phone. As tensions mounted, Biden disgorged a series of gaffes that drove Obama to anger. On a conference call after his running mate publicly declared that “it will not be six months before the world tests Barack Obama” with a “generated crisis,” the nominee growled, “How many times is Biden gonna say something stupid?”
The frostiness continued through the transition and into the early days of the new administration. In February 2009, at the House Democratic Caucus’s annual retreat, Biden reported that, in a conversation between him and Obama about some aspect of policy, they acknowledged that even “if we do everything right … there’s still a 30 percent chance we’re gonna get it wrong.” Obama, asked about it later by a reporter, replied snidely, “I don’t remember exactly what Joe was referring to. Not surprisingly.”
But soon enough, in the hellish atmosphere of crisis that pervaded the first year, a thaw set in. In agreeing to be Obama’s No. 2, Biden had insisted that he be the last person with the president’s ear on every major policy decision. Not only did Obama honor that, but he offered Biden carte blanche to attend any Oval Office meeting that he wished. The vice-president found himself playing point on two crucial pieces of business, the stimulus and the drawdown of American forces in Iraq, and a key role in the review of Afghanistan policy.