That’s the role Biden is playing this afternoon in Durham; his speech is the first full-throated response by either him or the president to Ryan’s selection. To say that Team Obama is laughing-gas giddy about the pick would be an overstatement, but just a mild one. All along, two of the Democratic side’s paramount strategic imperatives have been to keep the election from being a pure referendum on Obama’s economic stewardship, instead making it a choice between competing visions, and to paint Romney as a figure indistinguishable from the congressional wing of the Republican Party. And the Ryan selection has made both jobs much easier—just listen to Biden.
“This really is one of the starkest choices, not only important but one of the starkest choices for the American people, and it’s good that it’s a stark choice,” he declaims. “Congressman Ryan has given definition to the vague commitments that Romney’s been making … Congressman Ryan, a congressional Republican, as one person said, has already passed in the House what Governor Romney is promising to give the whole nation. And ladies and gentlemen, we know, we know for certain, what I have been saying for a long time: There is no distinction—let’s get this straight—there’s no distinction between what the Republican Congress has been proposing the last two years, actually the last four years, and what Governor Romney wants to do.”
For the next half-hour, Biden rattles through the specifics that he believes justify those damning charges. Yet it’s clear that for all of Biden’s distaste for Ryan’s conception of the proper role of government, his scorn for Romney and delight in deriding him are infinitely greater.
“I don’t have to tell people about outsourcing—you all get it,” Biden says. “And I love Romney’s answer: ‘There’s a difference between outsourcing and offshoring.’ ” At which point Biden falls silent, drops his chin to his chest, and, with mock solemnity, performs the sign of the cross. “You can just hear the conversation—two guys on the unemployment line, one guy turns and says, ‘Were you outsourced or offshored?’ ”
To listen to Biden, it’s not hard to grasp why Chicago has made him the campaign’s arrowhead. At a moment of pervasive economic anxiety and roiling ire at the one percent and its political enablers, Biden is the only person on either party’s ticket genuinely fluent in the language of populism. And at a juncture at which the Romney-Ryan operation has concluded that running up its margins with working-class and elderly white voters is its sole path to victory, Biden is the only one who can, you know, go there and not seem like a big fat fraud.
And the day after Durham, he does—bounding in to a diner in Stuart, Virginia (pop. 1,400), that seems plucked from another era. Inside the Coffee Break Cafe, on the town’s minuscule main drag, Biden finds two dozen patrons, all as unpigmented as he and most around his age, sitting at Formica tables under pictures of Chet Atkins, Rhonda Vincent (signed), and any number of nascar drivers. He also finds Glen Wood, a regular at the Coffee Break and founder of Wood Brothers Racing, the nascar team that won the Daytona 500 last year.
“I heard someone in here won the Daytona,” Biden bellows, pushing past a photographer and jovially saying, “Get out of the way, man,” as he makes a beeline to Wood. “This guy did what I dreamed of, man! I’d trade being vice-president in a heartbeat for having won the Daytona!”
Soon enough, Biden, holding a Coke in an old-school glass bottle, is chattering away with—more like at—the AARP-ish crowd: about unemployment, the “9/11 generation” of veterans, and his wife (joking that he and Obama “married up” to ladies who are “more popular than we are”). A woman excuses herself, explaining that she has to get back to work at a local Walmart, inviting Biden to stop by. Biden quips that he just might: “I’m like a poor relative; I show up if I’m invited. The rich ones never show up. The poor ones come, stay longer than they should, and eat your food.” And then quotes Harry Truman: “If you want to live like a Republican, vote Democrat.”
When the press confers honorifics on the V.P. such as “Obama’s de facto ambassador to white working-class America,” this is the kind of scene that leaps to mind. A scene featuring Regular Joe Biden, born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, son of a used-car salesman, graduate of the University of Delaware, honest-to-God hot-rod aficionado—“My first car was a ’51 Plymouth”—who didn’t blanch when The Onion spoofed him in 2009 with a story headlined “Shirtless Biden Washes Trans Am in White House Driveway.” (Biden’s only gripe was that they got the car wrong: He owns a 1967 Corvette, which the Secret Service won’t let him drive.) A guy, in other words, who can talk the talk and walk the walk, who can go places that his superior can’t.