vision 2020

Why Joe Biden’s ‘Obama Strategy’ Is Smart — and Risky

Being the 44th president’s trusty sidekick is indeed Biden’s most important credential. Photo: Quirk Books

It was always assumed that if Joe Biden decided to run for president for a third time, his service as Barack Obama’s vice-president for eight years would be at the top of his résumé. But as press reports this weekend indicated, there are fresh signs Biden is planning to make the Obama legacy central to his 2020 strategy. For a career pol whose pre–vice-presidential record has received ever-increasing and often-hostile scrutiny — especially from progressives, and particularly from African-Americans — it’s a smart move to act as though he was rebaptized politically in 2008 (it’s the secular equivalent of one of those late-life religious conversions, like the one some Evangelicals believe career heathen Donald Trump has undergone). After all, would a closet bigot serve the first African-American president so loyally? And for that matter, would Michelle Obama’s husband tolerate a vice-president whose “handsiness” wasn’t just an innocent eccentricity?

Biden’s appropriation of the Obama mantle also puts his rivals a bit on the spot. There has been more than a little surreptitious criticism of Obama implicit in the strategic arguments and policy pronouncements of such candidates as Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and even Pete Buttigieg. But elite progressive disdain for the centrist tradition of the Clintons that Obama arguably continued is not widely shared by the Democratic rank and file, who continue to adore the man. So clinging to him is an effective ideological as well as personal self-defense mechanism for Biden.

The bigger question is whether it will work. It’s worth remembering that Biden’s pre-Obama record basically doesn’t exist for a lot of voters, as political scientist Joel Goldstein recently noted:

His favorability rating in a Gallup poll as he concluded his vice presidency was 61% (even higher than Obama’s). By contrast, when Obama chose Biden as his running mate in August 2008, 51% either had not heard of him or had no opinion about him even though he had served six terms in the Senate, led two major committees, and run the two presidential campaigns that now cause various pundits to dismiss his candidacy.

So Biden’s opposition to school busing in the 1970s, or his votes against abortion rights early in the 1980s, or his mishandling of the Clarence Thomas hearings, or his sponsorship of a troubling crime bill in the 1990s just aren’t part of the perception of Uncle Joe in the minds of many actual voters, particularly low-information voters. And while lefty critics (and right-wing opportunists) will continue to bring it all up, it’s unclear how much his standing will be affected; the latest evidence of inappropriate behavior toward women hasn’t hurt him at all so far).

On the other hand, the idea that in Joe Biden Democrats can just reboot the Obama campaign of 2008 runs into some pretty sizable psychological barriers that have nothing to do with Biden’s ideological heresies, as an Associated Press article on the subject pointed out:

Biden, a 76-year-old white man with more than four decades of political experience, is an atypical heir to Obama’s legacy, particularly in a Democratic field with a historic number of minority candidates, as well as contenders who represent the kind of generational change Obama ushered in more than a decade ago.

The former veep may be a reassuring alternative to fellow-septuagenarian Donald Trump, but he isn’t inherently very hopey-changey.

But most of all, making his partnership with Obama the strategic centerpiece of his own presidential campaign exposes Biden to the huge risk associated with constant scrutiny of Obama’s (and his former staff’s) own less-than-excited attitude toward the aspirations of his former veep, as my colleague Matt Stieb has observed:

A while back, Obama and Biden reportedly agreed that the former president wouldn’t skew the odds by backing a primary candidate. Thus, the “Obama-Biden Democrat” claim doesn’t have the full support of its most important player.

Obama’s political associates are all over the place heading into 2020; a conspicuous number of them, particularly in Iowa, seem to be gravitating toward Beto O’Rourke. You can certainly envision a moment down the road when the ghost of the Obama administration becomes less than an unmixed blessing for its best-known alumnus.

Why Joe Biden’s ‘Obama Strategy’ Is Smart — and Risky