vision 2020

Why Did Obama Pick Biden As His Veep in the First Place?

Joe Biden in his first appearance with Barack Obama after being unveiled as his 2008 running-mate. Photo: Charles Ommanney/Getty Images

As the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination contest gets more serious, the long, long, long career of Joe Biden keeps getting negative attention that will likely continue or even intensify so long as he is the perceived front-runner. It has been helped along, of course, by Biden’s own powerful taste for nostalgia, which extends far beyond his obvious interest in reminding Democrats of the good old days before the Bad Man was elected president. His self-indulgence in speaking of the events of bygone decades is entirely familiar to anyone who’s spent a lot of time around garrulous seventy-somethings.

But the reminiscences and actual events of the past that keep getting Biden into hot water are not, by and large, sudden revelations of previously unknown aspects of his political career. His early Senate years as an anti-busing advocate were well-known. The whole world watched his erratic stewardship of the Clarence Thomas hearings and his associated dubious treatment of Anita Hill. The 1994 Crime Bill that was used against Hillary Clinton by both Democratic and Republican critics in 2016 was universally understood to be a Joe Biden product; I personally sat spellbound in front of a TV back then and watched him indefatigably promote it on C-SPAN. And his chummy relationship with the the racist grandees of the Senate Judiciary Committee was evident for all to see as he climbed the seniority ladder over the years. Before he was known as a grabber and a hugger, Joe Biden was most definitely known as a back-slapper.

And so, as Democratic rivals and media types solemnly discuss the relevance of these distant events, the question has to be asked: Do we know much of anything now that we didn’t know in 2008 when he became vice-presidential nominee? My colleague Josh Barro is even more pointed about it:

So inevitably, those who still love Obama but increasingly mistrust Biden have to refresh their memories on a more recent matter: Why did Barack Obama pick Joe Biden as his running mate in the first place?

There’s actually no infallible way to know. Obama’s veep-selection process, begun in June of 2008 after he nailed down the nomination, and headed up by Jim Johnson (who soon gave way to Jim Hamilton), Eric Holder, and Caroline Kennedy, was very secretive. Insiders recall that 20 names were on the initial “list,” but no one has given a comprehensive list of names. Publicly, the process was for some time overshadowed by talk of a “unity ticket” with Hillary Clinton to overcome the bruises of the primary season, until Obama privately ruled it out. Later indications were that the veep finalists were, along with Biden, Indiana Senator Evan Bayh, Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius, and Virginia Governor (later senator and HRC running mate) Tim Kaine. Obama clearly wanted someone white and from the political mainstream, recognizing that the high drama of his candidacy would probably make any running mate a reassuring afterthought rather than a true partner on the campaign trail. Biden, Sebelius and Kaine were Catholics as well.

Biden’s comparative advantages were his Washington experience (Obama had been a state senator four years earlier) and his extensive foreign-policy résumé. It was probably a bonus that Biden’s son Beau had been called up for National Guard duty and would soon deploy to Iraq, given the ticket’s war-hero opponent, John McCain. It also surely crossed a few minds that having run twice for president himself, Biden probably had no unexposed skeletons in his closet. The better-known skeletons we are hearing about this year don’t seem to have been taken that seriously.

By all accounts, it ultimately came down to a “coin toss” between Bayh and Biden, with Obama personally making the choice. Bayh apparently underwhelmed Obama’s key staffers in interviews with a stiff and low-energy manner, while Biden talked animatedly “about the world, the middle class, the challenges and opportunities America faced and how he could help Obama.” The final decision came down to perceived chemistry with Obama, but there was one other thing, too, which helps explain why perhaps Biden’s “baggage” was not adjudged as too heavy. This fascinating tidbit, which my colleague Gabriel Debenedetti unearthed while writing a piece on the Obama–Biden relationship, comes from the New York Times’ contemporary account of the pick based on its own sources:

The choice by Mr. Obama in some ways mirrors the choice by Mr. Bush of Dick Cheney as his running mate in 2000; at his age, it appears unlikely that Mr. Biden would be in a position to run for president should Mr. Obama win and serve two terms. Shorn of any remaining ambition to run for president on his own, he could find himself in a less complex political relationship with Mr. Obama than most vice presidents have with their presidents.

In other words, 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. 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. 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.

The strong possibility that Obama and his closest advisors never intended to place an indelible kosher label on Biden’s record and outlook helps explain the 44th president’s hands-off attitude toward the 2020 nomination contest. But reminders of the shadier side of that record and outlook have given the former vice-president every incentive to snuggle up ever more closely to Obama. It could make for an uncomfortable but revealing dynamic as the voting phase of 2020 draws closer.

Why Did Obama Pick Biden As His Veep in the First Place?