Joe may be a man for all seasons

1 August 2008

The word came through to the faithful the 21st century way by an SMS message sent out in the early hours of the morning (when the telephone companies could bear the load). ''I have some important news that I want to make official. I've chosen Joe Biden to be my running mate ...''

In choosing Senator Joseph Biden of Delaware as his running mate, putative Democrat presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama has done exactly what he said he would do choose a running mate who could help him govern.

It's a bold choice. Obama has deliberately turned away from potential vice-presidential candidates who could bring him needed votes in swing states like Virginia or heal wounds with the supporters of Hillary Clinton who feel disaffected and disenfranchised, and gone for a man with gravitas and expertise in foreign policy and judicial matters.

That said, Senator Biden has strong appeal in some states that Obama must win and with blue collar workers who need reassurance that Obama has their interests at heart. The Governor of Pennsylvania, a state whose electoral college votes will be important if Obama is to win in November, describes Biden as ''the third senator'' from that state, and union bosses are pleased with his selection.

This is not unimportant, given that at the 2004 presidential election it was estimated that 25 per cent of Democrat voters were from labour union households.

Joe Biden has been a senator for nearly 36 years, and has more of a public record than any other vice-presidential prospect, with the possible exception of Bill Richardson. As he himself said on Saturday at his first public outing as Obama's VP, there are only four senators more senior, although there are 44 who are older, including Senator John McCain. The upside of this is that Biden is a Democrat senior statesman who appeals to more conservative Democrats, and whose foreign policy expertise is unrivalled in the Senate, where he is chairman of the Committee on Foreign Relations. John McCain, his junior in the Senate, will be hard-pressed to undermine his credentials.

The downside is that in a campaign when change is the mantra, Biden is the consummate Washington insider. Other downsides for Biden include a history of poor campaign management, a tendency to garrulousness, and some pretty nasty past gaffes. The worst of these was not just plagiarising British politician Neal McKinnock's words, but appropriating his family history. Hopefully that 1988 event lingers only in the minds of the political nerds. Perhaps Biden's biggest cache for the Obama campaign is his story of family unity and strength in times of crisis. In 1972, just weeks after Biden was first elected to the Senate after a campaign that notably involved is brother, sister and mother, his wife and small daughter were killed in a traffic accident, and his two sons were seriously injured.

Biden spent weeks nursing his sons back to health, and was sworn in as a Senator in January 1973 at their hospital bedsides. For years he made the daily two-hour drive, backwards and forwards from his home in Wilmington, Delaware, to work at the Capitol in Washington, stopping on the way to shop for groceries and milk, so that his young sons always had a parent at home at night.

Biden has since remarried, but family is the centre of his existence, and this is surely an important part of the Obama-Biden narrative. The Biden family turn out in force whenever a new campaign beckons.

However, it is very likely, given the poor management of Biden's 1988 and 2008 primary campaigns, that Obama and his people have made it very clear who will be running the show here.

Vice-presidential campaign manager Patti Solis Doyle was recruited over from the Clinton staff weeks before this weekend's announcement.

Arguably it was Obama's clever, modern and well-planned and financed campaign that was the reason he beat Hillary Clinton, whose campaign had not thought beyond Super Tuesday to what happened next. The discipline of Obama's campaign was evident in the fact that there were no leaks about his VP choice.

The early response to the announcement that the Democrats will run an Obama-Biden ticket has been very positive. There was a great upbeat mood at the Springfield, Illinois, rally with two men who looked energised and delighted to be together. Their smiling faces, crisp white shirts and red and blue ties were perfectly choreographed to add to the moment.

Denver is in an upbeat mood and that will heighten as the convention swings into action, leading to the climax of Obama's acceptance speech on Thursday. But the real test of this ticket will come in the weeks ahead, with the inevitable comparisons with the Republican ticket, endless campaigning, several debates and the final vote on November 4.

Lesley Russell is the Menzies Foundation Fellow at the Menzies Centre for Health Policy, University of Sydney/Australian National University. She worked as a senior political adviser in the US House of Representatives in Washington from 1984-91.

Contact: Mandy Sacher

Phone: 02 9114 0622