Barack Obama has ended an intense and highly secretive search for a vice-presidential nominee by settling on Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware—a choice calculated to offset some of the weaknesses in Obama’s own resume and produce a ticket that marries messages of change and experience.
Obama succeeded in keeping his choice private until Friday evening, when a cascade of news reports indicated that most other rumored contenders—such as Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana and Gov. Tim Kaine of Virginia—they were out of the running, with all signs suggesting that Biden was the only one still in.
At 12:42 Eastern time, CNN won the hyper-competitive quadrennial derby to be first with news that others always have within minutes afterward. Veteran political reporter John King went on air saying he had two sources confirming Biden’s selection.
The Obama campaign will send an e-mail and text message alert later Saturday, and is planning a dramatic mid-day event at the Old State Capitol in Springfield, Ill., where the man who just four years ago was a state legislator there announced his presidential bid 20 months ago.
With Biden, Obama marries his mantra of change with one of Washington’s most seasoned hands. Now in his sixth term, Biden is the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and the fourth-longest serving Democratic senator. He ran for president for the second time this year, but dropped out after finishing sixth in the Iowa primary.
Biden’s selection nicely fills some of the gaps in Obama’s background. But while Biden, 65, made strides during the primary season on curbing his legendary penchant for leaving no thought unspoken, those who have watched him (and listened to him) over the years know the Obama team will spend some sleepless nights wondering what he might say at any given moment.
On foreign policy and national security, an area where John McCain regularly assails Obama’s lack of experience, Democrats offer few more seasoned practitioners than Biden. He’s distinguished himself in every important foreign policy debate in recent years, from Kosovo to Iraq, where he voted to authorize the 2003 invasion, but was careful to limit his support to an effort to remove Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (since proved non-existent). And he’s been a relentless critic of the Bush administration’s handling of the conflict ever since.
“I regret my vote,” he told Politico last year. “The president did not level with us.” In 2007 Biden opposed the troop surge that McCain has credited for bringing down levels of violence in Iraq, and co-sponsored a non-binding resolution stating that it is “not in the national interest of the United States to deepen its military involvement in Iraq.”
Biden also brings with him solid law-and-order credentials from his time on the Senate Judiciary Committee, where he was the ranking Democrat for eight years.
And if Obama’s multi-national formative years seem unusual to many voters, Biden is almost a caricature of the American story. Now a white-haired, full-throated senator from Washington central casting, he was born “Joey” Biden to a blue-collar family in Scranton, Pa., and has never seemed to lose touch with his Irish Catholic roots.
Biden admirers—and even many who aren’t particular fans—were deeply moved by how he weathered a devastating family tragedy in 1972, shortly after he was first elected to the Senate at the remarkable age of 29.
Biden’s wife of six years, Neilia Hunter, was killed along with their infant daughter in an automobile accident in which the couple’s two sons were seriously injured. Biden was sworn into office at his sons’ bedside and commuted by train daily between Wilmington and Washington to take care of them—a commute he’s continued ever since.
Garrulous, bigger-than-life andat times wonderfully honest and profane, Biden is one of Washington’s most likable pols and an ever-quotable source for several generations of political journalists.
"The press wants me in this thing," he told donors in Washington last June.
But his long history of verbal gaffes has made him a perplexing figure to a generation of Capitol Hill insiders, as well as to three-decades-worth of staffers who have tried, without success, to get him to talk less and worry more about what comes out of his mouth.
Two of his slips have become part of political lore. His 1988 bid for the Democratic presidential nomination was destroyed by a plagiarism scandal (and made former British Labor leader Neil Kinnock a trivia question answer forever more).
Last January, he described Obama—on the very day that the Illinois senator launched his candidacy—as “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.”
Biden's embarassing remark about Obama may actually make him a more appealing running mate, however. Obama pubilcly absolved Biden of any taint of racism at a debate in Iowa last year, and that narrative of racial reconciliation is central to his appeal.
Still, such inexplicable lapses in judgment caused many leading Democrats to question Biden’s presence on Obama’s vice-presidential short list, and will keep GOP operatives, journalists and Biden’s new squadron of staffers on eggshells day and night in anticipation of a new verbal grenade.
But Biden watchers also know that there is much to like and admire about the man. Biden is a fighter who is joining a campaign some Democrats believe should scrap a little more. He is a serious adult on the serious, adult issues of the day.
And no one will liken Joey Biden of Scranton, Pa., to Paris Hilton or Britney Spears.
"He knows McCain better than anyone else. He intimidates McCain more than anyone else. He can call McCain out better than anyone else on some of his positions," said Biden’s pollster, Celinda Lake, in a recent interview.
Richard Ben Cramer, in his masterful look at the 1988 race, “What It Takes,” wrote that even from boyhood, Biden was not to be underestimated.
“He was little too, but you didn’t want to fight him – or dare him,” he wrote of Biden. “There was nothing he wouldn’t do. Joe moved away from Scranton, Pennsylvania in ’53, when he was ten years old. But there were still a lot of guys in Scranton today who talk about the feats of Joey Biden . . . Joey would never back down.”
Harry Siegel and Ben Smith contributed to this report.