DENVER | Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. is a lot of things — a seasoned Washington politician with an extensive legislative record, a familiar face in capitals across the world and a man with a compelling personal story.
In short, he’s Barack Obama‘s Dick Cheney.
Mr. Biden joined the Senate at 30, the earliest age allowed by the Constitution, and has since spent 35 years battling in the heart of the government, and has been on both sides of some of the biggest issues out there, including free trade and the war in Iraq.
He can claim to have been a driving force to push President Clinton to use force in Bosnia, to have been a top supporter of the COPS program to put more police on the streets in the 1990s, and to have written the Violence Against Women Act.
When stacked up against the other options Mr. Obama had, and against past running mates, Mr. Biden is among the most qualified in recent elections the equivalent to President Bush’s 2000 selection of Mr. Cheney, a longtime congressman and former defense secretary.
The best evidence for that comparison is that the word “gravitas” was being tossed around on the cable news programs Saturday, just as it was eight years ago when Mr. Bush, a relatively new political face with less than a decade in office, selected Mr. Cheney as his running mate.
Democratic strategist Bush Jackson said the point of the Biden pick is to go beyond Mr. Obama’s “change” message since “Obama is already well-positioned in that area.”
“Joe Biden complements Obama’s change platform with stability by virtue of Biden’s decades of experience in both national and international affairs. A change message doesn’t resonate as loudly for some voters who are more concerned about stability and who may have had lingering concerns about Obama’s experience. Biden will help soothe those voters’ fears,” he said. “In one sense, he is the Democratic version of adding a Dick Cheney to a George W. Bush ticket.”
In other words, there’s little question Mr. Biden brings the Washington credentials worthy of a vice-presidential nominee. But Mr. Obama’s argument this year has been that Washington is exactly what’s broken and needs fixing.
Democrats yesterday made a heroic effort to claim Mr. Biden can be both a Washington player and the agent of change that Mr. Obama says his administration will be.
“Joe Biden has been a fighter for change. He has resisted the status quo in his career,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. “He has experience in Washington, but he is not of Washington, D.C.”
Mrs. Pelosi, who said she herself is not a Washington insider, compared Mr. Biden to Mr. McCain, who she said Republicans say can be both a man with Washington experience and yet also a maverick, pushing to change how the federal government does business.
The Republicans “can’t have it both ways,” she told reporters at a lunch sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor.
At the same time, though, she praised Mr. Obama exactly because he hasn’t been in Washington for long.
“Mark me down as one who says not being around a long time ain’t a bad thing, because, as I said to you before, there has to be change, there has to be a disruption. You know I’m a disrupter,” she said.
Mr. Biden, who represents Delaware, also brings blue-collar credentials to a campaign that has faltered recently under charges that Mr. Obama is an elitist celebrity. And Mr. Biden brings a willingness and the personal knowledge to do the dirty work required of a vice-presidential nominee in attacking the other party’s nominee.
Speaking in Springfield, Ill., Mr. Biden said he knows Washington is broken and said Mr. Obama is the man to fix it.
David Sirota, a Democratic strategist who has been pushing the Democratic Party to embrace more liberal policies, said as a pick, Mr. Biden was “a shade on the good side of mediocre.”
More worrisome, Mr. Sirota said, was Mr. Obama’s willingness to tap someone who has been a friend to big-business interests such as banks that issue credit cards and who voted to authorize the Iraq war. Mr. Sirota said the selection “gives us some disturbing clues about the Illinois senator’s attitude toward the economic progressive movement and the antiwar movement.”
A two-time presidential candidate in his own right, Mr. Biden has been at the center of some of the biggest Washington fights. He claims credit for helping keep Judge Robert Bork off the Supreme Court, and he was chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee in 2002 when the Senate voted to authorize the war in Iraq.
But Mr. Biden’s plain-spoken directness brings with it a reputation for gaffes.
He withdrew from his first presidential bid, for the 1988 Democratic nomination, after he acknowledged using words from a British politician without credit in one of his speeches. His 2008 bid got off to a bad start when he stepped on his own announcement, calling Mr. Obama “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.”
The Republicans lost no time Saturday in setting up a “Biden Gaffe Clock.”
Like Mr. McCain, Mr. Biden’s years in the Senate also have left him on all sides of some of the major issues. He voted for the North American Free Trade Agreement and for letting China into the World Trade Organization, but has since opposed both fast-track trade authority and the Central American Free Trade Agreement.
That reversal was enough on Saturday to earn the Obama-Biden ticket the label of “the most pro-working-family presidential ticket in a generation” from the Service Employees International Union.
And Mr. Biden was a supporter of the Iraq war, even going so far as to say it was obvious then-Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein was concealing weapons of mass destruction, but later became a critic of the war, proposing to divide the country into three parts.