Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. yesterday said his one-time presidential rival Sen. Barack Obama has asked him to “play a more prominent” and “deeply involved” role in his campaign, a signal the likely Democratic nominee is looking to burnish his foreign-policy credentials that Republicans are attacking.
Mr. Biden stopped short of endorsing Mr. Obama, but predicted the Illinois senator is likely to emerge as the nominee after the last contests on Tuesday. He also took a few swipes at presumptive Republican nominee Sen. John McCain.
“He has asked me to play a more prominent role – not in an administration, in the campaign – meaning would I be more available, would I travel with him occasionally, and I said once he gets the nomination, if he gets the nomination, then I’ll do whatever he wants,” Mr. Biden, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told The Washington Times yesterday in an interview. “I’ll do whatever he asks me to do.”
An Obama spokesman declined comment on “any private conversations” between the senators, but offered wide praise for Mr. Biden, of Delaware.
“His expertise would of course be important to any Democratic nominee,” said Obama spokesman Bill Burton, adding his boss has “deep respect” for Mr. Biden’s service and “deep knowledge.”
Mr. Biden vowed to “work my heart out” for the party and said he made such a promise to both Mr. Obama and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York. He ended his own presidential bid the night of the Iowa caucus, in January, keeping to his word that he would withdraw if he was not among the top three finishers.
But given his role as an elder Democratic Party statesman and chairman of one of the Senate’s most-prominent panels, Mr. Biden has been extremely critical of the Bush administration and has begun defending Mr. Obama in the face of increased attacks from Mr. McCain over national security and foreign policy.
Republican operatives also have delighted recently after several recent gaffes by Mr. Obama - including his misstatement of which group liberated Auschwitz and the languages spoken in Afghanistan.
This week Mr. Obama credited his uncle with being one of the American troops to liberate the concentration camps at Auschwitz, but the Red Army actually was responsible.
His campaign circulated a clarifying statement after Republicans pounced on the error, with Obama aides saying he mistakenly said Auschwitz when his uncle’s role was liberating Buchenwald concentration camps.
He also was criticized for saying the war in Iraq is occupying the Arabic translators needed in Afghanistan. Mr. Obama quickly realized his mistake and corrected himself - the Afghan people do not speak Arabic - but it was used to paint him as inexperienced.
Mr. Biden told The Times he talks to each of the Democratic candidates once a week on average, usually with them asking his opinion on foreign policy. He said he informally advised Democratic nominee Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts on foreign policy in 2004 and will do the same in this election.
Mr. Biden yesterday weighed in on the spat between Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain on whether the junior senator should visit Iraq.
Mr. Obama was last there as part of a congressional delegation in 2006. He told the New York Times this week he is considering a trip, but also told reporters the Republican calls for his visit to the war zone amount to “diversions and distractions” to avoid a substantive discussion on Iraq policy.
“The Republicans don’t have a strong position to argue on when it comes to substance,” Mr. Obama said Wednesday night. “Their foreign policy has been a failure over the last eight years. The war in Iraq was a huge strategic blunder; our standing in the world is diminished; we’ve spent hundreds of billions of dollars; lost thousands of lives; Afghanistan is in worse shape since any time since 2001; and we have [Osama] Bin Laden sending out audio tapes.”
Mr. Biden, who has been to Iraq about a dozen times since voting in favor of the war authorization in 2002, agreed the spat over Iraq visits is less important than the Democrats’ overall policy argument.
“It’s a good political talking point,” he said.
He said he goes to Iraq to establish relationships with military and civilian leaders there, but did not see a “compelling” reason for multiple visits from Mr. Obama.
“The fact that he has only gone to Iraq once I don’t find a compelling argument about [his] judgment being somehow less informed,” Mr. Biden said. “Look at John [McCain] - he has been there maybe as much as I have and his judgment on Iraq is a disaster.”
He lambasted Mr. McCain’s market “stroll” in 2007, when he emphasized how safe Iraq was and did not mention he was protected by dozens of troops during his walk.
Mr. Biden also disagreed with Mr. McCain’s more-recent assessment of “great progress” in Iraq: “There is no progress!”
Mr. Biden earlier this month inserted himself into another campaign-trail fight - when Mr. Obama said President Bush likened him to Nazi appeasers.
Mr. Biden made the rounds on political television shows to defend Democrats, and more directly Mr. Obama.
He said yesterday that Mr. Obama’s position of “direct talks” with foreign adversaries makes sense. He said the Republicans are acting as if Mr. Obama wants to pick up the phone and call Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and invite him to a meeting in Geneva.
Mr. Biden quipped that Mr. Bush, in fact, was the one who met with Vladimir Putin and assessed his intentions by staring into the Russian leader’s eyes.
He noted he views Mr. McCain as a friend, and doesn’t want to campaign against him, but, “We cannot afford 12 years of Bush’s policy.”
“On all the seminal issues he’s joined at the hip with this guy,” Mr. Biden said.
Although Mr. Biden joins several of his colleagues on a Democratic dream “short list” of potential vice presidential picks, he said he doesn’t want to be considered.
He has not been asked to submit vetting papers, and added that his work for the Democratic campaign doesn’t mean he wants the job.
But Mr. Biden added a big caveat, saying instead of being “considered” he would want a “direct discussion face to face with the nominee” to ask, “Am I likely to be picked” if I “pass all those tests in terms of my not having skeletons.”
“If you can’t look me in the eye and tell me that then … don’t put me through the audition,” he said.
But if that offer is made, “You’d have to say yes. I don’t know how the hell you’d say no at this historic moment.”