Anyone who has watched Joe Biden over 35 years in the Senate might have a little bit of trouble recognizing the guy who is running to be Barack Obama's Vice President. Oh, yes, he looks like the same fellow. But traveling with Biden during this campaign has sometimes been like reporting on a politician packaged in shrink-wrap. While his windy, off-point pontification was the stuff of legend among his Senate colleagues, Biden is now leashed to a teleprompter even when he is talking in a high school gym that is three-quarters empty. The exposure hound who in recent years appeared more often than any other guest on the Sunday talk shows is a virtual stranger to the small band of reporters on his plane less accessible than even Sarah Palin is to her traveling pack of bloodhounds. And Biden keeps to a schedule that provides a minimum of off-the-cuff encounters with voters, except across a rope line. See Joe Biden's defining moments here.
The campaign's caution is understandable. With Obama leading in all the national polls, only a few things would seem to have the potential to throw him off course. One of those things is his running mate. Sticking to a script has never been one of Biden's stronger suits, as he demonstrated recently at a Seattle fund raiser. "Mark my words: it will not be six months before the world tests Barack Obama like they did John Kennedy," Biden told the $1,000-a-ticket Democratic donors, who no doubt were startled to discover that the Fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse had ridden into the downtown Sheraton. "Remember, I said it standing here, if you don't remember anything else I said. Watch we're going to have an international crisis, a generated crisis, to test the mettle of this guy." A bemused Obama responded, "I think that Joe sometimes engages in rhetorical flourishes." In a matter of days, Biden's comments were the subject of both a John McCain television ad and the opening skit on Saturday Night Live.
To the relief of some in Obama's camp, an operation that runs on discipline, there have been fewer lampoonable episodes than many had expected when Obama tapped the man who had famously described him as "articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy." Whereas McCain's pick of a running mate was a big move aimed at jolting the race, Obama had hoped instead to bolster his foreign policy credentials, give him a second chance with white Catholics and, above all, do no harm. And though some Obama allies had qualms about Biden's tendency to run off the rails, they noted he had kept it in check during his own presidential campaign. Since being picked for VP, the Delaware Senator has performed well in what advisers say were his three biggest tests: his convention speech in Denver; his debate with Sarah Palin; and stumping for working- class voters in Pennsylvania, the crucial battleground state where Biden was born and to which he has made six trips since joining the Democratic ticket. In a recent national Pew Research Center poll, 60% of those surveyed said they had a favorable view of Biden, compared with 44% who felt that way about Palin. And that was before a civil war of anonymous quotes broke out within the McCain-Palin operation, with Palin's allies saying she is frustrated enough to "go rogue" against her handlers and McCain's calling his running mate a "diva."
Meanwhile, the no-drama Obama campaign has deployed Biden to the smallest hardscrabble corners of America's swing states, where he makes common cause by invoking his own working-class roots in Scranton, Pa. He speaks of his father, who told Biden to always get up when he got knocked down. He says he wishes his mother could be there to say, "God bless ya." Biden even invokes his 10-year-old granddaughter Finnegan, whose favorite expression "Hellooo?" sums up Biden's reaction to the efforts of his "old dear friend" McCain to distance himself from George W. Bush. (See where Joe Biden stands on the issues.)
The crowds that Biden draws are smaller and older than the throngs at Obama's megarallies. A disproportionate number wear windbreakers and sweatshirts that identify them as members of unions representing mine workers, firefighters and painters. Flashing his 250-watt set of teeth, Biden rarely fails to bring them to their feet with a stump speech that goes from thunder ("I've had enough! Our country has had enough!") to whispered intimacy ("Ladies and gentlemen, it's about dignity") and back again ("I love ya! Get up, Virginia! Get up!").
As risky as it can be to let Biden step away from the teleprompter, it is in these moments that he can be most affecting. When he made a rare unscheduled stop at an ice cream parlor in Charleston, W.Va., Biden encountered the owner's daughter, a 28-year-old woman who told him she had suffered a brain aneurysm last December similar to the one that nearly killed Biden in 1988. The Senator threw an arm around Sara Beal's neck, pulled her to him and whispered in her ear. By the time he let her go about five minutes later, planting a kiss on top of her head, both of them were near tears.
At that same stop, a reporter shouted a question about McCain's new ad featuring Biden's comments in Seattle and got no answer beyond stony silence. In the two days that I was aboard his Boeing 737 campaign plane, Biden ventured only a few steps outside his cabin at the front of the plane, which kept him safely away from the reporters at the back. When Biden suddenly appeared at the door to the main cabin, Dallas Morning News reporter Todd Gillman attempted to take a snapshot a not-uncommon occurrence aboard a campaign plane and was told by a campaign staffer, "We prefer that you not take photos." According to a blog post by Ryan Corsaro, the CBS News embed on the Biden plane, the candidate has not taken questions from the journalists aboard his plane since Sept. 7, but he has done numerous interviews with local reporters. That is typically safer terrain, though in one contentious television interview on Oct. 23, an Orlando anchorwoman asked him whether Obama is a Marxist. For once, even Biden who did the interview from North Carolina seemed dumbfounded. "Are you joking?" he asked.
So what kind of Vice President would Biden be? His relationship with Obama is still in its formative phase, but history may hold some clues. It has been 48 years since a sitting Senator has been elected President, but in that time, five went directly from the Senate to the vice presidency. Some of them Walter Mondale comes to mind served as all-purpose advisers and troubleshooters for the President. Others chose specific portfolios as Al Gore did in taking charge of areas like the environment, technology and reorganizing the operation of the Executive Branch.
Biden has a breadth of expertise that comes from having served as chairman of the Judiciary and the Foreign Relations committees in the Senate, two substance-heavy posts. But his ability to maneuver in either of those areas as Veep might quickly run him afoul of both the Attorney General and the Secretary of State. Biden will want a big say in helping decide who in an Obama Administration would get those two posts, if only because he will know how to get Obama's choices confirmed in the Senate better than anyone else. But those close to Biden say the model he would follow would more likely be that of Mondale. As one put it, "Joe Biden is the ultimate got-your-back kind of guy, and whatever that ends up meaning, that is what he'll do for Obama."
It would have been nice to ask that question of Biden himself, but a campaign spokesman told me the Senator was suffering from a cold that made it a strain to give interviews. (I didn't glean evidence of any symptoms during the four speeches that I watched him give over two days.) The spokesman also said Biden would consider it "presumptuous" to talk about how he would perform the job for which he is running. Or maybe it simply wasn't in the script.