Walker's World: The world and Joe Biden

By MARTIN WALKER, UPI Editor Emeritus  |  Aug. 25, 2008 at 10:44 AM
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PARIS, Aug. 25 (UPI) -- The initial reaction among America's allies to the choice of Sen. Joe Biden as running mate has been to see him shoring up Sen. Barack Obama's weaknesses.

The Sunday Times of London said, "He compensates for Mr. Obama's relative youth, and as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee he makes up for the candidate's acknowledged lack of experience on the international stage."

In Paris, Le Monde noted, "It showed the fear of being charged with inexperience in national security and foreign affairs, seen by the Obama campaign as the greatest menace to his victory."

In Germany, Social Democrat foreign affairs spokesman Gert Weisskirchen called Biden "an exceptionally good choice" who would never make the mistake of the Bush administration in dividing its allies "between an Old and New Europe." Christian Democrat spokesman Eckart von Klaeden, meanwhile, saw it as "Obama's attempt to balance his limited foreign policy experience."

But Biden as running mate means, despite opinion polls showing the presidential race neck-and-neck, that Democratic nominee Obama is highly, even dangerously confident of victory. Why else would he have ducked the chance of nailing down key states like Virginia or Indiana by picking Gov. Tim Kaine or Sen. Evan Bayh?

Moreover, the Obama campaign has taken three separate risks by picking Biden. The first and most obvious, as the Europeans noted, is that Biden's international experience as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee draws attention to Obama's own inexperience. And the camp of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is already running an ad that depicts Biden attacking Obama's inexperience in one of the earliest Democratic debates when Biden himself was still a contender.

That's the second risk, because another McCain ad is even more telling, showing Biden being interviewed on The Daily Show and saying: "I would be honored to run with or against John McCain, because I think the country would be better off."

That may be unique -- a vice presidential candidate saying he'd be honored to run on the same ticket as the Republican nominee. The American voters are likely to hear that sound bite often between now and November.

The third great risk is that Biden could earn yet again his reputation as a serial foot-in-mouth offender whose garrulous ways run far ahead of his formidable brain. Obama knows this firsthand, after an embarrassed Biden had to explain away his own dismissive remark about Obama: "You got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy."

For Obama, all this is probably a risk worth taking because, along with Biden's endless fondness to talk and talk and talk comes his deep knowledge of the way that both the world and Washington work. Not only does Biden tend to know what he talks so endlessly about but he knows just about everybody. That is to say, he is the ultimate Washington insider, which is what Obama was supposed to be running against.

While Biden is respected in Washington -- and in London, Berlin, Paris, Moscow and Beijing -- this combination of risks means that the initial enthusiasm that greeted Obama's choice may not last. This is not the kind of slam-dunk VP pick that Bill Clinton managed by selecting Al Gore in 1992 or that George W. Bush won in 2000 when he chose the highly experienced Dick Cheney, however controversial Cheney later proved to be.

It remains to be seen how good a campaigner Biden can be, although the London Times described him Sunday as "a bare-knuckle fighter." He can give a good, tough speech and may help Obama with the white working-class vote. But the omens are not great. Having won election to the Senate in 1972, he has never had to fight too hard for re-election in Delaware, and his two forays onto the presidential trail, in 1988 and this year, were less than impressive.

The question now is whether Obama can maintain the dizzy momentum that took him past Hillary Clinton to secure the nomination and actually win the November election. The polls, however little they mean at this early point in the real campaign, do suggest that he has lost traction while McCain has gained it. Indeed, one telling Gallup poll of likely voters (as opposed to merely registered voters) gives McCain a lead of 3 percentage points. Even when Gallup re-weighted the results to allow for a larger turnout of young people under 29, McCain still led by 2 points.

The Obama camp is still digesting the most ominous poll of all, the bipartisan Battleground survey run by Republican Brian Nienaber and Democrat Celinda Lake, which last week gave McCain a 10-point lead among independent voters. They are the ones who decide elections.

It now looks like being a close election, which makes Obama's decision not to pick Bayh or Kaine look just a bit overconfident. Indiana and Virginia are states that Obama is likely to need when the Electoral College comes to do the count that really matters.

Obama is counting on three main assets. The first is that Hillary supporters, still cool toward him, will come home to the Democrats after the convention. The second is that his grassroots organizing will bring unprecedented turnout among voters under 29 and African-Americans, sufficient to increase the total number of voters by 4 million or more. If this happens, then Republican strongholds across the South could go Democrat and Obama would win a landslide.

Obama's third asset is his belief in his own magic, his spellbinding oratory and his ability to convince voters that he really is something new and different from the politics-as-usual Washington game, from all those Capitol Hill blowhards who voted for the Iraq War when Obama was standing firm against it.

The only problem with this is that Obama just picked as running mate a guy who has been a U.S. senator since 1972 and who, just like Hillary, voted for the war.

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