C’Mon Man: Why Joe Biden Is Starring in Obama’s Reelection Campaign

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Vice President Joe Biden speaks at the 18th annual Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) Seminar May 25, 2012, in Arlington, Va.

“I love Joe,” Michelle Obama said Tuesday on The Daily Show. It had come to that point in the evening—which happens on just about every late night program, just about every night when politics comes up—when the comedian made a crack about the Vice President. And Michelle Obama answered the way everyone seems to in moments like that. “I love Joe.”

There are, it must be said, two Joe Bidens these days. And I don’t mean that in the traditional way, as a flip-flopping character assault. There is Joe Biden, the Vice President, the one who meets with Xi Jinping to smooth the way for U.S. relations with the next president of China, who flies to Iraq to build bridges between fierce factions, who is able to hammer out the lame duck compromise with Mitch McConnell and who whispers in the Presidents ear about just about everything. And then there is the one Michele and Jon Stewart were laughing about, the idea of Biden, the image of Biden, the I-love-Joe who wants to hug everything he sees.

The Obama campaign is offering the country both Bidens. Have you seen the Joe Biden beer cozy? It’s a bestseller on the Obama Campaign website. They call it a “soda” holder, of course, but as Jim Messina would say, that’s bullsh**. The thing says “CHEERS CHAMP” on it. It is a parody of the parody. Another Obama campaign bestseller: the T-Shirt that reads, “Healthcare Reform Is Still A BFD.” A few weeks back, I went on the road with Biden to eastern Ohio, coal country. He had chicken parm at the local pasta house in Steubenville, and then had the motorcade drive to the tony part of town because one of his dinner guests, who owns a local Chevy dealership, has a car museum in his basement. A car museum in his basement! It is both totally off message, and exactly on message. And then, after the private car museum tour in the mansion of a supporter, he told the motorcade to stop at the local Dairy Queen, because he wanted soft serve. (A swirl as it turned out, but they were out of swirls, so he got his dipped.) He had a wad of twenties, and he offered to buy for everyone in the joint. I asked him as a joke if he could afford the bill—Biden has long been one of the poorest career politicians in Washington. As the estimable Mike Memoli recounts in Wednesday’s Los Angeles Times, Biden responded like this:

“Hey, you know me, man.” When it was pointed out that his financial disclosure statement, released a day earlier, showed him to have far more meager holdings than the president, he shared a favorite quip about a newspaper account that had speculated he assumed office with fewer assets than any previous vice president. “I assume they were talking about financial assets,” he joked.

Get it? It’s like the Trump line. Biden has big assets. As Michelle says, “I love Joe.”

The calculation in Chicago, and for Biden himself, is that this combination of the two Bidens can work: the blue collar self-parody at the Dairy Queen and the real statesman who actually is one of the last to weigh in when Obama is about to send Navy Seals to kill Osama Bin Laden. I have a story about this calculation in this week’s magazine. It’s available online for subscribers—and you should subscribe; we’re a damn good magazine, and we’re cheap. I start the piece with this sentence: “Until you have seen Joe Biden work a firehouse, you ain’t never seen it done.” This is true.

Another fact is this: So far in the 2012 Obama campaign, there has been more Joe Biden than Barack Obama. The campaign’s internal polls tell them that the President should be acting presidential. So Biden has become the chief empathy officer with the suffering middle class, and the chief attack dog charged with painting Mitt Romney as an out of touch Daddy Warbucks. But at the same time, he is still doing his own thing. He is off most of this week, for instance, because his daughter is getting married on Saturday up at the house in Wilmington. People close to him tell me that he has been resodding the backyard by himself in preparation, and recently, the Secret Service detail had to rush over to hold a ladder he had leaned against the house. He got up to the top of it himself, and the agents thought the 69-year-old would be coming down the quick way.

In this era of generally lousy politicians who behave in almost entirely cynical ways, both Bidens are worth watching. That doesn’t mean that what Biden is trying will work. As Gallup tells us, what Michelle told Jon Stewart is not actually true. As part of my reporting, I watched as Biden taped some answers for Alex Trebek and his Jeopardy! crew at the White House complex. You can read about it in the magazine story. I walked out with Trebek. He had spent 20 minutes with the man, and basically had him down cold. “He wants to be your friend,” Trebek told me, cracking the code. “He wants you to like him. And there is nothing wrong with that.” Which leaves just one question: Will swing state voters want to raise a beer cozy to that?