The Republican convention ends. The polls tighten. Romney visits storm-ravaged Louisiana. President Obama visits military families in Texas.
And then the American news media was disrupted with this wacky little headline: “Biden Does Retail Politics, Kisses Supporter On Lips.”
Last Friday afternoon, in the midst of all the other important things going on in the world, Vice President Joseph Biden made a “surprise” campaign stop in Canfield, Ohio. Standing around greeting attendees at the annual Canfield Fair, Biden served-up his usual repertoire of everyday-guy quips and goofy-uncle type witticism. According to one reporter he shook hands with a young boy sporting a short “buzz” style haircut and told him “I used to have hair like that. Look what happened…”
Mr. Biden has provided lots of comic relief during his term as Vice President, a term that bears a striking contrast to the unusually stoic and substantive eight years of Dick Cheney. But what if the unthinkable were to happen and Joe Biden had to step-up and be President? Is America ready for a Biden Presidency? And is Biden up to the task?
Presidential elections are not won or lost according to the number two nominee on the ticket. But Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan is most certainly being viewed through the “what if he became President?” filter. It is likewise fair and reasonable to raise these same types of questions of Joe Biden – even if he is the incumbent.
So let’s put Joe Biden in his proper vice presidential context, and begin with some facts about the office. Of the forty-seven vice presidents who have served in the U.S., only fourteen have gone on to be President. Out of those fourteen, only five of those VPs actually got elected president; the rest of them ascended to the presidency as a result of a President’s death or resignation, and then either refused to run again for their own term, or ran for their own term and lost.
This is to say that being Vice President of the United States is in some respects a “dead end job.” VP’s can certainly leverage their stature for great professional pursuits when they leave office (Vice Presidents Dan Quayle, Al Gore and Dick Cheney have all done well for themselves), but in terms of political pursuits, it’s usually the end of the road.
To this end, it’s interesting to note some of the visceral rejections that presidential candidates have received when extending a running mate opportunity. For example, when former -U.S. Senator Harry Truman was initially contacted and asked about being FDR’s vice presidential running mate, Senator Truman replied “tell him he can go to Hell.”
Similarly, many of the men who served as Vice President lamented the dull and boring nature of the position. John Adams, America’s first Vice President, once noted that “my country, in its wisdom, contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived.” Thomas Marshall, the 29th Vice President serving under President Woodrow Wilson, commented about his service on the Smithsonian Institute’s Board of Regents (one of the tasks of the Vice President) saying “it’s an opportunity for the Vice President to compare his fossilized life with the fossils of all ages.” And George H.W. Bush, Vice President to Ronald Reagan, once noted about the VP’s job of attending the funerals of foreign dignitaries, “you die, I fly…”
This is to say that, according to many of the men who have served in the office, being Vice President is not only a dead-end job, but it can also seem quite boring. Yet Vice President Biden seems thrilled with the job-why is this so?
Most who observe him carefully laugh at Mr. Biden’s propensity for gaffes. He famously mispronounced candidate Obama’s last name back in 2008, introducing him on stage as “Barack America.” He has publicly used racial humor, noting once that “in my hometown in Delaware you can’t go in to a 7 Eleven or a Dunkin Donuts without hearing an Indian accent.” And he recently drew fire when speaking to a largely African-American audience, suggesting that Republicans want to be slave owners, and, as he stated, “want to put y’all back in chains.”
But Vice President Biden is not just famous for gaffes. In 2010, during a White House reception, he was caught on microphone responding to a question about how he likes being Vice President. “It’s easy!” Mr. Biden exclaimed, “You don’t have to do anything! It’s like being the grandpa, and not the parent…”
Do the gaffes - and the exuberance over not having to “do anything” – really add-up to a presidency? These remarks can easily be dismissed as “missteps.” Yet the “mis-stepping” has at times spilled over in to areas of foreign policy. Speaking with PBS Television’s “The News Hour” on January 27th of 2011, Mr. Biden emphatically insisted that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was not a dictator and should not resign his presidency, despite calls to the contrary from the Muslim world. Eight days later on February 4, President Obama announced America’s new, official foreign policy stance with Egypt, which was completely contrary to the stated positions of his Vice President, and called on Mubarak to resign so as to make way for the more radicalized Muslim Brotherhood government.
Gaffes, offensive jokes, a love of doing nothing and bungled foreign policy pronouncements – these are all a part of Joe Biden’s service as U.S. Vice President. Voters should be cognizant of this baggage, before they go to vote in November.