Biden’s gaffe to black voters throws off Team Obama

US Vice President Joe Biden’s latest gaffe has brought him from behind the scenes to the front of the political stage. takes a closer look at Obama’s loquacious, loyal, and frequently mocked right-hand man.


Just when Mitt Romney’s running mate, Paul Ryan, was starting to warm up in the spotlight, Vice President Joe Biden snatched it back.

At a rally in Virginia last week, the jovial Biden told a crowd full of African-Americans that Republican White House hopeful Romney and his new right-hand man Ryan were planning to “unchain Wall Street” and “put y’all back in chains.” Officials and bloggers of various political stripes decried an inappropriate reference to slavery, and an already bitter presidential campaign took a nasty new turn.

The controversy brings Biden - who has served a key but largely behind-the-scenes function during Obama’s first term - back to the forefront, calling attention to a job the former senator from Delaware was reluctant to accept in the first place.

A history of faux-pas

Biden was offered the vice president spot to make up for perceived shortcomings at the top of the ticket: his nearly four decades in Congress balanced out Obama’s comparably short political career; his appeal to white, working-class Catholics complemented Obama’s popularity among young voters, progressives, and minorities; his ease with campaign trail banter and Capitol Hill schmoozing compensated for Obama’s impatience with small talk and back-slapping.

The most noticeable contrast between the two is in their public appearances: while Obama rarely strays from prepared remarks (he has been mocked for his dependence on teleprompters), Biden peppers his speeches with ad-libs, folksy asides, and, sometimes, giggle-inducing gaffes.

Usually, the fallout from the verbal faux-pas is minor - as when Biden told New Hampshire voters in 2008 that Hillary Clinton would have been “a better [vice presidential] pick than me”, or when he asked a wheelchair-bound state senator to stand up for a round of applause at a campaign rally the same year.

Other times, Biden’s garrulousness gets him in trouble. Unsurprisingly, in the wake of the “chains” comment, Romney’s team slammed the Obama campaign as “angry and desperate”, and Republicans from former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani to once-presidential-contender Rick Santorum piled on. John McCain and Sarah Palin, the 2008 Republican ticket, separately offered that Obama would be better off swapping Biden for Hillary Clinton.

Even left-leaning newspaper the Boston Globe published an editorial calling for Biden to apologise.

But the Obama campaign has stood by the vice president, sending a top spokesperson to tell CNN that Biden had nothing to be sorry for, and that his point about a dangerously unchecked financial system was valid.

Biden and Obama, from flare-ups to friendship

This is hardly the first time the Obama team has had to face down a Biden gaffe, and the administration has learned to take the vice president’s missteps with a grain of salt. After all, Obama chose Biden as his running mate just months after the latter put his foot in his mouth by calling his future boss “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy”.

Since that awkward beginning, the president has grown to appreciate the often fierce loyalty Biden has displayed during a tumultuous four years in office. Speaking to Congressional Democrats in 2010, Biden defended Obama against allegations that he had been a weak leader. “There is no goddamned way I’m going to stand here and talk about the president like that,” Biden yelled, according to officials at the meeting.

There have been little flare-ups along the way. Biden has bristled when he has felt Obama failed to show him enough respect – for example, after the president answered a reporter’s question about one of Biden’s statements by saying he had no idea what the vice president was talking about, “not surprisingly”.

But Obama has entrusted Biden with a wide range of tasks, “starting with the implementation of the stimulus and including many foreign policy missions”, explained Thomas Mann of the left-leaning Brookings Institution.

The president also counts on Biden to provide counter-arguments to some of his most daunting undertakings, like how to proceed on the war in Afghanistan. “Biden played a crucial role…in resisting the generals’ push for a troop surge,” said Jules Witcover, a Biden biographer who has known the vice president since 1987. “When Obama finally acceded, it was with conditions on later combat withdrawals urged by Biden.”

Putting a muzzle on the ‘attack dog’?

In the wake of the “chains” furore, however, there are signs the Obama campaign is being careful to prevent Biden from jeopardising their chances of victory in what will likely be a close election. When reporters in Virginia asked Biden about his comments last week, his aides asked them to step away, as Biden continued smiling and shaking hands. And the White House has recently stopped releasing full transcripts of Biden’s speeches, though remarks made by the president or first lady are generally published promptly.

Despite the uproar over Biden’s comment last week, the vice president is sure to continue slamming Romney and Ryan on the campaign trail, and in blunter terms than Obama himself; the classic campaign role for a vice president is that of the attack dog, who can snarl and bite without having to worry about appearing presidentially dignified.

Still, Biden’s growing list of gaffes makes his role on the trail trickier, according to John Fortier of Washington DC think tank Bipartisan Policy Centre. “Biden can be the attack dog, but he won’t be quite as effective at it if the media is on the watch for the next off-message comment,” Fortier said.

For now, there is no evidence that Biden’s loose-lipped ways have had an adverse effect on Obama’s re-election chances. In fact, they may sometimes have the potential to solidify support for the president. In May, Biden’s unexpected pronouncement during a televised interview that he was “absolutely comfortable” with same-sex marriage was said to have forced Obama to quickly follow suit with his own endorsement; Obama’s left-wing base was thrilled, and gay donors, who had long been frustrated with the White House tiptoeing around the issue, came flocking back.

A recent piece in prominent online magazine Salon posited that Biden’s “chains” comment could similarly fire up a key element of the Democrat base – black voters, a significant portion of whom live in crucial swing states like Virginia and North Carolina. Indeed, the reaction among those present when Biden made the remark was mostly applause.

“By invoking language that has powerful emotional resonance with a particular audience, [Biden] pushes exactly the right buttons with Obama’s core,” the piece read. “This is exactly the kind of memorable thing that makes people come out to vote.”

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