Barack Obama introduced Joe Biden as his running mate at a boisterous rally in Springfield, Ill., on Saturday, revealing a choice that strengthens the Democratic ticket's credentials on foreign policy and provides Obama a hard-fighting partner as he heads into the fall fight with Republican John McCain.
In Biden, Obama selected a six-term senator known for his expertise on foreign affairs – Biden spent last weekend in Georgia as that nation engaged in a tense confrontation with Russia – but also his skills at political combat. Obama passed over other candidates who might have helped him carry a state or reinforced his message of change.
At the rally outside the Old State Capitol where Obama announced his candidacy for the White House 20 months ago, Obama offered a passionate introduction of Biden: the portrait of a running mate who filled in what many Democrats have described as the political shortcomings of Obama.
He presented Biden as the product of a Catholic blue-collar home in northeastern Pennsylvania, who had endured personal tragedy in the death of his wife and daughter and his own near-death, who could relate to the culture of the Senate or of blue-collar voters.
“I can tell you that Joe Biden gets it,” said Obama, gazing across a sea of thousands of people, many of whom were fanning themselves against the heat, a contrast with the scene of a shivering crowd wrapped in blankets the last time he spoke. “He's that unique public servant who is at home in a bar in Cedar Rapids and the corridors of the Capitol, in the VFW hall in Concord and at the center of an international crisis.”
What Biden brings to the ticket
The choice of Biden was perhaps the most critical decision Obama has made as his party's presumptive nominee. It suggested a concern by Obama's advisers that his overseas trip this summer may not have done enough to deal with persistent voter concerns about his level of experience, especially on national security.
He announced his decision when the conflict between Russia and Georgia has provided Republicans an opportunity to re-inject foreign policy into an election that has increasingly focused on the economy and in a period in which McCain is proving a scrappier opponent than many Democrats had assumed he would be.
Biden, after trotting onto stage, offered a caustic preview of what he would be doing in the next 10 weeks. He offered a lusty attack on McCain that left little doubt of the role he would play at a time when many Democrats have worried that Obama is too restrained a campaigner.
“I must tell you, frankly, I have been disappointed in my friend John McCain, who gave in to the right wing of his party and gave in to the Swift Boat politics he once so deplored,” Biden said.
And he went so far as mocking McCain for owning at least seven houses, as he talked about the kitchen table conservations struggling Americans were having. “That's not a worry John McCain has to worry about,” he said. “It's a pretty hard experience: He'll have to figure out which of the seven kitchen tables to sit at.”
At the end of the selection process, Obama was working off a list of four contenders, including Biden. They were Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana, Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia and Gov. Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas. It did not, by most accounts, include Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York, despite an early signal by her supporters that she was interested, and many Democrats' belief that she would be a major electoral asset.
Clinton issued a statement Saturday morning praising the choice and calling Biden “an exceptionally strong, experienced leader.”
A complement to Obama
Biden, 65, is the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and is familiar with foreign leaders and diplomats around the world. Although he initially voted to authorize the war in Iraq – Obama opposed it from the start – Biden became a persistent critic of President Bush's policies in Iraq.
Biden, who sought the Democratic presidential nomination himself this year before pulling out after performing poorly in the first contest, in Iowa, has shown himself to be a tough political brawler, a characteristic that many Democrats say Obama has not displayed against McCain.
Biden seems likely to fill in other gaps in Obama's political appeal that became increasingly clear during the primary season and going into the fall. He is a Roman Catholic – as Obama noted twice in his introduction – a group with which Obama had trouble during the primaries. He has a blue-collar background, potentially giving him appeal among white working-class voters, another bloc in which Obama ran poorly in the primaries.
Biden adds a few years and gray hair to a ticket that otherwise might seem a bit young – Obama is 47. He is, Obama's advisers were quick to assert, someone prepared to take over as president.
From the moment he dropped out of the presidential race, he had been mentioned as a potential secretary of state should either Obama or Clinton win the election. He is also something of a fixture in Washington, and he would bring to the campaign – and the White House – a familiarity with the way the city and Congress work that Obama cannot match after his relatively short stint in Washington. By the time the announcement was made, Republicans were ready, armed with what Democrats assumed was a mountain of material mined from Biden's 36 years in the Senate and his presidential campaign.
By dawn, the McCain campaign had produced a television advertisement that reprised critical statements Biden had made about Obama during the campaign. “I think he can be ready, but right now, I don't believe he is,” Biden said in August 2007.
Risks of selecting Biden
The selection was disclosed as Obama moves into a critical part of his campaign, preparing for the party's four-day convention starting on Monday. From Springfield they went their different ways: Obama is going to begin a tour of swing states that will bring him into Denver on Wednesday. Biden is to head straight to Denver where, aides said, he would spend time meeting Obama delegates, with an effort to try to help soothe tension with Clinton's supporters there.
After dropping out of the race in January, Biden pointedly did not make an endorsement, maintaining warm relations with both the Clinton and Obama camps.
Biden is hardly an entirely safe choice. He has frequently talked himself into trouble, like when he made the “not yet ready” statement about Obama. He was forced to apologize to Obama almost the moment he entered the race for president after he was quoted as describing Obama as “the first mainstream African American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy,” a remark that drew criticism for being racially insensitive.
Republicans made clear that they intended to keep a close eye on Biden, looking to exploit any more moments like those.