Biden pick bolsters Obama on foreign policy, national security

BySusan Page, USA TODAY

DENVER -- The candidate who clinched the Democratic presidential nomination with a message of change has turned to a six-term senator and Washington insider for his running mate.

Barack Obama's choice of Delaware Sen. Joe Biden as the Democratic vice presidential nominee instantly bolsters the ticket's credentials on foreign policy, an area where Obama's background is limited. Biden, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is one of Congress' most knowledgeable and respected voices on national security.

A week ago, for instance, Biden visited Tbilisi, Georgia, at the request of Georgia president Mikheil Saakashvili as he sought to respond to Russia's invasion.

Still, some supporters who were drawn by Obama's promise to shake up politics-as-usual might have preferred a running mate less steeped in Washington's ways. Obama was 12 years old when Biden won election to the Senate in 1972, where he has served ever since. Unlike Obama, Biden accepted contributions from political action committees for his presidential bid.

Other contenders for the No. 2 spot such as Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine or Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius would have done more to reinforce Obama's outsider message. Kaine and Sebelius also would have brought experience to the ticket as chief executives.

There's also Biden's well-known tendency to talk too much. The beginning of his second presidential bid was roiled in February 2007 when he described Obama as the first black presidential candidate "who is articulate and bright and clean." (He called Obama to make sure the comment hadn't caused offense.) Biden's 1988 presidential bid was cut short after he borrowed without attribution some lofty language from Neil Kinnock, a British politician.

Within hours of Obama's announcement of his choice — delivered by text message to millions of supporters — Republican John McCain's campaign released a TV ad that shows Biden in a Democratic debate during the primaries questioning Obama's readiness for the White House. He said he stood by his statement that Obama "can be ready but right now, I don't believe he is."

On the other hand, Biden also demonstrated in those debates his ease with a range of policy matters, his ability to occasionally turn a phrase and his willingness to go after Republicans — all presumably factors that boosted his prospects for the No. 2 spot on the ticket.

"He has the heft that's important," says Democratic consultant Peter Fenn. "He can step right into the job. … People remember his foreign policy experience but he's also done a lot on crime, on Megan's Law, on equal pay — plus I think he'll be a good campaigner. I don't think Joe Biden will hesitate to take the gloves off."

Biden's feistiness will serve him well, agrees Julian Zelizer, a Princeton professor of history and public affairs. "Ideally, what you'd like the vice presidential candidate to do is to say things that the presidential candidate shouldn't say," Zelizer says. "That's the whole concept of an attack dog."

The choice was praised from an important quarter: former Obama rival Hillary Rodham Clinton. The New York senator issued a statement calling Biden "an exceptionally strong, experienced leader and devoted public servant."

Biden is an energetic, garrulous campaigner who is enormously popular in his home state and, more important, has roots in the battleground state of Pennsylvania and ties to the sort of blue-collar voters Obama has been working to win. The Delaware senator, who is Roman Catholic, was born in Scranton.

That part of his biography was featured in a release the Obama campaign in Pennsylvania quickly sent to reporters in the state, calling him "Pennsylvania's third senator" and noting that he "spent nearly every summer of his childhood at his grandfather's house" in Scranton.

Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland said Biden's "humble Pennsylvania roots give him a deep understanding of the challenges facing Ohio families."

Biden's life has been touched by tragedy, including the death of his first wife and daughter in a car crash and his own battle in 1988 with brain aneurysms. One of his two sons, Beau, now serves as Delaware's attorney general and is scheduled to be deployed to Iraq in October with the Delaware National Guard.

"In Delaware, lots of people know Joe Biden and like him," says Delaware state Sen. Harris McDowell. "We know him as a real person, a good person and an extremely articulate campaign. People in Delaware don't have any doubt he would be a great and effective addition to the ticket."