Will Obama's new running mate help or hurt the campaign?

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Aug. 23 2008 9:11 AM

It's Biden Time!

Will Obama's new running mate help or hurt the campaign?

Joe Biden.
Joe Biden

If Barack Obama is any kind of sport, he'll announce at his big rally in Springfield, Ill., this afternoon that he picked Joe Biden because he's "articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy." When Biden said that about Obama, it overshadowed the first few days of Biden's presidential run as he tried to explain the implied slur. By quoting Biden, Obama might get a laugh, as well as show the two are close enough that they can kid about it now.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

The reference would also help defuse a big question everyone has about Biden: Can he keep the gaffes in check? One way to defuse a gaffe, of course, is to dismiss it as irrelevant. If it doesn't bother me, Obama would be saying, it shouldn't bother anyone else.

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Obama has made a serious pick. He didn't choose his Delaware colleague because Biden would generate buzz, and Biden brings no Electoral College benefit. Delaware is a blue state, and being born in the swing state of Pennsylvania doesn't really count. Obama picked Biden because, as chairman of the foreign relations committee and former chairman of the judiciary committee, he has extensive experience.

Biden doesn't scream change (Obama's got that account covered). But he does offer stability and weight in a dangerous world. His credentials as the author of the 1994 crime bill might be most important of all, say some Democrats who expect Republicans to paint Obama as soft on crime. Obama's central pitch is about just how much is at stake in this election. Biden affirms that.

This isn't to say Biden is without political benefit. He's a practicing Catholic, and Obama has had trouble with that constituency. Despite the fancy-looking suits, Biden isn't rich (a convenient thing when you're making fun of houses-by-the-dozen John McCain), and he knows how to reach out to blue-collar voters. (He's the son of a used-car salesman.) Obama has to hope that, this time, those benefits can transfer; they didn't when he practically bolted himself to Sen. Bob Casey in Pennsylvania during the primaries to win over those same voters.

The problem with picking a vice president who balances your own lack of experience is that it, well, highlights your own lack of experience. Obama famously told CBS's Lara Logan that he never has any doubt about his ability on the world stage. He will of course say this—but regular folk might not see it that way, and the McCain team has quips at its disposal that could play into their concerns. You can almost see the ads already: The Democrats should have reversed the ticket to put the experienced guy at the top. When there's an international crisis at 3 a.m., the phone doesn't ring at the vice president's house.

Immediately after Obama made his announcement, the McCain campaign put an ad on the air with Biden asserting that Obama would require on-the-job training as president and that he thought John McCain was an honorable man. This isn't all Obama's opponents have to work with. Biden has long (and at length) extolled the virtues of experience; it was the theme of his 1988 campaign (there's this great video), and it was again this year.

Another puzzling thing about the Obama pick is that, though he is supposed to be the candidate of change, he's picked a Washington insider (much the way outsider Jimmy Carter picked Walter Mondale in 1976). And Biden looks and sounds the part, talking about himself in the third person and constantly referring to the legislation he's passed. "Next to John Kerry, Joe Biden may be the most self-referential senator in town," says one Democratic veteran who is nevertheless thrilled with the pick.

Biden's insider status may also affect Obama's arguments against McCain. He is running against McCain as a Washington politician, arguing that McCain has been in the town so long that it has clouded his vision and made him incapable of reform. But if McCain has Washingtonitis, doesn't it afflict Biden, too?

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