Two policemen amble toward a bench in the Wilmington train station, where Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. waits to board the 7:43 a.m. Amtrak Acela to Washington, D.C.
Unlike many passengers, Biden doesn’t look sleepy or tired. Not even close. In a crisp navy suit and a tie dotted with little dolphins, he appears to be at the top of his game, having already taped television segments for CBS and WHYY—a normal morning for the telegenic Joe.
“Listen,” one cop tells him, “we really appreciate all you’re doing for us.” (Biden’s 1994 COPS Bill helped hire 118,000 new police officers nationwide.)
“I’m gonna keep punching, guys,” Biden says, smiling that famous smile. “If policemen were the only ones allowed to vote, I’d be president.”
Yet Biden knows it’ll take a lot more than local cops to put him in the White House in January 2009. Given, among other things, our country’s relationship with other nations, Joe believes deeply that, after years on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he is the best person for the job.
“I believe that we dug ourselves into a very deep hole internationally and domestically,” Biden says. “I realized after this last election that my ability to really effect change, particularly in the areas I’m most concerned about, is pretty limited. I concluded that the only way I could really have an immediate impact is as president.”
Forgetting for a second his outspokenness, it is conceivable Biden will be one of the more appealing Democratic candidates when state caucuses and primaries begin in January 2008.
“I think Joe Biden has all the qualifications to be president,” says Bob Schieffer, host of “Face the Nation” on CBS, where Biden announced his candidacy to the country 18 months ago. “I think on the Democratic side, I would call him one of the most informed senators on foreign policy. I think he has a lot to offer voters.”
And as a January 11 column in the Washington Post pointed out, our Senator Biden occupies the sensible center for the Democratic Party.
The question is, what does the rest of America think? Would it actually elect Joe Biden its president.
It is almost certain that our next president will have “end war” on his to-do list, as well as countless shattered foreign relationships to mend.
And therein lies Biden’s greatest strength, says Stuart Rothenberg, a former CNN political analyst and current columnist for the Roll Call congressional newspaper: Few senators have the same no-nonsense rapport with world leaders as Biden does.
Biden is what many would call an internationalist—a staunch supporter of the United Nations who speaks out fiercely against President Bush’s unilateral approach to foreign affairs. He famously called Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic a war criminal to his face during the Bosnian war. He traveled extensively in the Balkans and pressed for lifting the trade embargo against Bosnia and organizing NATO air strikes against Serbia, which came in droves between August and September of 1995. Between 2001 and 2003 he chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and following the attacks of 9-11, Biden, with Indiana Senator Dick Lugar, attempted to pass a resolution authorizing military action only after the exhaustion of diplomatic efforts. The Bush administration rejected it.
“He’s been around a long time, so he’s seen a lot and he has significant experience,” Rothenberg says. “That’s an important thing to have with the war on terror and the war in Iraq and all the uncertainty overseas.”
Today, for instance, he meets with His Excellency Hamid Karzai, president of Afghanistan, and tells him, emphatically, to cram any and all diplomatic niceties with President Bush and to let him know Afghanistan is in serious trouble. Biden knows Afghanistan needs more forces to combat the Taliban and Pakistani extremists, and there is no getting around it. He tells Karzai that his country hangs in the balance.
“I think the issues we’re going to be dealing with for the next 10 years are issues that are already him,” says Jim Soles, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Delaware. “How do we get out of Iraq with honor? Out of Afghanistan? Those are going to be extraordinary, difficult, delicate decisions to have to make.”
To catch the attention of voters, Biden will have to distinguish himself from a crowd of Democrats that could include New York Senator Hillary Clinton, former Vice President Al Gore, Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold, former North Carolina Senator John Edwards and Massachusetts Senator John Kerry.
“I think that if Senator Clinton or Vice President Gore both decide to run, they will clearly be frontrunners,” says Ron Klain, a Democratic Party insider and former chief of staff for Gore. “Then there are a number of candidates who are in the next tier behind that. Senator Biden is one of those candidates. I think among those candidates, he has a very legitimate shot. But he’d be the first one to tell you, if it’s Joe Biden against Hillary Clinton, he is very much the underdog.”
The more Democrats who run, the better Clinton’s chances of gaining the nomination, since there is no binary choice, says conservative Washington Post columnist and Newsweek contributor George Will. Yet, substantively, Biden has every bit as good a claim as any other Democrat.
Will’s big criticism is Biden’s, ahem, “rhetoric,” which is to say both his tone and his prodigious output of words.
“Stylistically, he has problems,” Will says. “Joe sometimes seems to be Washington’s oldest adolescent. He’s better than that, and there’s a guilelessness to his adolescence that makes it not off-putting. But it doesn’t seem presidential.”
During the Samuel Alito Supreme Court confirmation hearings, for example, Biden, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, was so verbose, he managed to ask only four questions in his allotted 30 minutes. It landed Joe on the front page of the New York Times.
“I was at lunch and my office called to say, ‘Ten minutes to Biden,’” Will says. “I dropped my lunch and ran back to watch his questions. Never mind the answers, his questions were hilarious.”
Then there is the issue of money. Biden will need a lot of it.
“I think it’s hard [to separate from the pack] because money is so important,” Rothenberg says. “I think the biggest issue for Senator Biden is whether he can raise $30 million, $40 million, $50 million or more. It’s primarily a financial question. Money is how some Democratic activists decide who’s in the top tier and who’s not. A lot of people in Washington wonder whether he can meet the entrance fee for the presidential race.”
Coming from tiny ol’ Delaware certainly doesn’t compare to, say, the huge in-state fundraising base George W. Bush had in Texas—or even the hometown base Clinton has in West Chester County, New York, one of the most affluent areas of the country.
Biden figures it will take at least $30 million to mount an effective campaign. The sum would pay for an adequate staff, travel expenses, a regional headquarters and some advertising. Pundits have calculated Clinton will raise around $100 million.
“I have not done anything politically nationally in 20 years,” Biden says. “I haven’t cultivated a network, haven’t done Democratic dinners in each of the states. So we’re kind of starting from scratch again. How do you put together a national network? We’re in the process of doing that, and I think we can.”
When Biden ran for president in 1987, he bowed out amid accusations of plagiarism. He was said to have borrowed parts of a speech delivered in Iowa from British Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock. Just weeks after withdrawing, he was stricken with two life-threatening brain aneurysms. He returned to the Senate seven months later.
Though Biden’s unsuccessful bid in ’87 may seem like a liability moving forward, analysts argue that Joe’s gaffe is history in Washington. “It’s as ancient as the Peloponnesian War,” Will says. “Nobody remembers that.”
Some say his past failures and setbacks reveal Biden’s more humanistic side. President Bush gained favor with constituents when he came clean about struggles with alcoholism early in his life. President Clinton was a noted adulterer, yet it didn’t harm his career.
“America loves a comeback,” Klain says. “People want to know that a president has overcome some adversity. It makes him interesting to voters and makes people able to understand and access him.”
Still, Biden admits he’ll need a mistake-free campaign to stand a shot. Much of that onus will fall on his sister, Valerie Biden Owens, who has managed each of Joe’s campaigns since he ran for president of his eighth-grade class. The strategy so far, according to Biden Owens, has been to test the waters in so-called red states such as Kentucky and South Carolina, to see if his message of diplomacy rings clear. So far, she says, “We are overwhelmingly satisfied with the response we’ve had.”
The war in Iraq and national security will top Joe’s platform, Biden Owens says, though another big plank is Biden’s idea if reuniting factions that have been divided over the past eight years under President Bush—about the war, preemption, faith, abortion and countless other issues.
“Senator Biden has built his whole career on bringing together people of different ideologies without compromising their principles,” Biden Owens says. “He’ll talk about how we need to stop building on our differences and build instead on the fact that we have a common people working for a common solution.”
From the WHYY studio on Orange Street, Biden chats with Hannah Storm of the CBS “Early Show” via satellite. When she asks about Iraq, Joe snaps, “The President is wrong. They don’t have a plan.” The war in Iraq is breeding more Jihadists, Biden says, and parts of the Middle East are becoming training grounds for new terrorists.
Biden’s greatest weapon before the primaries might be his five-point plan for Iraq, which he has visited seven times. The idea is to decentralize the country and give autonomous regions to Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis. Biden’s plan also includes the sharing of oil revenues, regulated by a central Iraqi government. Most important, U.S. troops should be almost entirely withdrawn from Iraq by 2008, according to Biden.
His plan might not be airtight, but as Biden asks his critics, “What’s your alternative?”
“If Iraq does turn out to be the main issue in voters’ minds, and I think it will be, then that would certainly play to his strength,” Schieffer says. “He has credibility in these issues because he’s been dealing with them for so long.”
Other candidates would have to “fudge” their experience in foreign affairs, Rothenberg says. “And John Edwards has to pretend like he’s an expert on foreign policy. I think as long as foreign policy is front and center, yeah, it’s going to be important in 2008 for candidates to demonstrate their knowledge in foreign issues and make people comfortable in those issues.”
Another issue is homeland security. Several times during the day, Biden brings up the Bush tax cuts, and how the bracket for people making more than a million dollars a year—which exceeded $60 billion this year—could be placed in a Homeland Security trust fund, allowing for more police and FBI agents, more money for the 9-11 Commission and enhanced security across the board.
“I think the thing that’s going to be in the strongest demand is somebody who could assure the American people that he or she has a notion of our place in the world, how to secure it and how to enhance their security,” Biden says. “It’s like the Monopoly game: You don’t get to pass Go unless you can answer those questions.”
It’s 10 a.m. in Washington and Biden is again in front of a camera. This time he is being filmed as part of a documentary focusing on the 14 women in the Senate. His interrogator is Nicole Boxer, daughter of California Senator Barbara Boxer. As the two speak, it becomes clear Biden’s name wasn’t pulled out of a hat. He is the only male senator being interviewed for the film.
“I hope I’m answering your question,” says Biden in the middle of a series of stories about mothers, both his and hers.
“No,” Boxer says, nodding. “This is perfect.”
Biden would do well to address the 111 million women who voted in 2004. He was a fierce defender of 1972’s Title IX, which eliminated discrimination against girls and women in federally funded programs, and he cares deeply about family and education issues. He’s quick to heap praise on the influential women in his life, including his mother, Catherine Eugenia Finnegan Biden, and his sister. And he has always pushed more women to get involved in politics, including Governor Ruth Ann Minner. In 1994 Biden drafted the Violence Against Women Act, along with Utah Senator Orrin Hatch and California Senator Boxer, to help fund women’s shelters and increase penalties on rapists and abusers.
Investing in education is another of Biden’s hot buttons. In 2004 he helped implement a $2.1 million grant for mentoring, and his Kids 2000 legislation in 2000 established more computer centers, teachers, and Internet access for low-income and at-risk youth. And his voting record shows an overwhelming inclination to expand and increase health care, including votes for larger enrollment for Medicare and less expensive prescription drugs.
So to borrow a phrase, Biden looks good on paper. But that’s no guarantee of a nomination.
There is the question of money: Can he raise enough? There is the question of what sets him apart from others: Can he convince voters he’s best in what’s shaping up to be a battle royale for the candidacy?
And then there is the question of his outspokenness: Can he avoid cramming his foot in his mouth?
Joe thinks so.
“If I’m able to articulate clearly my message and if I don’t make any major mistakes, which every presidential candidate tends to make, then I can win,” he says. “I really believe this election is about big ideas and big solutions, and people are looking for practical solutions. I’m starting from the premise that the vast majority of Americans know that, for whatever reason, we’ve been dug into a very deep hole for the past seven years.
“They want someone who knows what they believe, someone who has the experience and track record to deal with the issues they’re most concerned about and will stand where he or she says they are.”
A CNN poll conducted by the Opinion Research Corporation earlier this year found that Biden’s prospects might not be so bright. Among the 517 polled who identified themselves as Democrats, only 2 percent picked Biden from among a field of other prospective candidates. Clinton received 37 percent, Gore garnered 20 percent. Polls conducted by WNBC/Marist, FOX News and the American Polling Research Institute yielded similar results.
“In terms of [Biden] becoming president, I think he is too liberal for America, and I think his arrogance is a major turnoff,” says David Crossan, executive director of the Republican State Committee of Delaware. “I think Joe Biden is the only person who thinks he can become president. Let me put it this way: I think the idea of Joe Biden successfully running for president is ridiculous.”
The Power Rankings website, dems4pres.com, gives an equally icy forecast for Joe: “Biden’s in the race, but put simply, he’s too much of a (perceived) slick insider to make much of an impact.” (Simply look at the number of governors who went straight to the White House over the past 40 years.)
Whether that’s a fair statement or not, Biden’s high profile has cast him as the face of the so-called pushover Democrats of recent years. “Biden wants to run, and he’ll position himself to do so, but he won’t be in the race long.”
Biden might be a long shot, but it’s not the first time—he was the dark horse in his bids for New Castle County Council in 1970 and to the U.S. Senate in 1972—and he is a long shot among a field of other long shots, says Schieffer—all besides Clinton, of course.
“On the Democratic side, it’s going to come down to Hillary and all the others,” Schieffer says. “Somebody will emerge from all the others to be the alternative to Hillary. And then either Hillary or the alternative to Hillary will win the nomination. So I think Biden has to find some way to break out of that pack.”
One promising sign was the enthusiastic response Biden received during exploratory trips to Iowa, New Hampshire, Mississippi and other states last summer.
“In Iowa, to say he was met with a receptive audience would be an understatement,” says Ted Kaufman, a former Biden staffer and a current advisor. “The response was really quite extraordinary. It was like ’87 on steroids. He got standing ovations when he came into the room.
“There’s no easy path to become president. But given the response he’s been getting, this is a real happening thing.”
In Iowa in August, Team Biden made 49 stops, and thousands of people showed up in living rooms, side yards and farms to show support. More than 600 people signed up to get more information about Joe, to donate, volunteer, or go to his events. Yet Biden’s been around long enough to know, a nomination this does not make.
“If the Democratic Party is looking for the person with the most money, the person who’s most geographically positioned, then I’m not their guy,” he says. “My hope is, if they’re looking for someone who’d be the best president, well…”