8/27/08—Most of the corporate media cheered Barack Obama's selection of Sen. Joe Biden as his running mate, seeing the move as a signal that their well-circulated criticisms of Obama were on point.
Since Obama clinched the Democratic nomination, many pundits have echoed McCain campaign attacks that he is weak on foreign policy and national security, and have highlighted Obama's supposed difficulty in "winning over" the working-class whites who voted for Hillary Clinton. In this light, Biden has been hailed as the perfect corrective for Obama's flaws.
USA Today (8/25/08) summarized the conventional wisdom in an editorial headlined "Biden a Pragmatic Choice":
Biden is a 35-year Senate veteran who offers qualities Obama conspicuously lacks: decades of experience, foreign policy depth and a refreshingly direct style that contrasts well with Obama's nuanced reserve. Instead of an outside-the-box pick that would have electrified supporters enamored with his change-agent style, Obama chose a solid member of the Democratic establishment who fills the holes in his resume.
Washington Post reporter Dan Balz (8/24/08) agreed, writing that Obama "moved to deal with two potential weaknesses" by picking Biden, who "shores up Obama's inexperience on national security issues." Also at the Post, David Broder (8/25/08) cheered that "Biden brings a blue-collar sensibility that has been lacking in Obama's campaign," and then assumed to know what Biden was saying to Obama: "The message he surely has brought to Obama is: Your background looks elitist to many of the people I represent. The way to overcome that impression is to be in their neighborhoods, talk directly to them in small groups and show them you really understand the struggles in their lives. Biden surely does that."
Some pundits argued that, in fact, Biden was really too perfect a complement for Obama--seeing the running mate's strengths as actually playing up the main candidate's weaknesses. Associated Press Washington bureau chief Ron Fournier (8/23/08) declared that "the candidate of change went with the status quo," writing that: "In picking Sen. Joe Biden to be his running mate, Barack Obama sought to shore up his weakness--inexperience in office and on foreign policy--rather than underscore his strength as a new-generation candidate defying political conventions.... The question is whether Biden’s depth counters Obama's inexperience--or highlights it." That sentiment was echoed by ABC pundit George Will (8/24/08): "When you pick a running mate to correct a defect in your resume, as has happened in this case, you underscore the defect. Now, the thinness of Mr Obama's resume in foreign policy is as clear as putty."
Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen (8/25/08) likewise argued that "Biden's selection represents an implied admission by Obama that he lacks what Biden has: foreign policy credentials." But to Cohen--and others--it was not merely foreign policy experience: "Biden was chosen because, in the end, he satisfied Obama's apparent desire, if not need, to reassure those who wonder about his youth, his race, his manner, his peripatetic childhood.... On the stump, Obama did not need someone like himself. He felt the need for someone more rooted."
It's important to recognize that when establishment journalists talk about Biden's foreign policy expertise, they mean that he thinks like they do. New York Times reporters Adam Nagourney and Jeff Zeleny (nytimes.com, 8/23/08) saw Biden's support for the Iraq War as an important asset to a campaign that was launched primarily on the candidate's opposition to the Iraq invasion: "Although he initially voted to authorize the war--Mr. Obama has opposed the war from the start--Mr. Biden has become a persistent critic of President Bush's policies in Iraq. Mr. Biden would complement Mr. Obama's antiwar position in the general election match-up against Senator John McCain, the likely Republican nominee, who has supported the war." Being for the war when the media were in the tank as well makes him a valuable "complement" to a candidate who has been, from corporate media's point of view, suspiciously consistent in his opposition to the war.
The AP's Fournier similarly noted: "Biden brings a lot to the table. An expert on national security, the Delaware senator voted in 2002 to authorize military intervention in Iraq but has since become a vocal critic of the conflict." For the media, a politician's national security credentials are enhanced and not diminished by early support for the war, because that's the position that was taken by "serious" people (like media insiders).
Biden's credentials are likewise little diminished in the media's eyes by his speaking style, widely acknowledged to be long-winded and prone to the occasional gaffe—some of which strike alarmingly racist chords. At the start of his own candidacy, Biden said of Obama's candidacy (New York Observer interview, 1/31/07), "I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy."
Biden later tried to explain to the Washington Post (10/25/07) why public schools in Iowa did not have the same problems as schools in Washington, D.C.: "There's less than 1 percent of the population of Iowa that is African-American. There is probably less than 4 or 5 percent that are minorities. What is it in Washington? So look, it goes back to what you start off with, what you're dealing with." Biden spokespeople would later explain that his comments were about socioeconomic status, not race.
In June 2006, Biden commented (C-SPAN, 6/17/06) that in his home state of Delaware, "You cannot go to a 7-11 or a Dunkin Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent.... I'm not joking."
Despite the record, pundits seem willing to give Biden a pass. As the Post's Broder wrote, "Biden has an unpublicized side as an urban politician. His imprint has been heavy on all the anti-crime legislation passed in the past two decades, and his civil rights credentials are impeccable." ABC's Cokie Roberts seemed to concur (8/24/08): "If Joe Biden were sitting at this table, we'd all be having a wonderful time with him. He's a nice guy. He's fun to be with. One of the reasons he gets in trouble is because he does speak frankly to us and to the American people which sometimes is a problem for him." Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter explained (9/1/08) that "Joe Biden's stereotyping Indian-Americans at a convenience store or calling Obama 'clean' and 'articulate' did no lasting harm because no one ever accused Biden of being a racist. Stories don't grow in barren soil."
Alter made this observation in a column wondering why some storylines stick and others don't; the obvious answer is that journalists make those decisions. In this case, Biden's bigotry is deemed irrelevant by a press corps that rarely finds bigotry to be relevant. (Biden and Alter, along with numerous political and media bigwigs, were regular guests on the race-baiting Don Imus Show—see FAIR Action Alert, 4/9/07.) Obama's supposed foreign policy deficit, on the other hand, is not "barren soil" for corporate pundits--because he was right about Iraq when they were wrong, and that is troubling.
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This story was published on August 28, 2008.