Obama’s Biden Problem

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Despite our high expectations, Vice President Joe Biden’s first months in office were disappointing. This, remember, is the man who opened the more recent of his two futile runs for the presidency by saying of Obama that he was “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy. I mean, that’s a storybook, man.”

Yes, I mean that Joe Biden. The one who hollered at wheelchair-bound Missouri State Sen. Chuck Graham, to “stand up.” The one who plagiarized a speech by Neil Kinnock. In other words, a man who has flung himself into one rhetorical pratfall after another with the unswerving momentum of a blind rhino.

But then, as Biden and his wife, Jill, ensconced themselves in the vice president’s official residence at the Naval Observatory in northwest Washington, came a phase of decorum, irksome to those wagering that the former senator from Delaware is incapable of keeping his foot out of his mouth. There were those who said sadly, “Joe just isn’t Joe any more.”

They were wrong.

Appropriately, it was on the topic of Israel that, as vice president, Biden first tossed aside unmanly prudence. Even given the zeal of almost every member of the U.S. Congress to satisfy the Israel lobby, Biden has always been conspicuous for his slavish posture toward the Holy State. Accepting Obama’s offer of the vice presidential nomination last summer, he announced emphatically that he would not have considered accepting the invitation if he had entertained the slightest suspicion that Obama was not 100 percent in Israel’s corner. In fact, the Israel lobby did entertain these unworthy suspicions, which is why it pushed strongly for Biden as veep.

It wasn’t far into Obama’s first months in the White House that the lobby began to feel that even though Obama’s chief of staff is Rahm Emanuel, their suspicions were justified. The president dared to mention in public the right of Palestinians to some form of state. He said the settlements on the West Bank had to stop. (True, he didn’t say anything categorical about actually existing illegal settlements.) He seemed too eager to parley with Iran, too demure on the topic of its nuclear program.

On July 5, George Stephanopoulos interviewed Biden in Baghdad for his Sunday morning talk show on the ABC network and promptly put the question: “if the Israelis decide Iran is an existential threat, (and) they have to take out the nuclear program militarily, the United States will not stand in the way?”

Biden lunged for the driver’s wheel and swerved U.S. government policy in a whole new direction: “(W)e cannot dictate to another sovereign nation what they can and cannot do when they make a determination, if they make a determination that they’re existentially threatened and their survival is threatened by another country.”

The White House spent the next two days categorically denying that it was giving—via Biden—Israel the go-ahead to make a unilateral attack on Iran. The United States is “absolutely not” flashing Israel a green light to attack Iran, U.S. President Barack Obama told CNN in Moscow on July 7. “We have said directly to the Israelis that it is important to try and resolve this in an international setting in a way that does not create major conflict in the Middle East.”

Then, in the same Stephanopoulos interview, Biden sucker-punched Obama again, addressing the failure of Obama’s stimulus program to halt the surge in unemployment and prompt recovery, a failure that has the president tumbling in the polls.

In devising this program, Biden confided—correctly—to Stephanopoulos, the Obama administration had “misread” the extent of the economic catastrophe it inherited.

“The truth is, we and everyone else misread the economy. The figures we worked off of in January were the consensus figures and most of the blue chip indexes out there.”

As Obama made haste to controvert his vice president, Biden fans, lolling on their Sunday-morning couches, jumped up and punched high-fives to the heavens. Joe was back, more brazen than ever in his traditional blend of mendacious self-justification. His claim that in late January “we and everyone else” misread the economy was complete nonsense. Economists like Joe Stiglitz and Paul Krugman had immediately denounced the stimulus package as way too small and that the White House was squandering irretrievable amounts of political capital.

So why did Biden embarrass his boss internationally and then rub his nose in a catastrophic economic misjudgment? The nose-rubbing isn’t so hard to explain. Biden is a notorious flapjaw. He can always talk his way into a fix. He’s spent his political life doing it.

As for Biden crossing Obama regarding Israel and Iran, vice presidents are not supposed to contradict presidential policy. But Biden’s genuflections to the lobby are so ingrained, he simply can’t help himself.

Obama surely must be thinking: Where is Dick Cheney, now that I need him? As Bush’s veep, Cheney gave his boss the limelight, kept his mouth shut for eight years. Everyone said he was really the man running the country.

No one thinks Biden is running the country, and maybe this is the core of Obama’s Biden problem. Almost all politicians are narcissists, and Biden, more than most, is narcissistically vulnerable. It’s why he has so often got into trouble for lying about his achievements. It’s why, as a senator, he couldn’t stop talking. It’s why Obama can look forward to plenty of strenuous exercise hauling the vice president’s foot out of his mouth. Obama’s honeymoon phase is dwindling to a close. Biden will be there to signal the wrong turns and say that they weren’t his fault. Obama would be well advised to send his vice president on secret peace missions to Afghanistan and hope that the first warlord Biden starts haranguing will saw his head off just to stop him talking.


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