Obama gains Joe-mentum?

Barack Obama takes a chance on a gaffe-prone running mate in Joe Biden, plus newstatesman.com's <a h

The text message that came at 3:04:25 on Saturday morning - on my phone, at least - was just the beginning of what is certain to be one of the most enthralling weeks in American politics for decades. “Barack has chosen Senator Joe Biden to be our vice-presidential candidate,” read the message from Senator Barack Obama’s presidential campaign team. Twelve hours later, in front of 35,000 supporters in sweltering heat outside the Old State Capitol building in Springfield, Illinois - where Obama began his presidential campaign 19 months ago - the political marriage between Obama and 65-year-old Biden, a senator for 35 years, was officially sealed.

The election campaign switches into even higher gear on Monday with the start of the Democratic convention in Denver, when Obama’s high-powered wife Michelle will be the first keynote speaker. But what will the Clintonistas be doing and saying about Obama’s choice of Biden? The featured speaker on Wednesday evening will be Bill Clinton, although he has not yet been told by the Obama team whether he will have a primetime television spot. Publicly, the Clintons enthusiastically support the choice of Biden; privately, they are fuming that Obama did not even consider Senator Hillary Clinton to be his running mate.

But in choosing Biden, Obama is hoping to pick up many of the pluses Clinton would have brought to the ticket - and thereby neutralise some of his own demographic weaknesses. In the primaries, Hillary Clinton consistently scored better with the working-class poor than Obama - whose votes Biden can now be expected to attract. He is a Catholic - hardly a handicap in a country whose population is a quarter Catholic - and, as chairman of the senate foreign policy committee, has oodles of foreign policy experience of the kind Obama conspicuously lacks. He is a staunch supporter of Israel, vital for any US presidential ticket.

And, because he was a working-class boy brought up in Scranton, Pennsylvania, the Democrats are hoping that he might be able to help deliver that crucial swing state to them in November too. He has a compelling life story, as well, which always goes down well at conventions and with the American electorate: his first wife and daughter were killed in a car crash just after he was elected to the senate, and he was sworn in to the senate by the bedsides of his two critically injured sons. In 1988, Biden himself only narrowly survived two brain aneurysms.

He is also a highly risky pick for Obama, though. His own 1987 bid for the presidency exploded after it was revealed that he had plagiarised passages of a speech by Neil Kinnock, then the British Labour party leader. He is, perhaps, also the Senate’s most notorious windbag - renowned for asking longer questions in senate committees than the answers he receives in return. He is, as a result, one of America’s most gaffe-prone politicians.

Even in the 2008 presidential campaign in which he started as a long-shot candidate himself - withdrawing after winning fewer than one percent of delegates in the Iowa caucuses - his loquacious tongue got him into trouble. He had to apologise to Obama after describing him as “the first mainstream African-American [presidential candidate] who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy,” and told voters in New Hampshire that “you cannot go to a 7-Eleven or a Dunkin’ Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent.” In Springfield on Saturday, Obama’s introductory speech was cued up on a teleprompter for him - but the Obama team let Biden go on stage armed only with notes, a dangerous strategy indeed.

The choice is also risky for Obama because - as somebody who became a senator just five weeks after he had reached the age of thirty, the mandatory minimum age for joining the senate - Biden is the quintessential Washington insider, precisely personifying “the old-style Washington politics” against which Obama has based so much of his populist campaign. Biden even voted in favour of authorising the Iraq war, the issue over which Obama probably narrowly snatched victory in the primaries from Senator Clinton.

The McCain campaign did not wait for that 3 am text message before making a television ad featuring the Biden mouth, either. “I think he [Obama] can be ready [for the presidency], but right now I don’t believe he is,” a McCain ad featured Biden saying last year: “The presidency is not something that lends itself to on-the-job training.” To rub the point home, the ad concluded with footage of Biden saying in 2005, “I would be honoured to run with or against John McCain, because I think the country would be better off.”

That is an ad which will be screened endlessly in the battleground states in the crucial week of the Democratic convention to come, along with a second showing Hillary Clinton criticising Obama during the primary campaign. Why was she passed over? “For speaking the truth,” a soothing woman’s voice narrates. “The truth hurt, and Obama didn’t like it.” Biden, meanwhile, is settling into what will be his role as the Democrats’ attack dog - referring, for example, to a mantra we are bound to hear for weeks to come, “the Bush-McCain years.”

The nationwide polls that came out the day after the Biden announcement ranged from a dead heat between Obama and McCain (Gallup) to a four-point lead for Obama (ABC/Washington Post). He is bound to get more bounces in the polls from the publicity created by the selection of Biden, and from the coast-to-coast screening of the convention that will culminate in classic Obama oratory on Thursday evening.

But McCain, whose own much-televised convention will then start on 1 September, is threatening a spoiler by saying he will announce his running mate on Thursday too. With characteristic immodesty, meanwhile, Obama has announced that he will deliver his acceptance address not from the convention hall but from a nearby, open-air football stadium that seats 75,000. The Republicans, needless to say, are praying for rain.

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.