Biden Next Up to Try to Save a Sputtering Obama
Policy + Politics

Biden Next Up to Try to Save a Sputtering Obama

REUTERS/Eric Thayer

Surprisingly for a president seeking re-election, Barack Obama has relied on others to do much of the heavy lifting in the campaign for him.

Former president Bill Clinton thrilled the entire Democratic National Convention in early September by giving a stronger explanation and defense of Obama’s economic policies than Obama himself did the following night. Stand-ins, including San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro and First Lady Michelle Obama, provided the party with the energy and excitement that seems as of late to elude the subdued chief executive.

Now, it’s Vice President Joe Biden’s turn to help save Obama from himself in the wake of the president’s dreadful showing against Republican challenger Mitt Romney in last Wednesday’s first of three presidential debates. With Romney now surging in the polls, the garrulous, folksy Biden goes up against Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin Thursday night at Centre College in Danville, KY, in the lone vice presidential debate before the Nov. 6 election.

For the Democrats, much is riding on the 69-year old’s ability to somehow recapture the momentum coming out of the convention that Obama squandered in his debate performance against Romney in Denver. Bolstering Biden’s rambunctious style will be fresh ammo from last Friday’s jobs report—which showed the unemployment rate dropped to 7.8 percent in September, the lowest level of Obama’s presidency.

That’s one stat Biden will likely highlight. After Romney empathized with the middle class at last Wednesday’s debate, Biden will likely remind voters of the Republican nominee’s closed-door comments last May about 47 percent of the country being self-perceived “victims” who depend on the government and pay no federal income taxes.

"When he said it’s not my job to worry about ‘these people,’ well, whose job is it?" Biden said at a Virginia campaign rally last month. "Ladies and gentlemen, we are our brother’s keeper, we are one nation under God, we are all in this together, and if the 47 percent doesn’t make it, the country doesn’t make it."

That’s the shtick of the former Delaware senator—a mix of pit bull-like tenacity, blue-collar populism, and over-the-top exuberance. The question now is whether Biden will harness those qualities to erase memories of the Obama debate or get so carried away that he commits some gaffes of his own. Either way, he’ll talk tougher than the president did during the first debate.

Obama gave the former Massachusetts governor a pass on the “47 percent” remarks. He enabled Romney to redefine his 20-percent across the board tax cut plan as a boon to the middle class, and once again avoid explaining how he would find the $5 trillion to pay for the measure. Obama offered a lame defense of his Affordable Care Act and the Dodd-Frank financial overhaul, while Romney lectured him on the virtues of bipartisanship.

Although Obama didn’t fully realize how badly he had done as walked off the stage, according to The New York Times, his senior campaign advisor, Robert Gibbs said on ABC’s This Week, “I think the president understood that he hadn't performed up to his own expectations pretty quickly after he got off the stage that night."

Biden, the former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who twice sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 1988 and 2008 has a reputation for being fearless in front of a microphone. He told reporters he is eager to draw sharp contrasts between himself and Ryan, the Republican chairman of the House Budget Committee whose budget plans call for deep cuts in domestic spending, tax cuts for the wealthy and major re-workings of Medicare and Medicaid.

 “I’m looking forward to it, I really am,” Biden said shortly after the first presidential debate. “The thing about Congressman Ryan is that he’s been straightforward up till now about . . . all the significant changes he wants to make. We have a fundamentally different view on a whole range of issues.”

Loose translation:  Republicans are avoiding the slash-and-burn proposals in the Ryan budget known as the “Path to Prosperity” since its author joined the ticket, for fear of scaring off swing voters. Biden won’t let them off the hook.

Ryan, for his part, says he is expecting a tough night where Biden comes at him “like a cannon ball.” The 42-year old lawmaker noted that Biden has “run for president twice; he’s the vice president and he’s been on the big stage many times,” while this will be the first time for the congressman from Janesville, Wis.

Some of this is gamesmanship, with Ryan trying to lower expectations after his boss’s stunning victory in the first debate – a verdict confirmed by 77 percent of Americans polled by Gallup and a new Pew Research Center poll showing Romney with a 12 point gain that puts him ahead of Obama by four points.  After all, Ryan is considered to be one of the smartest Republicans on Capitol Hill and a master of budget and policy details.

But Ryan has also shown that he can be just as prickly as Obama when challenged or pressed for details – or trail off into obscure, jargon-laced responses that don’t really answer the question. He was so evasive recently on Fox News Sunday in explaining Romney’s economic proposals and how they would be paid for that host Chris Wallace finally erupted:  “You haven’t given me the math.”

Ryan, of course could hope for another one of Biden’s legendary gaffes which have provided considerable fodder for the late night comedy show, “Saturday Night Live.” In August, Biden told a largely black audience in Virginia that Romney is going to let the banking industry once again write their own rules, and “He is going to put y’all back in chains.” Later he asked how Romney and Ryan could justify raising taxes on the middle class “that has been buried the last four years” – the same middle class that Obama says he has done so much for.

Yet Ryan says he’s not counting on any missteps by the vice president. And indeed Biden has demonstrated that he is a formidable debater with decades of experience and knowledge of government to draw on.  Four years ago, he managed to neutralize Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin in the only debate they had without coming across as condescending or sexist.

This time, with presidential political adviser David Axelrod helping to rehearse for the debate, Biden is all but certain to go after Romney-Ryan with a vengeance. “Joe Biden has an excellent BS meter – and I don’t mean Bowles-Simpson, so he is going to be hitting back very hard  . . . on Thursday night,” said Jared Bernstein, a former chief economist to the vice president.

Indeed, during his acceptance speech at the Democratic convention, Biden gave a preview of what he may say during the Thursday night debate—offering a defense not just of the administration but of America itself.

“Folks, there's one more thing, one more thing our Republican opponents are just dead wrong about--America is not in decline.” Biden said. “I've got news for Governor Romney and Congressman Ryan: Gentlemen, never ever — it never makes sense, it's never been a good bet to bet against the American people.  Never!”

Whether Biden can actually move the needle for Obama remains to be seen, but some experts are skeptical that he can do it. A new Washington Times/Zogby poll shows that by a margin of 46 percent to 30 percent, likely voters think Ryan will prevail in the debate, Veteran Republican pollster John Zogby said that Biden’s challenge will be to reprise “his very strong performance” at the Democratic convention to make the case that “Obama-Biden is a team that has steered through a very difficult course” and deserves another term.

“If Obama is depending on Joe Biden to get the ticket back on track, then we can fully grasp just how badly Obama did in Denver,” University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato told The Fiscal Times. “No vice president is ever going to be able to do that in a debate that is watched more for curiosity than anything else. Only Obama can restore Obama, by winning--not just tying--the next presidential debate.”