Unlike four years ago, when Biden squared off against an unknown and largely untested Sarah Palin, the vice president is competing against a longtime congressman known for being a quick-minded policy expert. Now, unlike then, Biden must defend the Obama record while, associates say, keeping an eye on a potential 2016 White House bid of his own.
As always, Biden faces the challenge of his tongue, which got him into trouble again this week when he told a racially mixed audience in Virginia that GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s approach to regulating the financial industry would “put y’all back in chains.”
Obama administration officials and others close to Biden argue that his gaffes are exaggerated, that he is a man of substance who amassed enormous West Wing clout on some of the most complicated issues — managing the U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq, pressing Obama on drawdowns in Afghanistan, and overseeing the $787 billion economic stimulus package. Advisers say they like the contrast that Biden, 69, presents against Ryan, 42. Both men stake claims to middle-class, small-town roots, and Biden associates think the vice president has a more common touch, an easier-going style, and a far greater mastery of domestic and foreign policy issues.
In recent weeks, the campaign has expanded Biden’s portfolio beyond his familiar outreach role to working-class whites, dispatching him to Hispanic and black audiences, as well, where strategists think Biden has established a connection.
“He’s able to talk in clear, personal terms,” Obama campaign manager Jim Messina said Wednesday.
Yet polls show Biden has plenty of detractors: Forty percent of Americans had a favorable view of him, according to a Pew Research Center poll this spring, while 37 percent had an unfavorable view. Romney aides say they consider Biden a disadvantage for Obama because he causes frequent distractions, such as announcing his support of same-sex marriage this spring before Obama had endorsed it.
Biden signaled Wednesday that he does not intend to rein himself in. If anything, his role in the campaign has grown since 2008; Messina pointed to the speeches Biden has given this year to groups as disparate as the NAACP, the Fraternal Order of Police, the National Council of La Raza and labor unions.
“I know I’m sometimes criticized for saying exactly what I mean,” he said in Virginia. “It’s not going to change.”
Biden was chosen for the 2008 ticket in large part because of the foreign policy heft he brought to Obama, whose national security pedigree was nearly as skimpy as those of Romney and Ryan today.