Obama's attack dog: Outspoken Biden joins the Democratic ticket

Decades after he quit over plagiarism, the Delaware senator will bring bite, foreign policy experience and a compelling life story to a young team. By Leonard Doyle
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The Independent US

Barack Obama's campaign for the White House was back in its groove yesterday, when he called upon the political equivalent of Big Bertha by naming Senator Joe Biden to be his vice-presidential running mate.

Mr Biden is the Democrats' most powerful voice on foreign policy, and has been a lacerating critic of John McCain's big-stick vision of America's role in the world, especially when it comes to Iraq and Iran.

After the doldrums of the summer, during which Senator McCain has regained the initiative, Mr Obama's campaign carried out a series of deft manoeuvres yesterday that were aimed at creating momentum for the Democrats' four-day convention in Denver starting tomorrow.

With a 3am blast of text messages to supporters, the Obama campaign began the day by naming the experienced Delaware senator as his vice-presidential candidate. "Barack has chosen Senator Joe Biden to be our VP nominee. Watch the first Obama-Biden rally live at 3pm ET on www.barackobama.com. Spread the word!" An email followed: "Friend – I have some important news that I want to make official. I've chosen Joe Biden to be my running mate."

The Democrat was once again demonstrating his determination to use technology to recruit millions of fresh names to his swelling army of volunteers soon to be called upon to be "persuaders" of wavering voters. Then yesterday, in a gesture laden with historic symbolism, Mr Obama appeared with Mr Biden in Springfield, Illinois – where Abraham Lincoln ran for the White House 136 years ago – to present their joint ticket. Introducing him, Mr Obama said Biden was "what many others pretend to be – a statesman with sound judgement who doesn't have to hide behind bluster".

The only tic in the flawless choreography of the event was the universal expectation that, sooner rather than later, the motormouth Biden will put his foot in it by going off-message. Mr Biden's own short-lived presidential bid is best recalled for its opening day when the Delaware senator had to dig himself out of remarks he made about Mr Obama, calling him "the first mainstream African American [presidential candidate] who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy".

Mr Obama brushed the remark away, just as he surely hopes the public will forgive more Biden eruptions. Mr Biden has said lots of stupid things in his 35-year career, and the McCain campaign was quick to release an attack video yesterday replaying remarks that Mr Obama has too little experience to be elected president. The senator's experience, especially in foreign affairs, should far outweigh his tendencies to bore his opponents into submission.

What makes the Delaware senator especially attractive is his working-class credibility. Mr Biden is what is known as a "lunch-bucket Democrat", who despite decades among preening senators remains unabashedly unpretentious. The veteran New York Times columnist David Brooks said: "He has disdain for privilege and for limousine liberals – the mark of an honest, working-class Democrat."

With the US economy in desperate straits, Mr Biden's words should resonate with the very voters Mr Obama has been unable to reach.

Mr Biden's life story also contains more than its fair share of tragedies and missed opportunities. Born to a Catholic Irish-American family, in the scrappy town of Scranton, Pennsylvania, his father, Joe Snr, was a rich playboy in his youth who played polo, owned yachts and drove flash cars. By the time Joe Jnr was born, he was broke and living with the in-laws. He cleaned boilers and ran a market stall to make a living, and inculcated in his son a ferocious ethical code that no one is better than anyone else.

As a youth, Joe Biden had a crippling stutter, which saw him laughed at by teachers, and school friends who called him Dash, for his inability to finish his sentences. As he overcame his stutter, he also learned how to speak his mind – which will be a useful trait around Senator Obama, who is often treated as if he has god-like powers.

Mr Obama is not unaware of this. Before revealing Mr Biden as his choice, he declared: "I want somebody who is going to be able to challenge my thinking and not simply be a yes-person when it comes to policy-making." He added: "The most important question is, is this person prepared to be president? Second, can this person help me govern? Are they going to be an effective partner in creating the kind of economic opportunity here at home and guiding us through dangerous waters internationally?"

Hillary Clinton was never taken seriously by the Obama campaign as a running mate, effectively ruling herself out by refusing to submit the details of foreign donors to Bill Clinton's library and charity.

By choosing such a well-known and respected politician, one who first entered politics at 29, the Obama camp may assuage some of the lingering bitterness of the Clinton supporters. But there is still a mountain to climb. The disdain for the black Illinois senator comes mostly from Democrats who should be Mr Obama's greatest allies – low-income women who despise President Bush and want to see Congress run by Democrats.

Despite his long years of public service and blowhard personality, Mr Biden is not a household name for most Americans, especially the "low information voters". These are the very people that Mr Obama must appeal to if he is to overcome the incessant campaign of racist innuendo rattling around the internet. They are the very people he has so far failed to reach.

Mr Biden's what-you-see-is-what-you-get directness should play well with these voters, for whom equally straight-talking Senator McCain has many attractions. But Mr Biden has his own compelling life story, of which much can be expected to be heard in the coming days.

When he was at the back of the pack of presidential candidates last December he suddenly began talking about a personal tragedy in his life. "Let me tell you a little story," he started. "I got elected when I was 29, and I got elected November the 7th. And on December 18th of that year, my wife and three kids were Christmas shopping for a Christmas tree. A tractor-trailer, a guy who allegedly – and I never pursued it – drank his lunch instead of eating his lunch, broadsided my family and killed my wife instantly, and killed my daughter instantly, and hospitalised my two sons, with what were thought to be at the time permanent, fundamental injuries."

He subsequently married Jill Tracy Jacobs, with whom he has three children.

His career was marked by other setbacks – notably, his first presidential run exploded in a plagiarism scandal. He used a large section of a speech by the then Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock without crediting him. Then he nearly died of a brain aneurysm.

Much of the excitement around Mr Obama comes from his promise to sweep away the lobbyist-funded corrosiveness of Washington's ways.

As vice-president, Mr Biden would also be Senate president, where the skills he honed as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee should prove invaluable in pushing through ambitious new legislation.

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