When Barack Obama picked Joe Biden to be his running mate in 2008, I was delighted. I had always been enthusiastic about Biden’s as a political figure, and loved his role in the ’08 primary campaign as a no-bullshit happy warrior. (Remember “a noun and a verb and 9/11?” So great. And even better considering how far the subject of that jibe has fallen.)
While Biden’s persona and personal charms probably figured into the Obama campaign’s choice to bring Biden onboard, it wasn’t the main reason. To reassure an electorate that might be wary of an inexperienced, black presidential candidate, they put an elder statesman by his side, someone whose very presence vouched for the qualities of the man at the top of the ticket. There was no doubt that should tragedy strike, the next Vice President of the United States would be ready and more than qualified to take over. Not unlike George W. Bush’s choice to tap Dick Cheney in 2000, Biden would be the adult supervision.
Certainly, Biden’s trademark folksiness would help sell the Obama candidacy to those who might not be quite as excited about diversity and cosmopolitanism, by speaking to them in terms to which they could relate. But these were bonuses. In my opinion, it was all about the picture of the two of them together, the image of the exciting and untested buttressed by the familiar and trusted. The message was that Joe would look after Barack, and make sure the new guy found his footing.
(Honestly, I have difficulty trying come up with a presidential ticket in which the two candidates complemented each other as well as Obama and Biden did — save perhaps Biden and Harris, which I’ll get to in a bit. Bill Clinton and Al Gore are in the ballpark, as two ridiculously intelligent, relatively young southerners with diametrically opposing personalities that somehow clicked electorally. But still, almost all the pairings I can think of felt forced. Pence as a Christian bandaid for Trump. Tim Kaine as the blatantly inoffensive white male for Hillary Clinton. Paul Ryan as a youthful junior-executive sidekick to Romney. Sarah Palin…yeesh. And John Edwards as John Kerry’s personal TV ambulance chaser. God help us.)
It’s now fairly commonplace to see presidents task their VPs with particular portfolios, as a way of 1) communicating the importance of an issue by putting in the hands of the vice president, and 2) giving the poor guy something to do. But think of some of the things President Obama handed to Vice President Biden: Implementation of the Recovery Act after the financial meltdown, saving the auto industry, upgrading workforce training, addressing violence against women, cultivating and maintaining relations with foreign leaders, and the “moonshot” to cure cancer.
These were all caretaking roles. They conveyed a message: People who have been hurt, people whose lives have been upended, people who have lost jobs, people who have been alienated, people who are scared, people who are sick: Joe Biden is going to take care of you.
Now think back to March of this year. Biden’s campaign in the Democratic primaries had been shaky at best, and was being more or less written off, until his blowout victory in South Carolina. Coinciding with the sudden awareness of the threat posed by this “coronavirus” thing, Biden’s victory there seemed to change something in the very air.
Candidates began dropping out before Super Tuesday and endorsing him. I got the sense that they were relieved to do so. The coming general election campaign was likely to be the ugliest and most brutal in generations. The mysterious virus was looming. No one knew what was going to happen. With a sense of foreboding and anxiety that few could not have articulated at the time, the Democratic Party and its electorate turned to a father figure, a figure of stability, normalcy, and comfort. Someone to watch over them and take care of them. That was Joe.
The choice of Kamala Harris as Biden’s own running mate makes even more sense to me now, seen in this light. There was no shortage of brilliant, utterly qualified candidates, but Sen. Harris represented something I think few others could: As a social progressive with a law enforcement background; as a woman of a mixed ethnic background and the daughter of immigrants; as a stepparent in a modern, multi-faith family; and as a woman who pulls no punches for vice presidents, former or current; she is the future. She is, really, the present, but the electorate is not always ready for the present. By choosing her as his second-in-command, Joe Biden sets the stage for her ascension, and the ascension of a whole new generation. And he is trusted to do that.
I think we got Joe Biden at this moment because we are a nation in pain, wracked with fear and anger, unable to nurse our old wounds while triaging the new ones. To replace the current president, who seeks only to inflame every gash and tear every stitch, we need someone who will tend to us, heal us, take care of us.
I don’t think Joe Biden ever thought of himself this way, but this is the burden he’s been given, in his personal and in his public life. Time and time again, he has been asked to take care of us, and he always has. Election Day is about 55 hours away as I write this. If Joe Biden is elected, it will be because we needed him to take care of us one more time.