Ten Miles Square


October 12, 2012 11:00 AM Could Biden Be Obama’s Savior?

By Jonathan Alter

Who woulda thunk that Joe Biden, of all people, would drag a onetime rock-star president over the finish line? Only a few months ago, plenty of Democrats wanted the vice president dumped from the ticket in favor of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Now he is saving Barack Obama’s bacon.

Historically, vice-presidential debates have had little impact on the outcome of presidential elections but there are exceptions and 2012 may prove to be one of them.

In 2004, the Democratic challenger, John Kerry, was up eight points in several polls after besting President George W. Bush in their first debate. But then Vice President Dick Cheney drove home Bush’s national-security message in his debate with John Edwards and won on points, not likeability, which was never Cheney’s strong suit. Bush’s polling stabilized and he went on to win a close election.

Unless Obama lays eggs in the two next debates, I suspect the same dynamic will be at work this year. Biden may have irritated some voters Thursday — the instant polls were split — and Paul Ryan’s smooth and intelligent performance makes him a likely Republican nominee for president in the future. But the big takeaway from this contest will be that Biden stopped, or at least slowed, Mitt Romney’s momentum, re-energized panicky Democrats and scored heavily with two key constituencies: senior citizens and women.

Obama Flub

The contrast between Biden’s performance and that of his boss in Denver a week earlier couldn’t have been starker. Where Obama never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity (as former Israeli Foreign minister Abba Eban liked to say about the Arabs), Biden jumped on every one of Ryan’s arguments.

When Obama’s debate-prep team analyzes which of Biden’s counterpunches landed best with focus groups, the president will cherry-pick the answers and try to deliver a calmer, more presidential and more selective version of his running mate’s performance.

This isn’t to claim that Biden “won”; unlike the presidential forum in Denver, the verdict on the Kentucky contest broke down along party lines, though the conservative pundit Dick Morris wrote in a mid-debate Twitter post: “can’t believe how weak Ryan is.”

Morris knows that Romney must hold senior citizens, the only age group that went for John McCain in 2008. Unfortunately for the Republicans, Biden clarified for seniors (most of whom turn out to vote) that Democrats are the protectors of Social Security and Medicare while Republicans consistently favor privatizing and voucherizing those hugely popular programs.

When Biden spoke about Medicare at the debate, he turned straight to the camera and reminded seniors that Obama’s health- care law had brought them $600 a year in reduced prescription- drug costs (by closing the so-called donut hole, a term that may be unclear to most voters, but not to the elderly) and by providing coverage for preventive-care visits.

The Republicans will call that pandering, but it no doubt sounded good in Florida. There, Ryan’s history of championing George W. Bush’s privatization plan in 2005 is scary for seniors who, then as now, don’t want their retirement savings exposed to the fluctuations of the stock market. Biden’s “c’mon, guys” common-sense appeal probably scored with voters wondering whom to trust on this issue.

The same dynamic was at play on abortion, which wasn’t mentioned in the presidential matchup in Denver and is of critical importance to undecided women voters who had been moving toward Romney in the last week.

Abortion Fight

Republicans may say this is a tired evergreen for Democrats and that Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush won with anti-abortion views. But when the health of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a 79-year-old survivor of pancreatic cancer, is all that stands between women and the loss of their reproductive freedom, that issue has returned to the forefront of the campaign, partly thanks to Biden.

It is likely that Romney, whose views on abortion have been all over the place, will have to say clearly in his second debate with Obama next week whether his presidency would mean a reversal of Roe v. Wade.

Biden’s other achievement was to expose some of the hypocrisy at the heart of the Republican argument. He nailed Ryan for seeking stimulus money for his congressional district while railing against the program, and for assailing a lack of security at U.S. embassies after he voted to reduce the relevant funding by $300 million.

Romney will continue to gallop toward the center, where presidential elections are won. It will be up to Obama to use some of Sheriff Joe’s ammo to cut him off at the pass.

Jonathan Alter a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly, is the author of one book on Franklin D. Roosevelt and two on Barack Obama.


  • Bobby Goren on October 13, 2012 8:26 AM:

    Who thought? I did.

    I happen to be a Biden fan. The guy has been underestimated for at least as long as he's toyed with running for President.

    St. Ronnie was just a few months younger in 1980. And if Joe Biden has early stage Alzheimer's Disease, it surely was NOT evident from his performance Thursday.

  • Nick on October 14, 2012 12:28 AM:

    "In 2004, the Democratic challenger, John Kerry, was up eight points in several polls after besting President George W. Bush in their first debate."

    No. No he wasn't. He was about eight behind until the first debate ("Presidentin' is hard!"). He got to within one or two. Then he lost.

    Come on, Mr. Alter.

  • yellowdog on October 14, 2012 1:37 AM:

    Alter lets Romney and Ryan off the hook here much too easily. 'Hypocrisy' (saved until the last paragraph) is the least of their sins. The overwhelming lack of candor, to put it nicely, is quite a big deal. The wink-wink they are trying to execute with the GOP base is appalling. 'Hey, guys, we've got to sound more moderate than we really are, so cut us some slack while we deceive the folks just tuning in.' Biden called it for what it was. Why doesn't Alter?

  • Cheryl J. on October 14, 2012 8:31 AM:

    I for one had never really gotten into watching the debates until this presidential election. The one thing I can't seem to understand is why the overall poll/media cannot admit that this round went to the "Democrats/Biden". Biden did the exact same thing that Romney did to the "President of the United States Barack Obama" the previous week and immediately everyone stated Romney won that round. It's a shame things can't be on the same level. Just admit Ryan lost that round. Bottom line... Romney still hasn't laid out a plan to the American people. All he says is that he doesn't like Obama's plan.. We got that part since that's all he keeps stating. He's very vague on what will be different and how it will be done and how long it will take and who will it affect. Yes, this election is definitely a racial election. Some whites are voting for Romney primarily because he's white and blacks are doing the same for President Obama... In my opinion, President Obama understands and is willing/trying to help the "Middle Class" better than Romney. As far as I know, Romney has always been a wealthy man and could never understand what middle class people go through or need. I just get irritated when I hear people say they are behind Romney and he spoke with confidence in the last debate......He might have spoke with confidence, but he didn't tell us anything except that he would change or get rid of Obama's plan. Anybody can be a strong speaker or talk with confidence ...that doesn't mean they answered your question. One last thought before I go, the economy may be in bad shape, but President Obama had nothing to do with that. He walked into a huge mess that takes time to clean up, especially when people are blocking things from being passed. Everyone needs to work together in order to get this economy back on track. In my opinion, the economy is doing quite well in some areas because people are still traveling and spending money like crazy. I feel the same way about unemployment... yes, there's many people out of work but I feel like all of unemployment should not be put all under one group/category... There's people who truly wants to work and can't find anything or will not settle for less until something better comes along and then when have the other group that just don't want to work at all. You'll definitely have a high rate of unemployment if you put them together. Give me a rate of a true unemployment of workers that just can't find a job. We don't need a new President, we just need both parties to work together in order to help the American people and the United States in general. It took President Bill Clinton 8 years (2 terms) to fix the economy, so why does everyone think President Barack Obama should have everything done in his first term? Makes you say hmmm? Just let this be a "FAIR" election and people "REALLY" need to listen to what each candidate is saying or not saying in their speeches these next couple of weeks and then choose the candidate that spoke to you the most and vote appropriately.

  • Gary C on October 14, 2012 10:52 PM:

    Wait. How in the name of heaven can you characterize Ryan's performance as "smooth" and/or "intelligent"? Morris (shockingly) was right. Ryan came off like Theo Huxtable trying to pull a con job on his daddy, and getting called out (and ridiculed along the way) for it. Like Theo, he started off prepared (at least in his own mind) but with no facts on his side (and more than a liile prevarication), and when Cliff (Joe) called him out it turned into little more than a 'that's-my-story-and-I'm-sticking-to-it' exercise.
    I really can't believe you're repeating the mainstream media meme. The only "snap" poll that had any credibility was from CBS and the results were conclusive and overwhelming. Biden won, and won going away.

  • thewarthatkilledachilles on October 15, 2012 7:20 AM:

    Ryan came off like Theo Huxtable trying to pull a con job on his daddy, and getting called out (and ridiculed along the way) for it.

    Amiably done by joltin Joe , the heartbeat away .

  • clevergirl on October 15, 2012 10:05 AM:

    Biden won. The polls support it. The Republican complained about the moderator during the debate and were calling it a tie afterwards. As partisan as they are, they would never have conceded that much if their man had in fact tied.

    I was one of the folks who thought that Obama won his first debate so I didn't trust myself to judge the VP debate. I have been following the race and Romney long enough that I knew Romney was bring disingenuous and even so not offering anything that looked like fiscal responsibility. II followed the results carefully after the VP debate and cried with relief that it broke so positive for VP Biden. I love that man but he can swim in his words.

    Romney can be that way himself. I never heard a bigger bunch of stuff than I did listening to Romney's 2008 concession speech. He's not improved with age.

  • Clevergirl on October 15, 2012 10:10 AM:

    I think the surest way to get Romney off his feet is to link him to Ryan's record. Ryan's budgets and bills. Ryan is the right's darling and Romney will distance himself from Ryan at his peril.

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