About Biden as speaker (updated x2)

Because of my recent forced immersion into the entirety of the primary debate season, I have this reaction about Joe Biden's presence on the ticket:

As a questioner at Senate hearings, Biden has often been disappointing. He typically uses up too much of the time listening to himself talk, and at the end he's left with barely time enough to pose an easily escapable question like "Isn't that right?" or "I'd like to hear your reaction to that."

But as a debater within his own party and as a rhetorician against the other side, the Biden of the primary campaign was very good. He stuck to the time limits because he had to, and with that discipline he almost always made the points he wanted to, and forcefully.

He also showed a certain bearing in the debates that could come in handy as a running mate for Obama. This was his "let's cut the crap" impatience with what he considered fatuous questions and what he also considered the plain foolishness of Bush Administration policy.

Politicians have to be egomaniacal to be in the business. Anyone who enters the US Senate with a limited appreciation of self soon has it expanded. But while Biden's ineffective hearing "questions" often sounded as if they came from "normal" Senatorial egotism -- I'm on stage now, listen to me -- his debate comments and his partisan anti-Bush arguments reflected a more attractive egotism of knowledge and policy. Let's call it simple confidence, of the sort that Bill Clinton in his prime displayed when dismissing Republican economic arguments. The subliminal message in this pose is: I know what I'm talking about here, I've dealt with this for years, and I have no time for the other side's ignorance.

It may seem a small difference, but it can make Biden more effective as an authoritative and unhesitating mean-cop counterpart to Obama during a campaign. 

After the jump, one example, based on one of Biden's answers at a debate last year.

UPDATE: Here is a YouTube clip of Biden giving the answer quoted below, and some more. Fortunately it looks as strong as I remembered! Thanks to Christopher Adams.

Extra update: This clip is really great until about the last 20 seconds, when Biden gives an answer about dealing with China that is as glib as his other answers are well-informed. Unfortunately, all the Democrats took that line in the debates. Topic for another time.

As I mentioned in my article, nearly all of the Democratic candidates took offense at the late Tim Russert's efforts, in a debate last October 30 in Philadelphia, to get them to "pledge" that Iran would not get a nuclear weapon if they became president.  After Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and Barack Obama objected to the terms of the question, Russert posed it to Biden. The transcript shows this:

MR. RUSSERT: Senator Biden, would you pledge to the American people that Iran would not build a nuclear bomb on your watch?

SEN. BIDEN: I would pledge to keep us safe.

If you told me, Tim -- and this is not -- This is complicated stuff. We talk about this in isolation. The fact of the matter is the Iranians may get 2.6 kilograms of highly enriched uranium; the Pakistanis have hundreds, thousands of kilograms of highly enriched uranium.

If by attacking Iran to stop them from getting 2.6 kilograms of highly enriched uranium, the government in Pakistan falls, who has missiles already deployed, with nuclear weapons on them, that can already reach Israel, already reach India, then that's a bad bargain.

Presidents make wise decisions informed not by a vacuum in which they operate, by the situation they find themselves in the world. I will do all in my power to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons, but I will never take my eye off the ball.

What is the greatest threat to the United States of America: 2.6 kilograms of highly enriched uranium in Tehran or an out of control Pakistan? It's not close.

What the transcript doesn't show was Biden's sense of confident impatience, his introduction of the Pakistan comparison when Russert was posing the question in Iran-only terms, and his complete explanatory ease. It didn't come across as if he had studied up to give an answer; rather, as if this is something he had been working on for a long time.

Biden has his limits and vulnerabilities, but they're not my subject for the moment. Based strictly on his ability to advance the themes Democrats want to emphasize, he should be able to complement Obama's arguments with a tough, confidently pointed tone that comes less naturally to Obama himself.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


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