When Barack Obama announced his presidential campaign in Springfield, Ill., on a frigid winter's day 19 months ago, he admitted that he was short on Washington experience. "I know I haven't spent a lot of time learning the ways of Washington," he said. "But I've been there long enough to know that the ways of Washington must change."
On Saturday he returned to the same spot in front of the old statehouse—this time in a cauldron of a summer afternoon—to announce a vice-presidential pick who has spent half a life immersed in the ways of Washington.
To Obama's aides, Joe Biden's selection as the veep candidate represents less of a turnaround than a complement to the candidate—both in the presidential election and beyond. "One of things we know is that you've got to have people who can bring about change," said one senior Obama aide. "Unfortunately change is going to have to go through Capitol Hill, and you've got to have somebody who is knowledgeable about Capitol Hill. The difference between John McCain and Joe Biden is that one is on the side of change, and one isn't."
Obama's inner circle started the VP process convinced that they would be looking for someone who would reinforce the candidate's brand, underscoring the theme of change and post-partisan politics. Instead, they ended up with someone who seemingly fills the gaps in the candidate's skill set.
The shortlist, according to senior aides, narrowed down rapidly, several weeks ago to a half-dozen names. Contrary to several reports, Obama did not make his final decision while on vacation in Hawaii, but was still considering his options earlier this week. And contrary to much of the post-game analysis, the conflict between Russia and Georgia played no role in Obama's decision, his staff said.
It wasn't until Thursday, as he traveled through Virginia on a bus tour, that Obama called Evan Bayh, the Indiana senator, and Tim Kaine, the Virginia governor, to tell them he had gone in another direction. Several other unnamed candidates learned the news at the same time, when Biden too learned of his new role. When Obama called Biden, his veep pick was at the dentist with his wife who was having root canal work. Obama's aides say they were impressed that loquacious Biden kept the news secret for more than 24 hours.
In public, Obama's aides argue there are two main factors that make Biden attractive: his foreign policy experience, and his image as a humble family man from Wilmington, Del. While Biden has decades of experience on Capitol Hill, he commutes to Wilmington each day, and has maintained what sounds like an unscripted voice.
But in private, they point to a much more immediate and strategic reason for his elevation to veep nominee: his killer instincts as a campaigner and his cultural reach.
Obama's aides admire Biden's skills as a debater and chief surrogate who can fillet the Republican ticket in speeches and media interviews. For all his problems as a verbose questioner in the Senate, he proved he could turn a one-liner and land a zinger better than almost anyone campaigning for president this year. Biden's abilities to play the role of attack dog was a winning argument for his selection, allowing Obama himself to remain above the fray.
"He'll have a fist in the face of John McCain every day and I think he has this level of gravitas as well," said one senior adviser to Obama. "We're lucky to have both. It showcases Obama's judgment that he chose somebody like this—a good pick not just for August or October, but a good pick in the event that something happens when he's president of the United States."
Team Obama also points to Biden's demographic and geographic reach. As a Roman Catholic who was born in Scranton, Pa., Biden can campaign effectively in the Rust Belt states that proved so immune to Obama's charms during the primary contests against Hillary Clinton. "He's ready to get out," said another senior aide, who added that Biden will travel extensively across the country. "He really wants to do this."
The Obama campaign believes the recent tightening of the polls is the result of one main factor: Republicans coming back into the fold for McCain. Their goal with Biden is to bring home the Democratic holdouts—especially the ones who voted for Clinton in the primaries. Those voters want more than reassurance about Obama's foreign policy credentials, in the campaign's assessment. They want someone who looks and sounds more like them and can connect with them on their own terms about the economy. On that basis, the campaign points to Biden's record of working to put 100,000 new cops on the streets, to his ability to talk freely and easily in union halls, and to his limitless supply of stories about his humble Irish-American roots.
Those were some of the key characteristics that Obama cited as he introduced Biden on Saturday. "For months, I've searched for a leader to finish this journey alongside me, and to join in me in making Washington work for the American people," he said. "I searched for a leader who understands the rising costs confronting working people, and who will always put their dreams first."
Obama told Biden's story—his birth in Scranton to a working family of very modest means, with two core commitments: "to the Catholic faith and to the belief that in America, you can make it if you try." He cited Biden's record of putting more cops on the streets well before he talked about his foreign-policy experience.
"I can tell you that Joe Biden gets it. He's that unique public servant who is at home in a bar in Cedar Rapids and the corridors of the Capitol; in the VFW hall in Concord, and at the center of an international crisis," Obama said. "That's because he is still that scrappy kid from Scranton who beat the odds; the dedicated family man and committed Catholic who knows every conductor on that Amtrak train to Wilmington. That's the kind of fighter who I want by my side in the months and years to come."
Within minutes of taking to the podium, Biden was showing his scrappiness and his folksy style. "Ladies and gentlemen, your kitchen table is like mine," he said. "You sit there at night … after you put the kids to bed and you talk, you talk about what you need. You talk about how much you are worried about being able to pay the bills. Well, ladies and gentlemen, that's not a worry John McCain has to worry about. It's a pretty hard experience. He'll have to figure out which of the seven kitchen tables to sit at."
Locked in a tight election, Obama needs a fighter who can campaign in the bars and VFW halls that still seem foreign to him. Someone who can end his speech saying this: "I'm here for the cops and the firefighters, the teachers and the line workers, the folks who live—the folks whose lives are the measure of whether the American dream endures." In that sense, Biden is the change the Obama campaign has been searching for.