Fineman: The Politics of Picking Biden

Last Tuesday, two contenders for the job of Barack Obama's running mate told me that they were convinced from talking to the Illinois senator that he would pick Sen. Joe Biden as his running mate.

The reason, they said, was his foreign policy experience and his knowledge of Washington.

I reported what they said--and they were right on the money.

The minute-by-minute story of how Obama handled the selection is interesting, and revealing of the way the Democratic nominee works. He insisted on the utmost secrecy; he paid the losers the courtesy of essentially telling them "no" to their faces--not an easy thing to do. And he swallowed his considerable pride and all but confessed his lack of knowledge of foreign affairs by selecting as his running mate the Senate's senior Democratic leader on that topic.

In short, Obama behaved like a grownup. Even his much-criticized failure to "vet" Sen. Hillary Clinton means less than meets the eye. I talked two months ago to one of her closest legal advisors, who told me that she didn't really WANT to be considered for the number two job--in no small measure because the process would have required Obama's lawyers to comb through her husband's foundation and its murky sources of income.

In that sense, Obama did her a favor by not really demanding to consider her. She would have had to say "no."

What does Biden bring to the ticket? A lot.

First of all, he has a love of politics and public service. He never tried to get rich from his role, even though he has been in the Senate for decades. He is a fancy dresser--given to stick pin collars and French cuffs--and yet he is an unassuming son of a car salesman who takes the train home to Wilmington almost every night.

His personal story is compelling: a riches-to-rags family background; a first wife and infant daughter killed in a car crash; a devoted life with his second wife; a passel of grandchildren whom he adores as much as they adore him. And he's never had a hint of financial or sexual scandal.

Biden is a Roman Catholic--a demographic must for a Democratic ticket eager to get swing voters in heavily Catholic states such as Pennsylvania and Ohio.

He knows foreign policy and defense issues of course, but not in a textbook way. He is a street politician who has walked the streets of the planet.

He genuinely wants to serve. He kept telling President Bush in the aftermath of 9/11 that he wanted to help him, privately, anytime. Bush, ill-advisedly, never availed himself of the priceless chance.

Certainly among Democrats, Biden has few enemies. Even most Republicans like him. He is an irrepressible character, full of energy, smiles and, at times, baloney.

The risks? He can't keep his mouth shut. Sometimes he talks before thinking. He is not always a systematic thinker. He loves to hear himself talk. He can get carried away with his enthusiasms. He is a lawyer, but some of his colleagues think, frankly, that he isn't the sharpest knife in the drawer, at least in the academic sense.

There have been some matters of academic ethics and plagiarism. In 1987, his first presidential campaign exploded overnight after he was found to have lifted portions of a speech from a British politician.

He loves the spotlight. Whether he can operate in the shadows is an open question.

He is going to be on a very short rhetorical leash in the campaign. But will an Obama White House be able to keep Biden in check?

For now, here in Denver, most Democrats seemed pleased as the early word leaked out. Biden in some ways is the anti-Dick Cheney. And that's change the party can believe in.