Why Liberals Have Grown to Love Joe Biden

Nearly every day, Annie Lowrey, an editor and blogger for Foreign Policy magazine, sends a photo of Vice President Joe Biden to her Twitter followers. Sometimes the photos are playful. Others show the veep in a reflective moment. And some are downright hilarious. She calls it the Daily Biden, because everyone needs their daily fix of Joe. "He looks just so delighted all the time," Lowrey says. "I'd argue that no one—from John Adams to Dick Cheney—has ever seemed so utterly delighted to be vice president. Such enthusiasm is hard not to like." Her Twitter followers lap up their daily dose of Biden, who Lowrey says is sort of like "everyone's favorite uncle."

Although the Daily Biden is just a bit of fun, the enthusiastic response it has received on Twitter is perhaps emblematic of the mainstream and liberal-media crush on the loquacious former six-term senator from Delaware.

Although the choice of Biden as Obama's vice presidential nominee drew approval from Beltway media types like Lowrey, who admired his policy chops and enjoyed his quotability, liberals weren't always as excited about Biden as they are now. His selection in August 2008 inspired nothing like the galvanizing enthusiasm that his rival vice presidential candidate, Sarah Palin, did among Republicans. For a change election, a veteran such as Biden seemed like more of the same old thing.

Most liberal commentators did see Biden's experience as a substantive asset in the White House, balancing out Obama's lack of experience on Capitol Hill and in international diplomacy. And for the campaign, he had an appealing story: a Catholic lad of modest means who'd made his way from the hardscrabble streets of Scranton, Pa., to the Capitol. As a candidate, he could resonate with the white working-class voters who had supported Hillary Clinton in the primary, a group Democrats feared losing in the general election to John McCain and Palin. Some liberal wonks harbored worries about Biden's hawkish tendencies on defense, but they largely agreed that he was the best choice from an uninteresting field of charisma-free moderates, like Tim Kaine and Evan Bayh.

So it's a little surprising that 15 months into Obama's term, Biden is developing a thriving fan base. Liberal blogger Matthew Yglesias, who writes for Think Progress and The Daily Beast, says he believes "there's been a major rapprochement" between liberals and Biden. "I think it reflects a strategic decision by the administration to position him as a sort of designated progressive friend inside the administration."

David Corn, D.C. bureau chief of liberal magazine Mother Jones, recalls that before Biden's selection as vice president, progressives hadn't paid a lot of attention to him. As a senator, Biden had been most visible on foreign-policy issues, where he'd been too muscular for the left's palate; he voted for the Iraq War, for example. "I'm not sure [progressives] were especially excited by his selection," Corn says. "They were not put off by it, but at that stage, you couldn't have excited them more than they already were about Obama." He says liberals were just glad to have a pick who didn't take the spotlight off Obama. "Since then, the Netroots and others have seen him be a voice for a strong, vigorous recovery and probably for more restraint in Afghanistan," Corn says. "When he was chosen, liberals didn't necessarily realize that he was with them on a number of key fronts because they hadn't been the center of his Senate career. Now he's fighting for their side in a very polarized environment."

Renewed liberal affection for Biden stems partly from the issues he's been assigned to focus on and partly from the current policy environment. "In politics, context is everything," says Corn, and right now, domestic issues such as health care, financial reform, and climate change are on the top of the to-do list. Yglesias notes that the declining salience of foreign-policy issues—such as Iraq, which was once a liberal rallying cry—has helped assuage liberal concerns over Biden's historically aggressive approach to foreign policy, which, at the height of the Iraq War, earned him scorn from the left. Reports that Biden was skeptical of the Afghan surge bolstered good will among liberals, while his reluctance to publicly voice his worries about the surge confirmed his status as a loyal, supportive member of the Obama team.

Biden has been the administration's point man on the Recovery Act, successfully leveraging his Everyman sensibility to promote its positive impact on middle- and working-class communities. Biden has taken his trademark pearly-white smile and hearty back-slapping energy to schools, factories, and town halls across the country to tout tax benefits, roads, jobs, grants, and even vaccination programs, all the while doing what he does best: making sure his message resonates with everyday folks. Although the Recovery Act remains contentious in some circles, Biden's steadfast commitment to it has raised his stock with liberals, who, as Yglesias points out "remain very enthusiastic" about the act.

Jared Bernstein's appointment as Biden's chief economic policy adviser has also curried favor with progressives. Bernstein rose to prominence working at the staunchly liberal Economic Policy Institute. Corn describes him as having "impeccable progressive credentials." When the White House wants to communicate an economic message to progressive bloggers and reporters, it's invariably Bernstein and the vice president's office acting as the messengers. "They've made the VP's office the intake wing from progressives on domestic-policy issues," Corn says.

But perhaps what's really won over liberals is the same quality that Lowrey finds so endearing: Biden's irrepressible personality, which can be a welcome relief in a White House that so tightly controls its message. "Biden's a little hot where Obama can be cool. He's passionate where Obama is studied," says Matt Bennett, vice president and cofounder of the center-left think tank Third Way, who previously worked under Vice President Al Gore. "That makes them a very effective team." Although some liberals, like Jane Hamsher, initially worried about Biden's verbal acrobatics, these days, Corn says, they just accept that that's part of the Biden package.

Obama could be fiery on the campaign trail, much to the delight of liberals. But his new role necessitates more caution and diplomacy. By contrast, Biden's proclivity for straight talk doesn't seem dampened. During the health-care summit, after exercising uncharacteristic restraint for several hours, he bluntly castigated Rep. Eric Cantor over his "philosophical differences" on insurance coverage. Biden snapped at the young Republican whip that when it comes to believing people shouldn't be dropped from care or that lifetime coverage limits should be banned, "you're either in or you're out." During the bill's signing, he uttered an off-the-cuff sentiment shared by thousands of liberals across the country: "This is a big f--king deal." Soon after, Biden told a crowd at a fundraiser that Obama had said the slip-up was his favorite part of the ceremony—no doubt, a White House-sanctioned message.

Indeed, the White House may have neutralized Biden's verbal tics as a liability. They've almost become an asset. "From the point of view of someone who has to write about politics every day, the occasional gaffe or outspoken moment is always welcome," Yglesias says. For Lowrey, the occasional gaffes don't mask that Biden "is a remarkably canny politician—no-nonsense, capable of acting as a proxy bulldog." Those unscripted moments that make strategists cringe are part of what makes him so popular on the left. You might even say that he's a big effin' deal.