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Joe Biden: Gaffe #452 in Context

Joe Biden stepped in it over the weekend by undercutting Barack Obama and suggesting that "he will need help" because "he will be tested" within his first 6 months in office by some sort of international crisis. These remarks suggest that Obama is not prepared to handle the rigors of the presidency and that he will need a strong vice president to give him counsel and support. Of course, McCain pounced on these remarks by reminding voters of Obama's inexperience and warned voters that we shouldn't choose a president whom our nation's enemies wanted to test.

Obama and his advisers have to be pulling their hair out over this. This gaffe gets Colin Powell's endorsement, Obama's ailing grandmother, McCain's false claims of socialism, Obama's advantage in early voting, and Obama's lead in the polls out of the headlines, at least temporarily. Even worse, it takes attention away from the economy and forces the Obama campaign off message. Instead of touting Obama's economic plans, his surrogates have to spend time explaining Biden's remarks.

John McCain has to be pleased with this development because it gives his campaign a new opening from which to chip away at Obama's lead in the polls. In politics, if you're explaining, you're losing. And even though Obama is leading in the national and state polls right now, two weeks is an eternity in a presidential campaign. After the third presidential debate, I argued that McCain no longer controls his destiny. Because of how far behind he is in the states he needs to win and the number of states in which he is struggling, McCain cannot make up as much ground as he needs without help. Joe Biden just provided some of this help because his remarks threaten to undo some of the progress Obama had made in terms of conveying that he is a competent and credible potential president.

However, this gift from Biden may end up being a booby trap that is better left alone. Even though Biden's remarks shift the narrative back to experience and portray Obama in an unflattering light, McCain may pay a major price if he returns to an experience argument for several reasons.

First of all, as I've argued several times before, experience isn't the most important issue in this election. Hillary Clinton, Chris Dodd, Bill Richardson, and even John McCain himself have all proved that the experience message is not as potent as the change message.

Also, voters have had the chance to interact with Obama over the course of almost two years and more than 20 debates. Obama more than held his own in the presidential debates and concluded that he is indeed credible on the presidential stage. So even if McCain hammers Obama on his experience, voters in Obama's camp may have already concluded that his resume is not disqualifying.

More importantly, the country desperately wants to talk about the economy. McCain has tried to talk about foreign policy, Iraq, and experience before, but it didn't gain much traction. In light of voters' current economic anxiety, why would it gain any new traction now? In other words, McCain can attack Obama's inexperience, but it may feed into the narrative that McCain is out of touch because he's not talking about the primary issue on voters' minds.

A fourth risk to McCain is that it reintroduces the contrast between Joe Biden and Sarah Palin. Even though Biden undercut Obama, the Democrats could plausibly ask voters whom they would rather have advising the president in a crisis: Biden or Palin. Most non-Republicans don't think Palin is qualified to be vice president, so the more McCain defends her, the more he risks having his own judgment be called into question.

The most important risk for McCain switching to an experience argument now (even though Biden certainly offered him low-hanging fruit) is that it heightens the sense of message inconsistency that is coming to characterize the McCain campaign. Over the past week, McCain started off attacking Obama over William Ayers before switching to Joe the Plumber and most recently settling on "socialist" economic policies. Switching from the ideological "spread the wealth" attack that was beginning to gain traction to an experience argument further inhibits the McCain campaign's ability to develop a consistent message that defines his campaign. The Obama campaign is aware of this inconsistency, so McCain might want to think twice about taking this unintended bait.

Joe Biden is almost certainly being taken to the woodshed over this ill-timed gaffe. Instead of really turning the screws on John McCain, his campaign has to go off message and spend valuable time defending Biden and clarifying his awkward remarks. However, the McCain campaign should think carefully about how to go about capitalizing on this gift. Because of the potential risks and ways in which any such strategy could backfire, it might be in McCain's best interest to leave it alone.

5 comment(s):

Brett said...

I guess we knew what we were getting when Obama picked Biden - a guy who is known for both gaffes and zingers. That said, Obama has pretty much been the King of Message Discipline; I'm surprised he hasn't repeatedly drilled into Biden's head "thou shalt not cast doubt on thine running mate."

DB said...

Biden and his mouth. Though I think that if McCain goes after this one he will lose his best message yet...Joe the Plumber. Two weeks left, this guy needs to get a strategy and stick to it.

Khaki Elephant said...

At least we know why Biden has been invisible most of the campaign. Obama really needs to Al Sharpton/Jesse Jackson him.

Anonymous said...

Biden.... We shall see what happens with Obama's presidency. Will he be "tested" as claimed? Will it be the waking up of the Country?

However, what is Obama doing on the home front? Is he actually going to do what he promised for schools? One question I have been asking is, why do his kids have school choice and South Carolina parents?


Anthony Palmer said...


I can understand how Obama's children's education ties in with the voucher/school choice debate. But I don't think it's proper to compare Obama's situation with those of other parents who want to send their children to the school of their choice.

As the next First Daughters, Obama's children will receive Secret Service protection. Sending them to private school would enhance their own security because there would be greater control over who is able to enter the school grounds. And because the private schools in the area are experienced with dealing with politicians'/dignitaries/index.html' children, it would seem that they would be better able to accommodate Obama's children with considerably less disruption to the other students than a public school's ability to do so.

As elitist as it may sound, I do believe Obama's children are entitled to special protections that other children aren't. I don't have any children, but if I did, I don't think Palmer Jr. would be nearly as lucrative a target as the daughters of the President.

I don't think the quality of education aspect matters as much as the First Daughters' own personal safety. The safety of the other students should be considered as well--so rather than place the entire public school at risk (with its open campus), it makes sense to me to send them to a more secure area.

The Obamas are no longer a normal family, so the normal rules no longer apply.

Thanks for the comment.

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