With the election approaching, there’s bipartisan, if not unanimous, agreement that the election of Barack Obama—the nation’s first African-American president—didn’t bring about a “post-racial” era in America. But in a plot twist few would have predicted four years ago and that might foretell a post-racial future to come, Vice President Joe Biden—and not President Obama—addressed the NAACP’s 103rd annual convention on Thursday.
He finessed it in a way that Obama himself probably couldn’t have—reminding convention-goers that he’s been a lifetime NAACP member and bragging that at one time he was the “only White employee on the East Side” of Wilmington, Delaware.
He shouted-out a former colleague in the crowd, quoted scripture, and generally showed love for the delegates—and they loved him back.
And following a respectable, but ultimately lacking speech by Mitt Romney on Wednesday, Biden established that he’s not only uniquely qualified to be Obama’s vice president, he’s also pretty good when serving as Obama’s emissary to Black America.
Frequently gaffe-prone, Biden’s often been criticized for being too casual and too blunt, including the time that he was caught on a hot mic telling Obama that passage of his healthcare reform act was a “big f***ing deal.”
In 2007, Biden got in hot water for describing Obama—at the time his Democratic primary rival—as “the first mainstream African American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy”—a condescension masquerading as a “compliment.”
But Obama not only let that roll, he later revived Biden as his running mate, number two, and unofficial salty old uncle—and it paid dividends for both. Biden capped a long senate career as a historic first of sorts—the first Black president’s vice president. And Obama gained a peerless ambassador. Here’s how:
It’s conventional wisdom that Sarah Palin got the best of Biden in their only vice presidential debate in 2008. Other than her platform address at the Republican Party convention, it’s considered one of her best political performances. Everyone remembers her poise, her wink and her disarming intro to then-Senator Biden: “Can I call you Joe?”
No one remembers anything Biden said—and that’s the point. Obama-Biden was cruising by then, and the only thing that could’ve tripped them up would’ve been a condescending remark from Biden to the younger, female Palin. He didn’t. And they won.
In Afghanistan, Biden favored a narrower counter-terrorism approach than the expansive counter-insurgency strategy that Obama eventually went with. But unlike many of the president’s allies, he’s taken pains not to publicly break ranks with Obama over policy.
When President Obama had to pivot on same-sex marriage, he was able to pull it off after Biden—trusted in ways the president sometimes isn’t among some of his older, blue-collar constituency—came out unequivocally and publicly in favor of marriage equality first.
And in his speech to the NAACP, Biden offered the expected rebuttals for all of Romney’s points on the healthcare reform, education, and foreign policy. But perhaps more significantly, he struck a chord with the delegates—they booed Romney’s promise to repeal Obamacare—but they only booed Biden when he said “and in conclusion.”
Important, though, was that while Biden was relishing the spotlight, he continued to brag about “my guy”—Obama—telling NAACP members that “This isn’t about me,” and lauding the president for putting “country first.”
Biden’s job was easier than Romney’s—no matter what either of them said, nine out of ten African Americans will vote for Obama in November. But Biden didn’t just win over the NAACP audience. His speech underscored just how large the trust deficit is between the Republican Party and most Black voters.
There’s no GOP politician—Black, White or otherwise—who can connect with the nation’s oldest civil rights organization that way.
It shows that when he made Biden “his guy,” Obama knew exactly what he was doing.
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