What will Joe Biden say next?
Alexander Cockburn on why Barack Obama’s gaffe-prone vice-president just can’t keep his mouth closed
Despite high expectations, Vice President Joe Biden's first months in office were disappointing. This, remember, is the man who opened the more recent of his two futile runs for the presidency by saying of Obama that he was "the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy. I mean, that's a storybook, man".
Yes, that Joe Biden. The one who hollered at wheelchair-bound Missouri state senator Chuck Graham to "stand up." The one who plagiarised a speech by former UK Labour leader Neil Kinnock. In other words a man who has flung himself into one rhetorical pratfall after another with the unswerving momentum of a blind rhino.
But then, as Biden and his wife Jill ensconced themselves in the vice president's official residence at the Naval Observatory in northwest Washington, came a phase of decorum, irksome to those wagering that the former senator from Delaware is incapable of keeping his foot out of his mouth. There were those who said sadly, "Joe just isn't Joe any more." They were wrong.
Joe Biden has always been conspicuous for his deference to the Israel lobbyAppropriately, it was on the topic of Israel that Biden first threw aside unmanly prudence. Even by the zeal of almost every member of the US Congress to satisfy the Israel lobby, Biden has always been conspicuous for his deference.
Accepting Obama's offer of the vice-presidential nomination last summer, he announced emphatically that he would not have considered accepting the invitation if he had entertained the slightest suspicion that Obama was not 100 per cent in Israel's corner. In fact the Israel lobby did entertain these unworthy suspicions, which is why it pushed strongly for Biden as Veep.
It wasn't far into Obama's first months in the White House that the lobby began to feel that even though Obama's chief of staff is Rahm Emanuel, their suspicions were not unjustified. The President talked publicly about the right of Palestinians to their state. He said the settlements on the West Bank had to stop. (True, he didn't say anything categorical about actually existing illegal settlements.) He seemed too eager to parley with Iran, too demure on the topic of its nuclear programme.
On July 5 George Stephanopoulos interviewed Biden in Baghdad for his Sunday morning talk show on the ABC network and promptly put the question: "If the Israelis decide Iran is an existential threat, [and] they have to take out the nuclear programme militarily, the United States will not stand in the way?"
Biden lunged for the driver's wheel and swerved US government policy in a whole new direction: "We cannot dictate to another sovereign nation what they can and cannot do when they make a determination, if they make a determination that they're existentially threatened and their survival is threatened by another country."
The White House spent the next two days categorically denying that it was giving - via Biden - Israel the go-ahead to make a unilateral attack on Iran. The United States is "absolutely not" flashing Israel a green light to attack Iran, President Barack Obama told CNN on July 7. "We have said directly to the Israelis that it is important to try and resolve this in an international setting in a way that does not create major conflict in the Middle East."
This was not the only time in the Stephanopoulos interview that Biden sucker-punched Obama. His follow-up addressed the failure of Obama's stimulus programme to halt the surge in unemployment and prompt recovery. In devising this programme, Biden confided to Stephanopoulos, the Obama administration had "misread" the extent of the economic catastrophe it inherited.
"The truth is, we and everyone else misread the economy. The figures we worked off of in January were the consensus figures and most of the blue chip indexes out there." He added: "We misread how bad the economy was." You can imagine what the Limbaugh and the radio ranters made of that.
In stricken Ohio, Obama’s approval ratings have dropped into the thirtiesBiden fans, lolling on their Sunday morning couches, jumped up and punched high-fives to the heavens. Joe was back, more brazen than ever in his traditional blend of mendacious self-justification. His claim that the Obama administration and everyone else had misread the economy in late January was entirely untrue.
Obama and his economists were savaged by most liberal economists like Nobel prize-winners Joe Stiglitz and Paul Krugman for making the stimulus package far too small and the White House was accused of squandering irretrievable amounts of political capital.
These critics were right and for this miscalculation Obama is now paying very heavily. In stricken Ohio, Obama's approval ratings have dropped into the thirties, according to one major poll.
So why did Biden embarrass his boss internationally and then rub his nose in a catastrophic economic misjudgment? The nose-rubbing isn't so hard to explain. Biden is a notorious flapjaw, as I wrote here when Obama picked him. His vanity deludes him into believing that every word that drops from his mouth is minted in the golden currency of Pericles. He can always talk his way into a jam. He’s spent his political life doing it.
But the matter of crossing Obama on administration policy regarding Israel and Iran is more serious. Vice presidents are not supposed to contradict presidential policy.
Obama surely must be thinking - where is Dick Cheney, now that I need him? As Bush's Veep, Cheney gave his boss the limelight and kept his mouth shut for eight years. Everyone said he was really the man running the country.
No one thinks Biden is running the country, and maybe this is the core of Obama's Biden problem. Almost all politicians are narcissists, Biden more than most. It's why he has so often got into trouble for lying about his achievements. The vice-presidential slot is not calculated to make a narcissist happy. He dwells in another's shadow and scans his features hopefully for signs of ill-health.
Shrinks say that those suffering from narcissistic rage yearn, as Heinz Kohut once wrote, "to turn a passive experience into an active one." If this is true, then Obama can look forward to plenty of strenuous exercise hauling the vice president's foot out of his mouth. Obama's honeymoon phase is dwindling to a close. Biden will be there to signal the wrong turns and say that they weren't his fault. ·
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