The 2012 presidential election is, as too many Republican debates to count have reminded us, barely a year away. And President Obama is still wrestling with some nasty poll numbers. A majority of Americans contacted for a new AP-GfK survey say the president does not deserve to be reelected, while only 46 percent favor a second term.
Sounds dismal for the president.
But it doesn't necessarily have to be, if Obama and his aides keep their wits about them and take a few more signals from the one member of the administration who seems to "get it": Vice President Joe Biden.
Presidential elections are not about who "deserves" to win or lose. They are choices between the candidates whose names actually end up on the ballot. While Americans may not think Obama deserves election in 2012, they remain convinced that his potential Republican foes are less deserving. Obama beats Mitt Romney 48-45, percent margin, Herman Cain 49-42 and Rick Perry 51-42 percent.
Those numbers, and similar figures from battleground states, suggest that Obama can win in 2012. But the disquiet of Americans with his presidency, and with the prospect of reelecting him, has plenty of Democratic strategists talking about what the president needs to do to strengthen his position going into the 2012 competition.
One recurrent themes is a suggestion that the president might improve his prospects by picking a new vice president: perhaps Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, perhaps New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, perhaps someone from a must-win state like Florida or Colorado, or a must-win constituency. Pundits and pontificators have been spinning out a steady stream of "Vice President Clinton" and "Vice President Cuomo" columns in recent weeks. A Huffington Post headline on Thursday read: "Replacing Joe Biden: Time for President Obama to Bite the Bullet?"
But any move to replace Vice President Joe Biden would be an act of political malpractice.
The vice president's boisterous advocacy of late for the administration's $35 billion plan to help keep firefighters, police officers, nurses and teachers on the job in tough economic times confirms his necessity—and his value to an administration that still too frequently struggles to find its voice.
Demanding Senate action on the measure that is designed to save the jobs of 400,000 teachers and tens of thousands of first responders—and to maintain vital services in communities across the country—Biden declared: “Real people—real people—will get real relief right now."
Biden pulled no punches. Anticipating Friday's expected Senate vote on the measure, he painted the choice in stark terms: public safety versus benefits for billionaires, public education versus tax breaks for millionaires.
“This is an emergency,” Biden told a crowd of firefighters at the Capitol. “I say to the American people: Watch your senator. Watch him or her choose. Are you going to put 400,000 school teachers back in classrooms? Are you going to put 18,000 cops back in the street and 7,000 firefighters back in the firehouses? Or are you going to save people with average incomes of $1 million a one-half of 1 percent increase in tax on every dollar they make over a million?”
This is how the vice president rolls. He's not a perfect player on every issue. He can go over the top, or stumble into a gaffe. Fox News and Rush Limbaugh love to attack him. But that's only because Biden's the one member of the administration who consistently uses the sort of economic populist language that scares them.
They know that, unlike too many members of the administration, Biden actually "gets it."
When Obama brought Larry Summers and Tim Geithner into the White House to counsel him of economics, Biden went the other direction altogether. He hired Jared Bernstein, a savvy critic of free trade deals such as NAFTA who has served as director of the Living Standards Program of the progressive Economic Policy Institute, to serve as his Chief Economist and Economic Policy Adviser. It was with prodding from Biden that Bernstein was named executive director of the White House Middle Class Working Families Task Force, which came up with some of the best ideas for tackling joblessness and the economic downturn.
Obama did not listen enough to Bernstein, or Biden. As the new Ron Suskind book, Confidence Men, reveals, the president was under the influence of Treasury Secretary Geithner and National Economic Council Director Summers—a position that harmed the country and Obama's political prospects.
As the administration has begun in recent months to move toward a more populist stance regarding joblessness and the economy, the vice president has led the way.
On Labor Day, Biden went to Cincinnati, Ohio, and delivered the single most powerful speech by any of the top Democrats who showed up for Labor Day rallies, parades and picnics across the country.
What distinguished Biden's speech from the others by prominent partisans was that there was nothing timid about it. This was a rip-roaring populist pronouncement.
Biden got it. He took a side. No apologies. No soft messaging.
“The battles labor won over the years not only raised the standards of labor but for everyone,” declared Biden, as thousands of union members cheered. “The other side has declared war on labor’s house and it’s about time we stand up. Understand it for what it is.... They’re reopening fights we thought we settled fifty years ago.”
Condemning Republicans for launching what he described as an anti-worker "onslaught," the vice president shouted: “The middle class is under attack, but labor is under the most direct assault in a generation!"
Without organized labor, Biden said, the fight for working America is lost.
“You are the only non-governmental power that has the power and the capacity to stop this onslaught,” he told the union members. “Without you there, there is no restraint."
That was good stuff. And it got better this week.
Campaigning in Pennsylvania Tuesday, Biden ripped conservative commentators and politicians who suggest the the teacher and first-responder measure—which gets needed funding to state and local governments across the country—is a "temporary" fix.
“There’s nothing temporary about kindergarten being eliminated because it has an effect in that child the rest of their life,” said the vice president. “There is nothing temporary about the child that gets 20 percent less attention in the early years of class because class size has increased by 20 to 30 percent. There is nothing temporary about the life saved in a home invasion or a robbery because a squad car is able to get there in five minutes and not in 30 minutes. There’s nothing temporary about that for real, live people.”
The Fox commentators were horrified. "Biden Loses It In Philadelphia," their report declared.
Actually, Biden's found it.
Biden is not just right on the issues, he is right on message.
If Obama is going to secure battleground states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, it is Biden he is going to have to rely on. The vice president's appeal to working-class voters, especially blue-collar industrial workers and public employees, is well established. And he's worked the turf, maintaining a steady schedule that has taken him to Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin—a state the administration has otherwise neglected in this year of labor turmoil. With the recall campaign against Governor Scott Walker scheduled to begin in less than a month, Biden just announced that he will be in Milwaukee.
Biden belongs in Milwaukee, in Columbus, in Flint and in Pittsburgh. And he belongs on the 2012 ticket—bringing a measure of economic populism to a presidential campaign and a party that cannot afford any longer to practice the politics of timidity.