By Farooq A. Kperogi
The choice of vice presidential candidates by both Barack Obama and John McCain in the last few weeks has dramatically altered the narratives of the U.S. presidential campaign and kept political analysts wondering what this would all mean for the November general election.
Obama’s choice of Joe Biden (pronounced BAI-DIN) as his nominee for vice president has undermined an abiding mantra of his campaign: change. But it has also bolstered up his most enduring weakness: experience. And McCain’s choice of little-known first-term Alaska governor Sarah Palin has subverted his most cherished forte: experience. But it has also shored up his biggest Achilles' heels: age and change.
A constant line of attack against Obama from both his erstwhile Democratic opponents such as Hillary Clinton (and even Joe Biden) and his Republican rival John McCain is that he is too inexperienced to be president of the United States at a time when the country is at war and its economy is in peril.
During the Democratic primaries, for instance, Hillary Clinton famously said “I think that I have a lifetime of experience that I will bring to the White House. I know Senator McCain has a lifetime of experience to the White House. And Senator Obama has a speech he gave in 2002.”
Similarly, Joe Biden, Obama’s vice presidential pick who also ran for the nomination of his party but dropped out after winning less than one percent of the votes in the first primary contest, had said it was risky to elect Obama as president when newsmen asked him about Obama’s preparedness to be president. “I think he can be ready, but right now I don’t think he is,” he said. “The presidency is not something that lends itself to on-the-job training.”
When he was asked during a widely publicized Democratic presidential debate if he was misquoted or misrepresented, his response was: “I stand by that statement.” Oddly, when he was asked what he thought about John McCain, he said: “I would be honored to run with or against John McCain because I think the country will be better off.”
Predictably, shortly after Obama Barack officially announced Joe Biden as his running mate, the McCain campaign quickly released a statement. "There has been no harsher critic of Barack Obama’s lack of experience than Joe Biden,” the statement said. “Biden has denounced Barack Obama’s poor foreign policy judgment and has strongly argued in his own words what Americans are quickly realizing -- that Barack Obama is not ready to be President.”
Then they followed it up with a TV commercial showing Joe Biden defending his characterization of Obama as inexperienced and unsuited for the American presidency and his ringing endorsement of McCain.
End of the experience message from McCain
Then the twist in the presidential campaign narrative came when McCain announced his own running mate. McCain passed up such favorites as Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts who also contested for the nomination of his party, Joe Lieberman, the Jewish American former presidential running mate to Al Gore but who has abandoned the Democratic Party now, Timothy Pawlenty, the current governor of Minnesota, and so on, and picked an obscure first-term governor of the geographically isolated state of Alaska.
(Alaska, formerly part of Russia, was bought by the U.S. in 1867 and only officially became the 49th state of America in 1959. It is not part of the contiguous U.S., that is, the 48 states in mainland America).
For a candidate who stakes his strength on his experience, the choice of the 44-year-old former sports reporter who would be the least experienced vice president in the entire American political history—if McCain wins the election—this was unexpected.
The Obama campaign also took advantage of the lack of national exposure and foreign policy experience of Palin to score a political point and to retaliate. “Today, John McCain put the former mayor of a town of 9,000 with zero foreign policy experience a heartbeat away from the presidency,” said Bill Burton, an Obama spokesman, in a statement. The town Sarah Palin was mayor of is actually less than 9,000 people.
Other Democrats, too, have pounced on McCain for his choice of Palin. "After his attacks on Obama's readiness for the job, it'll be amusing to hear a 72-year-old with a history of health problems justify this decision," said Jim Jordan, a seasoned Democratic strategist. "She's a talent, but that's the end of the experience message from John McCain."
Even Pat Buchanan, a famous Republican Party pundit, described the choice of Sarah Palin as the “biggest political gamble in American political history.”
A reversal of campaign narratives
What is significant in the vice presidential picks is that it denies both candidates ownership of their erstwhile strengths. In an ironic twist of circumstances, the Obama-Biden ticket is now, cumulatively, far and above a more experienced ticket than the McCain-Palin ticket.
If you add Joe Biden’s 36 years as a U.S. senator to Obama’s four years in the U.S. Senate, you end up with 40 years of national experience for the Democratic ticket.
On the other hand, if you add John McCain’s four years as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives and his 22 years in the U.S. Senate, you have just 26 years of national experience for the McCain-Palin ticket.
Sarah Palin has never had national exposure of any kind. Before her election as governor of the state of Alaska, one of the least populated states in America, she was a two-term mayor of a small town in Alaska called Wasilla, which has a population of 6,700. And she has been governor for only one and half years.
Obama, on his part, spent eight years as a state senator (equivalent to a state House of Assembly member in Nigeria, except that Illinois, like most U.S. states, also has a state House of Representatives, which is lower than the state senate in stature and hierarchy) in his adopted state of Illinois in Midwest United States. This gives Obama more state experience than Palin.
Then there is the question of emotional preparedness for the job. Obama’s critics say apart from his relative inexperience, he isn’t emotionally prepared to be president because he was only “testing the waters” and then got an unexpected gift of a boat to swim with. The New York Times, quoting unnamed close associates of Obama, published an exclusive report that claimed that Obama’s immediate goal was to run for governor of Illinois at the expiration of his first term of six years in the U.S. Senate in preparation for a run for the president thereafter.
His foray into presidential politics, the report said, was just to create a buzz and raise his national visibility. It turned out, however, according to the report, that the national and international response to his candidacy went way beyond his wildest anticipation. The Obama campaign condemned the report but has not officially denied its accuracy or facticity. Predictably, his opponents seized on the report to paint him as not ready to be president “on Day One.”
However, it emerged recently that Sarah Palin, the woman McCain nominated to be a heartbeat away from the presidency, as Americans like to characterize the office of vice president, only a month ago described the job of a vice president as unproductive and even said she didn’t know what it entailed.
When a CNBC (Consumer News and Business Channel) reporter asked her about the prospect of becoming McCain's ticket mate, she betrayed a noticeable lack of enthusiasm for the job. “As for that VP talk all the time, I’ll tell you, I still can’t answer that question until somebody answers for me what is it exactly that the VP does every day,” she said. “I’m used to being very productive and working real hard in an administration.”
What informed Obama’s choice of Biden
Why did Obama choose a man who had dismissed him as inexperienced (and therefore unfit to be president) and even implied that he would not mind crossing over party lines to become a running to John McCain if he can’t run against him? What is worse, why did he undermine his message of change by running with a 65-year-old man that has been in the U.S. Senate for the past 35 years, that is, since Obama was only 12 years old?
Obama passed over front-runners like Jim Webb, Sam Nunn, Sen. Evan Bayh, Gov. Tim Kaine, Sen. Chris Dodd, Sen. Hillary Clinton, Sen. Chuck Hagel, Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, Gen. Wesley Clark, and so on to choose Biden.
Analysts say Obama chose Biden, in spite of himself, to compensate for four major weak spots of his candidacy: his inability to connect with poor working-class white males, his perceived lack of foreign policy experience at a time America is at war, his insecurity about his national security credentials, and his studied choice not to hit hard at his opponents. Of all the favorites for the VP slot, Biden provides the greatest safeguard against these deficiencies.
Biden has a solid working-class background and is very popular with his constituents. A proof of that is that he is the longest-serving senator in the history of his adopted state of Delaware. But he is originally from the state of Pennsylvania, one of the so-called bellwether states (states whose election patterns always predict national outcomes), and still has his political roots firmly in the state.
And as the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for many years, he has more foreign policy experience than even John McCain. Plus, he is a dogged political grappler who can tear McCain to shreds in ways Obama cannot. Obama does not want to be seen as aggressively fighting white men (or women, in the case of Hillary Clinton) because it would play into the fears of borderline racists who might be persuaded that he is another “angry black man” smoldering with rage against white people.
As Jesse Jackson, Jr., son of Reverend Jesse Jackson and member of the U.S. House of Representatives said recently, "No one wants an angry African-American man in the White House." He was explaining why Obama smiles more than any presidential candidate in U.S. history and why he has been soft in his rhetorical punches against his opponents.
Biden is now Obama’s surrogate in hitting back at mean Obama characterizations. Being a white male gives him the license to throw aggressive verbal punches without inviting imputation of dark motives for his acts.
Another attraction of Biden for Obama is that although Biden has been in Washington for the past 35 years, he has been simultaneously away from it. He neither rents nor owns a house in Washington, DC; for 35 years, he has been commuting to work by public transportation (actually by train) every day from his hometown of Scranton in the state of Delaware to Washington DC.
This fact accentuates his image as a down-to-earth, pro-poor politician who has not lost touch with his working-class roots. That is why when Obama introduced him as his running mate in Springfield, Illinois, he indicatively called Biden a “crappy kid from Scranton.”
However, Biden’s superior wealth of experience has fed Republican Party-inspired cynicism that Obama only wants to bask in the glory of being the president while Biden would do the real job. And Obama didn’t help himself when, in a state of unbridled exuberance, he introduced Biden as the “next president” before quickly correcting himself.
Obama’s opponents say it was a Freudian slip that betrayed his anxieties about his unpreparedness to be president and his desire for Biden to do his job for him.
Another weakness of Obama’s choice is that both he and Biden are senators with no executive experience. Although McCain too has no executive experience, his vice presidential pick can boast some managerial experience as a two-term mayor and as a governor with nearly two years’ experience.
But the biggest drawback of the Biden pick, according to Politico.com, one of the most influential news blogs in the US, is that it shows a brazen insensitivity to regional balance. For the past 60 years, Democrats have won the White House only when they have a Southerner on the ticket. Both Obama and Biden are from the North.
Did McCain choose Palin for her beauty?
As for John McCain, his choice of Palin is informed by at least three considerations: notions among the rank-and-file in the Republican Party that McCain is not conservative enough, concerns about his age and desire to court female voters who traditionally vote Democratic.
Evangelical Christians who oppose abortion under any circumstance, oppose gun control, oppose gay marriage, and support the death penalty, had been reluctant to support McCain’s candidacy because he had taken stances in the past that deviated from the American conservative orthodoxy.
Sarah Palin, the youngest and first female governor of Alaska, is a dyed-in-the-wool conservative who refused to abort the pregnancy of her now four-month-old baby boy (her fifth child) even when she discovered very early during her pregnancy that the child would have Down syndrome. This personal story resonates with the American conservative base, and that is why her choice has electrified American conservatives.
Another attraction McCain has for Palin is her youth and distance from Washington politics, which trump Obama’s. But Palin’s youth is sure to overdramatize McCain’s old age in a country that celebrates youth and derides old age. McCain would be the oldest U.S. president ever to be sworn in for his first term—if he wins in November.
Palin is three years younger than Obama and her lack of Washington political experience eclipses Obama’s habitual references to his freshness and distance from the ways of Washington. He often says he has not stayed long enough for Washington to “squeeze the hope out of” him. When Joe Biden, Palin’s opposite number, first got elected into the U.S. Senate in 1973 at the age of 30, Sarah Palin was only 9. If she gets elected, she would be one of the youngest vice presidents in U.S. history.
Perhaps McCain’s greatest attraction for Palin is that he calculates that by appointing a woman as a running mate, the first time this has happened in the history of the Republican Party, he would win over the disillusioned supporters of Hillary Clinton some of whom are still smarting from what they consider Obama’s shabby treatment of their idol. (She was not even on the shortlist of candidates Obama vetted for the vice presidency, even though he had said several times in the past that Hillary would be “on anybody’s shortlist”).
It’s not clear, however, that most Hillary supporters who are mostly feminists with values that are diametrically opposed to Palin’s would be persuaded to vote Republican because of the mere symbolism of a female vice president.
But cynics say McCain’s biggest attraction for Palin, whom he had met only once, is, well, her attractiveness. McCain is famous for his almost compulsive attraction for beauty queens. His first wife, whom he divorced after she had an accident that disfigured her, was a beauty queen. His current wife was also a beauty queen. And Palin whose good looks have prompted citizens of Alaska to display bumper stickers that read “Alaska: coldest state, hottest governor” (“hot” means “sexy” in American English), was also a beauty queen.
Nonetheless, although the choice of running mates has changed the narrative of the presidential campaigns, it has not changed the polls. Over 70 percent of Americans say the vice presidential choices have not altered their own choices. But it’s still too early judge.