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Old conventional wisdom: Obama-Biden team, great. New CW: Obama-Clinton even better!

Old conventional wisdom: Obama-Biden team, great. New CW: Obama-Clinton even better!

Whoa! The US midterm election for Congress hasn’t even happened yet; the next presidential election is still two years away; and the unprecedented 2008 rivalry between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination hasn’t faded into history. Doesn’t matter. Forgetaboutit! We need to get ready for a new political debate. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.

The media mill is already heating up with the idea that the only way the Democrats can salvage the Obama presidency is to put Hillary Clinton on the 2012 ticket as vice presidential candidate and send current vice president Joe Biden over to Foggy Bottom to become secretary of state in her place. This is based on the idea, presumptively, that the Obama administration and the Democrats will be getting a pummelling in the upcoming midterm election and that, in the wake of this yet-to-happen defeat, switching vice presidents would be the best way for Democrats to hang on to the White House in 2012.

Virginia’s former governor Doug Wilder first pitched the idea a while back. And now, the mighty Bob Woodward – yes, that Bob Woodward – wrote in The Washington Post that such a plan is now definitely “on the table” in the White House. And there is speculation Clinton’s own core supporters are punting this idea through just-below-the-radar trial balloons to see if it catches on. All of this is giving heart to commentators who still carry a torch for one last chance for a Hillary Clinton presidency. Tunku Vardarajan, writing in The Daily Beast, for example, argued there is a “growing sense that Hillary would have made a much, much better president than Obama”.

The idea gets its initial impetus from a feeling Democrats need to find a way out of the slump they are in because of Obama’s surprisingly desultory political nous (particularly surprising given his masterful 2008 campaign). The charge now is that this is a president who failed to notice that the economy and unemployment were the key political variables – not healthcare, Afghanistan, Iraq, financial reform or immigration.

Obama biographer Mark Halperin explains: “Barack Obama is being politically crushed in a vice. From above, by elite opinion about his competence. From below, by mass anger and anxiety over unemployment. And it is too late for him to do anything about this predicament until after November’s elections…. But Obama has exacerbated his political problems not just by failing to enact policies that would have actually turned the economy around, but also by authorizing a series of tactical moves intended to demonize Republicans and distract from the problems at hand… But [while] the President was correct when he said, ‘the only piece of economic news that folks still looking for work want to hear is, ‘You’re hired’,’  and that’s still not occurring for too many Americans.”

The political charge sheet goes on that Obama confused reviving the economy with saving the banks and big business. In this case then, Hillary Clinton, given her presumed connections to those voters who are the most distressed or damaged by the economy, is the best way to reclaim all those “hard-working” voters and save the presidency for the Democrats.

This is not totally uncharted territory. Abraham Lincoln switched vice presidents in 1864 from the staunchly Republican Hannibal Hamlin, from the very Republican state of Maine, to a nominally Democratic Party senator Andrew Johnson. Johnson was from the corner of Tennessee that had remained loyal to the Union in the Civil War. As a result, Lincoln made his vice presidential switch to ward off a fierce Democratic challenge (and capture enough Democrats to hold the presidency) in the 1864 election. Franklin Roosevelt, too, in his four terms, switched vice presidential partners several times to balance forces in his party. In his last election he reached out to pick Harry Truman, a down-to-earth senator with a track record of pursuing corruption in wartime contracts.

How would this Clinton-for-Biden switch play out for the various participants? For some, at least, the polls offer possible encouragement. According to recent polls, Clinton had a 62% favourable rating and just a 36% unfavourable mark. Obama’s numbers were 57% favourable and 42% unfavourable and Biden’s numbers were 50% favourable to 43% unfavourable.

For Joe Biden, this scenario is not totally a bad thing. He already achieved his key task in 2008 – dismissing Sarah Palin – at least for that electoral cycle. And Biden served in the Senate for decades, and for much of that time he was the Democrats’ de facto shadow minister as chairman or ranking member of the Senate’s foreign relations committee during Republican presidencies.

A vice president / secretary of state switch would give Biden a really substantive CV line for the golden years of his government career – and it’s probably the job he’s really been hankering after for decades anyway. But the task, now, for Biden, if he wants to stay on as vice president, is to really go after the Republicans and their perfidious schemes. This is the traditional, well-worn path for vice presidents, back as far as Thomas Jefferson’s time. But he needs to come through on this with a real vengeance between today and 2 November – and then start all over again from the election through to 2012.

Now, for  Obama, after taking all the flak for his political choices since 2008, bringing Clinton’s centrist cred on board as his VP could be a form of triangulation strategy that would work more effectively in the face of a starkly more Republican congress. Rather than as a sign of weakness, the Obama administration could certainly paint this switch as a real world, real politik move that recognises the changed nature of Washington’s political universe. And Obama would still get Biden’s advice on Afghanistan and anything else he wanted. It’s not as if Joe Biden would be exiled to Wilmington, Delaware, to nurse his wounds.

But what’s in it for Hillary Clinton? First woman vice president is nice, but it isn’t as nice as first woman president. The deal is that this positions her as the default, even de facto, top candidate to be the nominee in 2016, even if she would be in her late 60s by then. That’s not ancient in this day and age, especially as her contemporaries, all those millions and millions of baby boomers, will be right with her on that one. 

On the other hand, if she stays in the cabinet as secretary of state, she is still a player, and she still gets to challenge for 2012 (or even 2016) if the Obama presidency continues to deflate. For this scenario, she can always run as the “you should have gone with experience over sizzle” as the “I told you so” candidate. Amid all this growing inside-Washington speculation about her political ambitions, she is staying firmly on the sidelines as she carries out foreign trips during this last act of the 2010 electoral cycle. And so, for Clinton, it’s the gamble versus the safe play.

Over the past two years, Biden has been an integral part of decision-making in the White House. He was deeply involved in decisions about strategy in Afghanistan (even if the final decision went more to the military’s arguments than his own) and did his full share of getting healthcare reform enacted. But his real challenge, now, is to come out swinging against the opposition and land a few punches on mark.

As Paul Light argued in The Washington Post last week, “It’s not an easy or pretty job, but someone has to do it. Cabinet secretaries get to talk about accomplishments, but vice presidents have to dish the dirt. That’s how they earn respect inside the White House and an invitation to a second term.” To keep his place, Light adds that Biden’s three-part task now is to find a consistent message against the Republicans, call them out for their intransigence and take his own party to task for not doing more to turn a so-far jobless recovery into a pro-employment message.

Ultimately, the decisions both about who his running mate in 2012 will be (assuming, of course, he is the nominee himself) and who he will have as his secretary of state, are Obama’s of course. But they will be determined by what is politically practical, as well as what is politically wise. One thing for certain, though, in the wake of the much-anticipated Republican drubbing of the Democrats next month, this kind of talk will only grow louder ahead. DM

For more on this “inside-the-Beltway”, “inside-baseball” politics, see The Washington Post, Time and AP.

Photo: U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (L) listens to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during the National Prayer Breakfast at a Washington hotel February 4, 2010. REUTERS/Jason Reed.


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