Presidential running mates are more than media attack dogs or private strategic advisers. Regardless of whether one likes Dick Cheney as Vice-President, no one can deny that he has shown that co-pilots matter. Similarly, the careers of Gerald Ford, Lyndon Baines Johnson, Harry Truman, and Theodore Roosevelt serve as reminders that unforeseen events can elevate the second-in-command to commander-in-chief.
The expected clichés about Barack Obama's selection of Joseph Biden as his running mate focus on whether Biden adds leadership depth to the ticket and is prepared in an emergency to assume the responsibilities of commander-in-chief. The two misleading themes recycled through the weekend's political punditry: that the Obama/Biden ticket lacks requisite executive experience, and that it suffers from internal dispute. These two concerns demonstrate a lack of appreciation for Biden's genuine leadership qualities. Should the Obama/Biden ticket prevail, it is hoped that Biden will never assume command through tragedy or crisis. However, he can serve as a strong partner who reinforces Obama's leadership course. Should Biden himself ever become President, there are those whose paths to greatness can serve as an example.
There is an oft-echoed concern that the Democrats are offering a ticket with no genuine executive experience, as neither candidate has served as a governor. Here the legendary imagery of such strong gubernatorial models as Thomas Jefferson (Virginia), Franklin Delano Roosevelt (New York), and Ronald Reagan (California) offer seemingly compelling examples. However, executive experience at the state level failed to make successful presidents of Martin Van Buren (New York), Rutherford Hayes (Ohio), James Polk (Tennessee), Jimmy Carter (Georgia), or George W. Bush (Texas).
Neither Generals Nor Governors
Similarly, one of the challenges faced by great generals George Washington and Dwight D. Eisenhower was to recognize the irrelevance of the military command model to civilian democratic leadership. Harry Truman famously predicted on the eve of Eisenhower's inauguration: "He'll sit here and he'll say 'Do this! Do that!' And nothing will happen. Poor Ike. It won't be a bit like the Army. He'll find it very frustrating." Truman proved prophetic. As President, Eisenhower was frequently exasperated trying to lead his own party, complaining, "I sit here all day trying to persuade people to do the things they ought to have the sense enough to do without my persuading them.… That's all the power of the President amounts to."
In fact, many of our most inspiring leaders, such as Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, and Harry Truman, were neither top generals nor governors but battled-tested leaders in the jobs of selling a vision and influencing others in the U.S. Senate. Biden's domestic and global policy expertise, gained from his 36 years in the Senate, give him legitimate authority. In successfully chairing the Senate Judiciary Committee and of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he demonstrated effective problem-solving and developed strong domestic and foreign policy expertise. Biden played a major role in influencing President Bill Clinton's most effective military interventions in the Balkans and forged strong bonds with Republicans Richard Lugar and John McCain on bipartisan foreign policy in the Middle East.
Another misguided mantra from pundits that is also showing up in opposition TV ads is that Biden himself has sabotaged Obama's candidacy with his ambivalence about the Illinois Senator during the early primary season. Criticism stemming from a time of rivalry should not disqualify someone from sharing a ticket with the object of that criticism. George H.W. Bush, Ronald Reagan's eventual running mate, labeled "Reaganomics" as "voodoo economics" during their primary battles. The mutual disdain between primary rivals LBJ and JFK was left behind when they ran on the same ticket. Johnson's tireless campaigning in Texas and the South in general helped Kennedy achieve victory. Bill Clinton and Al Gore managed to paper over their battles from the political primaries to achieve a working partnership in the general election.
Learning From Lincoln
Political historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, in her perceptive book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, demonstrated the brilliance of Lincoln's embrace of former adversaries into his inner circle. Obama himself specified such complementary chemistry as a key criterion in his search for a running mate: "I want somebody who's independent, somebody who can push against my preconceived notions, and challenge me so we have a got a robust debate in the White House." It seems Lincoln's wisdom was not lost on Obama, as he used Lincoln's base of Springfield, Ill., to officially welcome Biden to his team.
While the lack of executive experience and differences of opinion are not relevant to Biden's qualifications for office, his rise from humble origins and resilience from personal adversity are. Renowned anthropologist Joseph Campbell identified just such key leadership qualities in The Hero With a Thousand Faces, his comparative study of heroic leadership across continents, cultures, and centuries. Obama and McCain battle exchange countercharges of elitism in attempts to prove their anti-elitist common touch; Biden has such credentials without dispute. The son of a car salesman from Scranton, Pa., a gritty coal-mining town, Biden moved to Delaware with his family at age 10 and has lived there since.
He commutes each day to Washington from his family home in Wilmington and is one of the least affluent members of the U.S. Senate. He doesn't share Obama's Ivy League credentials; he graduated from the University of Delaware, where he was a mediocre student. Despite his inside-the-Beltway tenure, he is not immune to uttering statements that make the politically correct cringe and the media pounce. To some, however, such flack-free authenticity is refreshing and makes Biden seem more accessible.
Recovering From Tragedy
His resiliency in the face of great personal adversity is an important part of his story. He recovered not once but twice from surgery for life-threatening brain aneurysms. When he was a senator-elect (one of the youngest ever) his wife and daughter died in a car accident. Constituents begged him to assume office, and he was sworn in at the bedside of his two surviving children, both sons.
Biden's Delaware base, with its three electoral votes, is not viewed by political strategists as pivotal. Yet it may serve as a platform for greatness, as it did once before. Delware's last great national figure, Caesar Rodney, is celebrated with a large statue in downtown Wilmington for his heroic Revolutionary War service in the Delaware Militia, signatory of the Declaration of Independence, and the colony's representative to the Continental Congress in 1777. Perhaps Delaware and the nation are ready for a new hero from Wilmington.