Joe Biden has been relegated to a role at this year’s Democratic convention that gives him less exposure than former President Bill Clinton, First Lady Michelle Obama, San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, and even Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren.
The vice president will address the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, tonight during an hour that puts him on only one of the major U.S. television networks. The non-marquee slot marks a shift from Biden’s pivotal position in advocating Barack Obama’s bid for the presidency in 2008.
“There’s somewhat of a limited impact you can have as an incumbent vice presidential candidate,” said Joel Goldstein, a law professor at Saint Louis University who has written extensively on the vice presidency. “When you’re brand new to the stage, there’s a fresh evaluation going on.”
Four years ago, Biden gave the capstone speech on the third night of the Democrats’ convention in Denver, providing the national security ballast to Obama’s candidacy and the connection to white working-class America. This year, Biden will be more of a cheerleader for Obama’s achievements: the auto industry rescue, the stimulus that helped stanch the recession and the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
Biden is scheduled to speak at 9:30 p.m. East Coast time, according to a person familiar with the planning. Within the three-day arc of the convention, planners decided it worked best for Clinton to make the case for Obama’s economic policies and Biden to serve the next night as a witness to the president’s decisions, said the person, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The effusive, blunt-spoken vice-president’s penchant for gaffes, lampooned on late-night comedy shows, also has cut into his public persona. Biden, 69, once asked a state senator in a wheelchair to stand up to be recognized.
Earlier this year, he had to apologize to Obama for getting ahead of the president in announcing public backing of same-sex marriage rights. And his remarks last month that Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s regulatory policies would put middle-income Americans “back in chains” opened a war of words between the two campaigns.
“Some of Biden’s well-publicized gaffes and mistakes have had an impact,” said Carroll Doherty, associate director of the nonpartisan Pew Research Center in Washington. “When you ask people to come up with words to describe him, many of them use words that are mocking or disparaging.”
Associates said Biden, who listened to Clinton’s speech in the hall last night, is happy with his speaking slot.
“That’s the best spot for him to be speaking about the president,” said Ted Kaufman, a former Delaware senator and Biden’s former long-time chief of staff. “It’s right before the president speaks.”
Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian at Rice University in Houston, said the entry of Clinton into the re-election campaign as a full-throated advocate for Obama has helped place Biden in a different position than 2008, when the former president was less active and still nursing wounds from the defeat of his wife, Hillary Clinton, in the party’s primary.
The vice president’s “role was more essential in ’08 than ’12,” Brinkley said. “Biden had a crucial role with those lunch-bucket Democrats in 2008, and this time around that’s a role Bill Clinton is fulfilling. In some ways this is an Obama-Bill Clinton convention. In ’08, it was Obama-Biden.”
The practice of giving the incumbent vice president one convention night to headline is relatively recent, only going back to 1996, when the event lasted four days, Goldstein said. This year, the conventions were compressed to three nights, with only one hour of network television coverage in most cases, constraining the time available to showcase speakers.
A less-decisive political role for vice presidents in re-election efforts than in a ticket’s initial campaign has been typical in recent years, Goldstein said.
Al Gore in 1992 helped reinforce the image of generational change and a move to the center by the Democrats in Clinton’s presidential campaign, and Dick Cheney in 2000 provided gravitas and foreign policy experience to George W. Bush’s campaign, Goldstein said.
Neither of the vice presidents’ roles was as significant in their re-nomination conventions, he said.
“Biden has really been out campaigning and doing appearances more than most vice presidents do, certainly more than Cheney did,” Goldstein said. “He’s playing a pretty aggressive role, particularly with traditional Democrats that Obama doesn’t play well with: unions and blue-collar Democrats.”
Biden has already headlined more than 100 political events and traveled through battleground states. He delivered some of the Obama campaign’s more biting attacks on Romney, assailing the former Massachusetts governor’s refusal to release tax returns and immigration stance in one line: “Romney wants you to show your papers, but he won’t show you his.”
Biden has also distilled the Obama record into a bumper sticker: “Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive.”
That role has cost Biden some public favorability, Kaufman said. Republicans “go after him to lower his credibility” because he is “scoring points on Romney,” Kaufman said.
While Clinton and Biden both speak to constituencies of non-college-educated whites that Obama has difficulty reaching, the two men appeal to somewhat different constituencies -- Clinton to independents and Biden to labor leaders and unions, Brinkley said.
Obama “needs an amazing union turnout in places like Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin,” Brinkley said.
Steve Jarding, a former Democratic political consultant and a lecturer at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, said Biden’s gaffes haven’t diminished his appeal to white working-class voters and ethnic Catholics.
The verbal miscues reinforce the impression that Biden, the son of a used-car salesman from Scranton, Pennsylvania, “is like us, not too slick,” Jarding said.
“This guy can light up a room full of working folks,” he said.