CloseReading: Are Joe Biden’s “Gaffes” Accidental? Or Brilliant?

Who’s the fool? Joe Biden—or us? I say us.

As you probably know, the other day, Vice President Biden got in a bit of trouble—again. Speaking to an audience in southern Virginia that included hundreds of blacks, he said:

Look at what they [Republicans] value, and look at their budget. And look what they’re proposing. [Romney] said in the first 100 days, he’s going to let the big banks write their own rules — unchain Wall Street.

And then came the punch line…

“They’re going to put y’all back in chains.”

The reaction was immediate—and huge. Biden’s oopsies are as popular as Dan Quayle’s two decades earlier. The media (including the influential Jon Stewart) had a field day with this remark, in part because any kind of perceived misstatement by a famous person tends to get a rise out of the public and is a sort of welcome, effortless freebie.

With the vice president’s latest, reactions varied. Some treated it as yet another gaffe by a famously gaffe-prone vice president. Others saw it as a deliberate if crude effort by Biden to fight his way back into the public eye just when the media was focusing all attention on his “opponent,” Romney’s newly announced running mate, Paul Ryan.

The GOP, including Sarah Palin as well as reliably supportive Fox News, however, tried to blame it on the Obama administration.

Here’s Mitt Romney: “The White House sinks a little bit lower,” he said. “This is what an angry and desperate presidency looks like.”

Democrats and their own media allies attacked the Republicans for trying to make something out of it, and for trying to tie it to Obama.

But Obama did not actually disassociate himself from the remarks. He insisted the racial angle was accidental—and the comments legitimate. In an interview with (appropriately enough) the program “Entertainment Tonight,” the president said:

“We don’t spend a lot of time worrying about the chatter and the noise and this and that. The country isn’t as divided with gaffes or some stray remark as Washington is. Most folks know that’s just sort of a WWF wrestling part of politics. It doesn’t mean anything, just fills up a lot of air time.”

And he explained in another interview (again, appropriately enough) with People magazine, that Biden was talking strictly about how consumers would suffer under GOP administration.

In no sense was he trying to connote something other than that.


All this makes me wonder if something else is not going on. It makes me wonder if these remarks were intended to have the exact effect they did.

Let me explain.

There is no question that Joseph Biden has a long history of putting his foot in his mouth. But the mere expectation that everything he says is accidental or ill-conceived also puts him in a good position to put out material that actually helps Obama. And it is not as if Biden is completely incapable of memorizing his lines—or at least reading them off a teleprompter.

Maybe these most recent remarks were mistakes. But mistakes tend to come in debates, in response to questions, not in prepared speeches. And these seem to have been prepared remarks, a carefully calculated effort, as with all good speeches, to  create some theatre—and to include at least one “hot” phrase that will get picked up by the electronic media. There is simply no point to having Biden speak to a live audience without considering how to multiply the ultimate audience by a factor of thousands.  And no point to having him speak at all unless he has some zinger that will appeal to news producers and headline writers.

Role of Vice Presidents

Obama would not be the first president to use his #2 to lob incendiary devices he could never handle himself—what with concerns about presidential dignity. Richard Nixon famously used Spiro Agnew to play to his base with relentless attacks on leftists, the media, and other perceived enemies. George H.W. Bush had Quayle play a similar role, and so, to varying extents, have almost all presidents.

Here are a few from Agnew, a crude man lent elegance by speechwriters, notably William Safire:

-“A spirit of national masochism prevails, encouraged by an effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals.”

-“In the United States today, we have more than our share of the nattering nabobs of negativism.”

-“Some newspapers are fit only to line the bottom of bird cages.”

-“Yippies, Hippies, Yahoos, Black Panthers, lions and tigers alike — I would swap the whole damn zoo for the kind of young Americans I saw in Vietnam.”


Now, let’s consider the impact and benefit of Biden’s issuing purportedly unauthorized statements that supposedly create problems for his boss. His role in another recent controversy is instructive.

Barack Obama has alienated a number of his core constituencies by behaving differently as president than he had as a presidential candidate. Perhaps none was more important than the gay vote. Wealthy gays are a hugely vital part of the democratic constituency, and many important gay donors had been withholding their support because of Obama’s reticence to publicly endorse gay marriage rights.

When North Carolina, an important swing state, had its ballot measure on marriage equality in May, Obama remained silent. Big gay donors were none too happy—and the funds were drying up.

Then, two days before the North Carolina vote, Biden went on the program “Meet the Press” and declared that he was “absolutely comfortable” with same-sex marriage. Members of the media, such as Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank, reacted quickly, declaring that, by appearing to contradict his boss, Biden had created a “mess” for Obama.

Some mess. Biden’s comment came just two days before North Carolinians voted by a 61%-39% margin to ban gay marriage.  Because it was Biden, and adjudged an “unauthorized” comment and a gaffe, the White House did not have take any flack from black voters in North Carolina, many of whom supported the ban. North Carolina, like Virginia, where Biden delivered his most recent alleged goof, are crucial swing states with sizable black populations. North Carolina is especially delicate because it is also the site of the Democratic convention where Obama will be renominated.

And what was the upshot?

Almost immediately after the North Carolina vote was in, Obama switched his position, offering a more modest version of Biden’s, following in the veep’s tail wind, and facing little of the criticism he might have faced had he been out front on the matter.

Obama ended up satisfying his gay donors…on Wednesday morning. And the story was put out that Obama’s hand had been forced by Biden…but also that the president had been undergoing a gradual metamorphosis himself on the issue. The media, of course, totally bought it. As the New York Times wrote:

Before President Obama left the White House on Tuesday morning to fly to an event in Albany, several aides intercepted him in the Oval Office. Within minutes it was decided: the president would endorse same-sex marriage on Wednesday, completing a wrenching personal transformation on the issue.

Within minutes, the floodgates began opening. As the Los Angeles Times reported:

“Today has focused attention and enthusiasm in an almost cathartic way,” said Andrew Tobias, treasurer of the Democratic National Committee and a top bundler for Obama. “Within minutes, people were calling with their credit cards. They’re thrilled.”

One donor pledged $10,000 and decided at the last minute to fly with his partner from Los Angeles to attend an Obama fundraiser in New York on Monday headlined by the singer Ricky Martin, Tobias said.


“I think for people who were holding back, who were disappointed in the president’s position, that this would remove a barrier,” said Jeff Soref, an Obama fundraiser and a former chairman of the LGBT caucus at the DNC. He raised about $120,000 for Obama for an event in New York last year.

“There were people who thought this position on marriage equality was a litmus test and they were either holding back, or were very modest in their contributions,” Soref said. “It’s silly to pretend that it didn’t make a difference to people. I think it did…. People weren’t clear where the president stood. Now they are.”

Obama’s decision is likely to trigger major demand for tickets to a June 6 fundraising LGBT gala in Los Angeles featuring the singer Pink….

And then a quiet effort began to convince black voters, many of them religious and socially conservative, that gay marriage had to be considered a right just as those for which blacks fought so long.

It’s a win-win. With these two incidents, Biden first satisfies the gay constituency and brings in the money, then he alerts the African-American populace that, even if it isn’t sufficiently exercised or enthusiastic about Obama at this point, the alternative is far worse. The “chains” metaphor isn’t really inapt when one considers the tremendous burden placed on working class Americans by the financial institutions whose behavior causes so much duress and grief. And by invoking language that has powerful emotional resonance with a particular audience, he pushes exactly the right buttons with Obama’s core. This is exactly the kind of memorable thing that makes people come out to vote.

And there’s probably little down side. It’s unlikely that many swing voters will tilt to Romney because of what Biden said.

Using Biden in this fashion shows just how smart and effective at p.r. and spin the Obama team is. It’s the new, improved Democrats, having learned more than a few lessons since the days when the Reagan team ruled and the opposition cowered.

Thanks to these events, Obama and Biden now have enough money to compete, and if Biden can mobilize a strong black turnout in swing states—and most of the swing states have large black populations—they’re in.

The media either doesn’t get how this works, or is reticent to spell it out. Either way, the latest Biden BooBoo is yet another example of how the public is the last to understand what is going on—and how it continues responding, on cue, to manipulation…not substance.

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  • Vivek Jain

    spot on analysis.

    Obama’s no champion of human rights.

    as reported in Mother Jones:

    After Obama’s announcement, Mother Jones’ David Corn spoke with an administration source and asked whether the president recognized gay marriage as a right. The official replied, “He has always said that it is a state issue, and he’s not suggesting changing that. He did not support the North Carolina amendment, but he’s not saying he will bring up a piece of federal legislation on gay marriage. This is how he feels himself about the issue, and he leaves it to the states.”

    As a friend of mine says, “What if Obama had said that about inter-racial marriage. ‘I support inter-racial marriages but I think it should be left to states.’ Would Obama loyalists call him a civil rights hero? Of course not.”

    • Dennis Bartholomew

      If you don’t like Obama, is Romney going to be better on gay rights? My understanding is that the Mormon establishment is hostile to gays.
      The gay community is small, 2 to 3% of the population, no politician will support that small a group if there’s a risk it would alienate a larger group.

      • Vivek Jain

        That’s just poor reasoning, Dennis.

        Obama and Romney are both servants of the super-rich. Obama was picked and promoted by the super-rich in 2008 because he was perceived as being a very effective executor of the plutocrats’ policies. They knew he would be able to continue the policies of Bush-Cheney, but without provoking the ire of the progressives, partisan Democrats, liberals. The establishment media, after all, would maintain the “conflict narrative” of the two parties and persuade the audience (the public) that they saw differences where non existed. The media would always portray Obama as the lesser of two evils, and this thinking would guarantee that many from the Left would not leave the folds of the
        Democratic Party, despite Obama’s clear allegiance to capitalist imperialism, neoliberalism, and authoritarianism.

        Obama supporters would gain some clarity about the POTUS by exercising skepticism and curiosity, and developing the habit of asking who it is that benefits from particular policies, why a certain proposal is being discussed at a particular time. Instead, loyalists often make claims about their guy that aren’t supported by the evidence or the record.
        Pointing out the gap between his policies and his rhetoric doesn’t mean that I support Romney or Ryan, just that I prefer to think critically rather than automatically accept the latest talking point from Team Obama.

        • Pelu Maad

          Well now that you’re impressed us all with your brilliance we STILL need a plan of action.

        • Mr. M

          A great comment – well done. The ‘response’ by Pelu is classic – “I don’t like smart factual comments that differ with the fake Red v. Blue Cage Match so I will resort to the language of contempt”.

    • Pelu Maad

      I’m accused of being an “Obama loyalist” all the time when in reality I’m just staunchly anti-RepubliKKKan…I get the feeling that “conservatives” like the easy racial affinity assumption because it saves them from having to listen to a black person.

  • Finbarr New

    As a dynamic duo, don’t forget Cheney and GWBush, the roles were reversed, but still

  • Dennis Bartholomew

    I had the same thought: some of BIden’s “gaffes” serve to make a point or statement that couldn’t be easily done otherwise.

  • Richard Aberdeen

    It would be refreshing if Obama could be less of a politician and more of a straight shooter like Biden. The reason Biden said the Republicans will put us back in chains is because, that is exactly what is true, they will put all of us back in the same chains we were in prior to the rise of unions and the modern Civil Rights Movement. Whether our skin is light or dark or somewhere inbetween is irrelevant to the obvious fact, that the Romney/Paul ticket is bound to set human rights significantly backward, as if a nation with a population less than 1/5 of China and and a half million more citizens locked in prisons, isn’t backward enough already.

    • Pelu Maad

      Biden’s NE urban bluntness seems to confuse the rest of the country. I’m really looking forward to his debate with wet-behind-the-ears Opie Ryan. It should be a public spanking. There are few people in government with Biden’s foreign policy qualifications and readiness to assume the presidency. In 63 years I’ve respected very few political figures, but Joe Biden is the man.

  • Marcus

    Sounds to me like the author of this article is clutching at straws. Do you honestly think these cretins are that smart? I don’t.

  • Devin Rice

    Careful, Russ. You sound like you’re entertaining some kind of *gasp* conspiracy theory!

  • Bruce

    DEM has learned that characterizing The OPPOSITION as those seeking to re-enslave the voters; rather than themselves, the true lipstick-up artists of Nope And CHAINS from 2008! Nevertheless, FUEHRERWARD!!

  • Bruce

    Ah, but can the Assassininnies ASSASSPIN their Obamanable ASSASSININITY?

  • John Sheridan

    And never forget Biden’s GREATEST attribute, being the best life insurance policy money alone could never buy. What radical, Left or Right, Foreign or Domestic, would do ANYTHING to put THAT a$$clown in charge of the economy, government or the nuclear football. The Narcissist in Chief truely believes he needs no VP, so the choice is likely based on on insurance value and Hiliary would never measure up in the ‘insurance’ catagory. Case Closed.

  • Edward Rynearson

    Dan Quayle?

  • Diane Noland

    If they are this smart, great. If it’s all accidental, great. Either way, I’m happy.

  • intalecshul

    “…Biden was talking strictly about how consumers would suffer under GOP administration.

    In no sense was he trying to connote something other than that.”

    Who goes before an African American audience in a historic plantation district, says the Repubs are gonna “put yall back in chains” and is unaware that he is not-so-subtly invoking the emotionally loaded issue of slavery?

    Combine this with the rampant agitprop campaign in black media (seeded by usual suspects, SPLC, NAACP, and actions of Obama/Holder) about a “neo-nazi resurgence” and “the militia’s comin’ to getcha” and “THEY lynched Trayvon” … To me (a black man), this is insultingly obvious racial pandering and provocateuring.

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