In 2007, the economy was humming along in the sixth year of an expansion, with unemployment and inflation pleasantly low. But America was mired in two major wars, Osama bin Laden was at large, and the threat of terrorism hung like a thunderhead over the nation. All this gave Joe Biden the idea that the climate was perfect for him to run for president.
He had been chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He had pushed to end the Balkan wars. He had a partition plan to bring peace to Iraq. He could talk about international problems as long as anyone would listen, and then some.
Noting the oft-heard suggestion that he’d make a good secretary of state, Biden urged audiences to ponder his qualifications. “If you’re not capable of being secretary of state,” he asked pointedly, “are you capable of being president in 2008?”
What he didn’t have to say is that no one would have considered rivals Barack Obama and John Edwards for the world’s most important diplomatic job. Even Hillary Clinton’s credentials were inferior to Biden’s. His argument rested on the assumption that for voters in 2008, national security and foreign policy were of overriding importance.
But they weren’t. Democrats nominated Obama, despite his inexperience in global affairs. By the time the election arrived, the economy was in the throes of a severe recession. Americans were too busy worrying about losing their jobs and homes to worry much about terrorists. John McCain, with his prodigious knowledge of foreign relations, lost to Obama, and it wasn’t close.
The international environment doesn’t look much safer today. We are still at war in Afghanistan and Iraq, with the addition of Syria. Russia is expanding its nuclear arsenal and interfering in our elections.
Islamic State is fomenting terrorism around the world, and including a horrific April attack in Sri Lanka. North Korea is defiantly holding on to its nuclear weapons. Venezuela is on the brink of civil war.
But when Biden spoke at his first campaign rally in Pittsburgh Monday, this is what he had to say about the dangers from foreign enemies: nothing. He apparently has concluded that if Americans didn’t value foreign policy expertise in 2008, they never will.
At his rally, the guardian of national security and international order gave way to the champion of the American worker. Globe-trotting Joe was replaced with Lunch-bucket Joe, who wants to talk about labor unions, not the European Union. “The major moral obligation of our time,” he declared with convincing conviction, “is to restore, rebuild and respect the backbone of America, the middle class.”
The surprising thing is that the public apathy about our security challenges, which was fatal to Biden in 2008, is helping him today. Though the Great Recession is a decade behind us, the economic and psychological damage is not.
Millions of Americans got laid off from their jobs, lost their homes to foreclosure, saw their retirement savings shrink or took out big student loans that they strain to repay. Even during a period of unstoppable economic growth, the anxiety is never far below the surface. And the feeling that the super-rich have prospered at the expense of everyone else continues to simmer.
So far, that mood has worked to the advantage of Biden, who is unusually skilled at addressing economic anxiety. In the latest CNN poll, he has 39 percent support among Democratic and Democratic-leaning voters, compared to 15 percent for Bernie Sanders and single digits for everyone else. His favorability rating in this group is 81 percent.
Despite being an old white guy known for getting handsy, Biden is the first choice of both white women and black women. While his rivals may get diverted into defending voting rights for prison inmates, abolishing Immigrations and Customs Enforcement or racial reparations, he intends to put a tireless emphasis on matters that affect the mundane economic fortunes of ordinary people.
That makes sense. In the latest Pew Research Center survey, more Americans named the economy as their main priority than any other issue. Terrorism was fourth in the rankings, after health care costs and education.
Other Democratic contenders can address economic issues with fluency and fervor, notably Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar. But when they do, they are playing into Biden’s strength.
There is always the chance, of course, that between now and Election Day, unforeseen events will turn voter attention to urgent foreign concerns. If that happens, well, Biden will be ready.