Obama’s Biden Problem

Despite our high expectations, Vice President Joe Biden’s first months in office were disappointing. This, remember, is the man who opened the more recent of his two futile runs for the presidency by saying of Obama that he was “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy. I mean, that’s a storybook, man.”

Yes, that Joe Biden. The one who hollered at wheel-bound Missouri State Sen. Chuck Graham, to “stand up.” The one who plagiarized a speech by Neil Kinnock. In other words a man who has flung himself into one rhetorical pratfall after another with the unswerving momentum of a blind rhino.

But then, as Biden and his wife Jill ensconced themselves  in  the Vice President’s official residence at the Naval Observatory in northwest  Washington, came a phase of decorum, irksome to those wagering that the former senator from Delaware is  incapable of keeping  his foot out of his  mouth. There were those who said sadly, “Joe just isn’t Joe any more.”

They were wrong.

Appropriately, it was on the topic of Israel that, as vice president, Biden first tossed aside unmanly prudence. Even given the zeal of almost every member of the US Congress to satisfy the Israel lobby, Biden  has always been conspicuous for his slavish posture towards the Holy State. Accepting Obama’s offer of the vice presidential nomination last summer, he announced emphatically that he would not have considered accepting the invitation if he had entertained the slightest suspicion that Obama was not one hundred per cent in Israel’s corner. In fact the Israel lobby did entertain these unworthy suspicions, which is why it pushed strongly for Biden as veep.

It wasn’t far into Obama’s first months in the White House that the Lobby began to feel that even though Obama’s chief of staff is Rahm  Emanuel, their suspicions were justified. The president dared to mention in public the right of Palestinians to some form of state. He said the settlements on the West Bank had to stop. (True, he didn’t say anything categorical about actually existing illegal settlements.) He seemed too eager to parley with Iran, too demure on the topic of its nuclear program.

On July 5 George Stephanopoulos interviewed Biden in Baghdad  for his Sunday morning talk show on the ABC network  and promptly put the question: “if the Israelis decide Iran is an existential threat,[and] they have to take out the nuclear program militarily, the United States will not stand in the way?”

Biden lunged for the driver’s wheel and swerved US government policy in a whole new direction: “We cannot dictate to another sovereign nation what they can and cannot do when they make a determination, if they make a determination that they’re existentially threatened and their survival is threatened by another country.”

The White House spent the next two days categorically denying that it was giving – via Biden – Israel the go-ahead to make a unilateral attack on Iran. The United States is “absolutely not” flashing Israel a green light to attack Iran, U.S. President Barack Obama told CNN in Moscow on July 7. “We have said directly to the Israelis that it is important to try and resolve this in an international setting in a way that does not create major conflict in the Middle East.”

Then, in the same Stephanopoulos interview, Biden sucker-punched Obama again, addressing the failure of  Obama’s stimulus program to halt the surge in unemployment and prompt recovery, a failure has the president tumbling in the polls.

In devising this program, Biden confided to Stephanopoulos, the Obama administration had “misread” the extent of the economic catastrophe it inherited.

“The truth is, we and everyone else misread the economy. The figures we worked off of in January were the consensus figures and most of the blue chip indexes out there.”

As Obama made haste to controvert his vice president, Biden fans, lolling on their Sunday-morning couches jumped up and punched high-fives to the heavens. Joe was back, more brazen than ever in his traditional blend of mendacious self-justification. His claim that in late January “we and everyone else” misread the economy was complete nonsense.  Our CounterPunch site ran piece after piece by left economists denouncing the stimulus package as way too small and that the White House was squandering irretrievable amounts of political capital and liberal economists like Joe Stiglitz and Paul Krugman  did the same.  The “realists” argued that it was hard enough to get Obama’s package through Congress. But if the package brokered with the Blue Dog Democrats and Repblicans like Snowe was going to fail, why lash yourself to the mast of a ship heading for the rocks, which what has happened. In stricken Ohio Obama’s approval ratings have dropped into the thirties, according to one major poll.

So why did Biden embarrass his boss internationally and then then rub his nose in a catastrophic economic misjudgement? The nose-rubbing isn’t so hard to explain. Biden  is a notorious flapjaw. He can always talk his way into a fix. He’s spent his political life doing it. Much of the time it’s an effort to assert that whatever the screw-up, it wasn’t his fault. Maybe he was trying to hint that “we and every one else” actually meant, Everyone else, aside from me.

As for Biden crossing Obama regarding Israel and Iran, vice presidents are not supposed to contradict presidential policy. But Biden’s genuflections to the Lobby are so ingrained, he simply can’t help himself. In his mind he’s already campaigning for the nomination in 2012 and wants to make sure the Lobby knows he’s still on board.

Obama surely must be thinking – Where is Dick Cheney, now that I need him?  As Bush’s veep, Cheney gave his boss the limelight, kept his mouth shut for eight years. Everyone said he was really the man running the country.

No one thinks Biden is running the country, and maybe this is the core of Obama’s Biden problem. Almost all politicians are narcissists, and Biden, more than most, is narcissistically vulnerable. It’s why he has so often got into trouble for lying about his achievements. It’s why, as a senator, he couldn’t stop talking . Who can forget his amazing performance in the nomination hearings that confirmed Samuel Alito to the high bench. Biden kicked off the hearings with a  disjointed, 30-minute essay in self-promotion, as fellow senator Leahy of Vermont sank his head in his hands. All hopes of the Senate Judiciary Committee roughing up Alito shriveled and died.  Without Biden, Sotomayor’s hearings will probably move along at a rapid clip.

The vice presidential slot is not calculated to make a narcissist happy, least of all Biden who has been given nothing much to do except scan Obama’s face at eagerly for signs of ill-health and preside over  commissions like “The Middle Class Task Force”.  He dwells in another’s shadow. Shrinks say that those suffering from narcissistic rage yearn, as Heinz Kohut once wrote,  “to turn a passive experience into an active one.” If this is true, then Obama can look forward to plenty of strenuous exercise hauling the vice president’s foot out of his mouth.  Obama’s honeymoon phase is dwindling to a close.  Biden will be there to signal the wrong turns and say that they weren’t his fault.  Obama would be well advised to send his vice president on secret peace missions to Afghanistan and hope that the first warlord Biden starts haranguing will saw his head off just to stop him talking.

And Talking of Shrinks…

In her brilliant expose in our latest CounterPunch newsletter Eugenia Tsao highlights the corrupt ties between the big  pharmaceutical companies and the American Psychiatric Association, now preparing to release later this year  a draft of its fifth revision of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, designed to persuade people that if they’re depressed or out of sorts or borderline nuts it’s not because they have three jobs and are shackled by debt, but because they have an individual, biomedical condition that can be salved by buying Prozac or some kindred product.

It’s a great piece of work by Tsao.

So is Yonatan Preminger’s report from Tel Aviv on Israel’s cynical game with migrant laborers from Thailand and the Philippines. Along with Tsao and Preminger’s important stories we are running an update of Andrew Cockburn’s exclusive report on how the US has helped Pakistan develop and maontain its nuclear arsenal.

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A shorter version of the first item appears in The First Post.

ALEXANDER COCKBURN can be reached at alexandercockburn@asis.com.










Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined!, A Colossal Wreck and An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents are available from CounterPunch.