Four days after President Barack Obama’s second inauguration, New York Times national correspondent Mark Leibovich (1/25/13) made a rare foray into the paper’s “Style” section to pinpoint the political zeitgeist. Our national mood, Leibovich argued, emanates not from inequality, corruption or war, but “the earthy core of Joseph Robinette Biden Jr.”
Citing the Onion’s famous caricature and his own perfunctory campaign coverage, Leibovich wrote, “In a few short months, the motor-tongued, muscle-car-loving heartbeat-away hell raiser has been transformed from gaffe-prone amusement to someone whose star shines as brightly as his teeth.” Joe Biden’s moment had arrived.
The evidence abounds. From viral videos, SNL spoofs and a cameo on NBC’s Parks and Recreation, to the raw ecstasy of Al Roker when he snagged a handshake along the inauguration parade route (NBC News, 1/21/13), Biden carries a considerable cultural cache for a 70-year-old Washington insider. Add to this pop-culture affection a series of political victories and coy hints of a 2016 presidential run, and the commentating class is swooning almost as much as Leslie Knope.
“We should have a place where he just gets to stay in Washington permanently,” joked Morning Joe contributor Jon Meacham (MSNBC, 1/30/13). “A natural back slapper,” complimented CNN’s Gloria Borger (1/21/13), asking Biden if he was the “only one who can cut deals with Republicans now.” Candy Crowley (CNN, 1/6/13) raved, “He flew in there like Superman, it was dark and we were going to go over the fiscal cliff, and he and Senator McConnell saved the day.” The on-screen caption read, “Joe Biden’s Greatest Hits.”
Even more critically minded journalists can’t seem to break the spell. On his weekend morning show, MSNBC’s Chris Hayes (MSNBC, 1/20/13) called Biden “quintessentially next-door neighbor material”—though exactly which neighborhood was left unnamed. Hayes’ panel of former White House staffers and a Democratic governor heartily agreed.
From where does this consensus emerge? The Times’ Leibovich suggested that Biden embraces what Vice President Hubert Humphrey called “The Politics of Joy.” With trust in public officials at a nadir, Leibovich contended, “Mr. Biden is the one major Washington figure who consistently evokes a sense of thrill in what he is doing.” This is important to Leibovich; in a 2012 campaign piece in the New York Times Magazine (8/29/12), he complained, “What’s been completely missing this year has been, for lack of a better word, joy,” and suggested that Obama and Mitt Romney might go on a picnic together to make up for it.
Leibovich’s “joy” thesis seems plausible only for those Beltway journalists who care more for political machinations than what’s actually being done. Biden loves the “process,” the bread and butter of the pundit’s trade, while Obama appears aloof. “We saw once again during this crisis the president unable to speak to other human beings and having to call Joe Biden in and say ‘fix this for me,’” complained Joe Scarborough (MSNBC, 1/4/13) shortly after the “fiscal cliff” deal. Only the Moderate Technocrat—Mike Bloomberg, the “Fix the Debt” crew, etc.—wins more approval from the Sunday morning crowd than the Deal-Making Pragmatist.
Yet Biden’s popularity does appear to extend beyond these rarified circles. His wider appeal stems from what pollster Julia Clark (Reuters, 2/6/13) calls the perception of “folksiness,” a euphemism for working-class chops. “My mother and father dreamed as much as any rich guy dreams!” Biden (ABC, 5/16/12) thundered at a campaign rally last May. “They don’t get us! They don’t get who we are!”
Oddly, Biden here too finds media supporters. “I always say the populist stuff doesn’t work because it seems so phony, but Biden is telling the truth,” MSNBC’s Scarborough (5/17/12) opined. “It works with Biden because he’s a…working-class guy. He feels it and, by the way, you look at all these millionaires that run our country and you look at his taxes every year. He hasn’t cashed in.” (This last point is the subject of some contention; as the Times documented in 2008—10/1/08—Biden receives numerous perks from his home-state industries.)
That a figure like Scarborough, who advocates austerity to avert an entitlement-spurred “collapse” (Raw Story, 1/28/13), could embrace Biden’s “populism” should be some indication of how deep it actually runs. In reality, Biden’s record is anything but working class–friendly.
The 2005 Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act, for which Biden was a key legislative architect and a crucial Democratic proponent, is a case in point. Effectively destroying the consumer-oriented 1978 Bankruptcy Code, Biden and company enacted what Jonathan Chait (L.A. Times, 3/4/05) called “one of those abysmal pieces of legislation that exists only because businesses with a vested interest in it have lobbied hard for its passage.”
The provisions—jacked-up filing and attorney’s fees, quicker evictions, harsh “means testing” for bankruptcy and a lifetime of repayment—took direct aim at debt-burdened poor, working- and middle-class people who had for decades been offered easy credit to mitigate stagnating wages and rising health and education costs. Meanwhile, millionaires and corporations declaring bankruptcy could now shield an unlimited amount of equity in an “asset protection trust.” When other senators proposed various amendments to limit the bill’s most noxious components, Biden blocked their efforts (Washington Post, 3/3/05).
Writing at the time for Salon (3/10/05), Arianna Huffington called it a bill “so hostile to ordinary American families that it could only have come about in a place as corrupt, cynical and unmoored from reality as Washington, D.C.” By contrast, recent articles on Biden in the Huffington Post include “Joe Biden Wears Glasses?” (2/12/13) and “What Did Biden Whisper to Boehner?” (2/12/13).
Then there’s the 1994 Violent Crime and Law Enforcement Act, which Biden has boasted of in recent gun-control discussions. The “Biden Bill” allocated $9.9 billion for new prison construction, designated 50 new federal offenses, including gang membership, and expanded the death penalty. “Some believe it broke ground for the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996,” wrote Jim Ridgeway in The Contenders (2008), “the sweeping post–Oklahoma City legislation...which in turn paved the way for the USA PATRIOT Act of 2001.”
While employment in the prison-industrial complex may benefit some of those blue-collar whites that Leibovich calls Biden’s “political sweet zone” (New York Times, 3/15/12), its rise has coincided with—and helped facilitate—deindustrialization and social apartheid (Lockdown America, 1999). Biden, incidentally, also voted for NAFTA.
As one might expect for a six-term senator during America’s neoliberal turn and imperial extension, this only skims the surface. As Alexander Cockburn wrote in Counterpunch (8/23–25/08) after Biden’s selection for the vice presidency, “Find any bill that sticks it to the ordinary folk on behalf of the Money Power and you’ll likely detect Biden’s hand at work.” Yet these ignominies are rarely if ever raised in corporate media to challenge, or at least complicate, Biden’s purported “folksiness.” Criticism comes of “gaffes,” not intentional policy.
For the corporate press, populism is purely aesthetic, a quality judged on the desire of voters to share a meal with a politician and not on whether their policies help voters to afford one. Actual measures for broad-based economic empowerment or redistribution are cast aside as extremist, divisive or absurd. And so long as journalists ask tough-minded questions like “Would the Onion put a shirtless John Kerry washing a Trans Am in the driveway of the State Department?” (New York Times, 1/25/13), it’s likely to remain that way.
Andrew Bard Epstein is an editorial intern at the Nation and a former organizer with Freedom University in Georgia.