Euro-Reactions to Joe Biden

It looks like the Obama presidential campaign finally sent out its promised and long-awaited SMS message announcing its choice of Joe Biden for vice-presidential nominee at that storied hour of 3:00 AM on Saturday. While that meant that all but the most obsessive American politics-junkies would have to wake up to learn of the news, over here in most of Europe (on Central European Time) it was already 9:00 in the morning and we were getting impatient over our coffee and breakfast for the Word. (Admittedly, a couple of hours previously outlets like the BBC World Service were already passing along the likelihood that it would be Biden, based upon key clues – such as the departure of an Obama campaign jet from Chicago’s Midway Airport headed for Delaware – tracked down by the American press.)

Now that Word has come, together with a presentation to the public of the combined ticket at a gala event in Obama’s political hometown, Springfield, Illinois. And while the McCain has already come forward with its response, so have commentators in the European press.

Starting with the continent’s heavyweight, Germany: When surveying the Teutonic headlines, one’s eye is irresistably drawn to the contribution by Christoph von Marschall in Der Tagesspiegel: Hillary in Drag. “In the end Barack Obama chose Hillary Clinton as Vice-President after all,” he writes, and if you can’t see that, at least you were able to hear it Saturday in Springfield. Like Hillary, who according to Von Marschall always considers “the annihilating attack” (Vernichtungsangriff) as the best form of defense, there on the stage with Obama Joe Biden was already showing his zeal for the political assault. He’s also more credible when he does go after John McCain, Von Marschall asserts, precisely because they are known to be good friends in the Senate and share the same elderly white hair. Crucially, Biden’s ability and willingness to function as attack-dog leaves Obama free to stay somewhat above the fray and nurture his image as a conciliator and bridge-builder. (Should he win, this could prove useful once it is time to reach across the aisle to work with Republicans in Congress to pass legislation.) Von Marschall even betrays that endless German fascination with the Wild West – much more durable even than Americans’ interest in this part of their common history, by the way – when he claims that Biden reminds him of Lex Barker (“who?”), the film actor famous for playing figures like “Old Shatterhand” in movie westerns, and so can inspire confidence from the American electorate in a manly approach to foreign policy. Oh, and both he (Biden, not Old Shatterhand) and Hillary come from working-class Scranton, PA – or at least Hillary’s father did.

The editors of the Financial Times Deutschland also express approval of Obama’s choice in their editorial Joe Biden – Yes, We Want. (Strangely, they seem to misspell Biden’s first name as “Jo” in their headline! Then again, in German that word is pronounced [yo]. Could it be they were giving the vice-presidential candidate a brotherly salute? “Yo Biden! Whassup, bro?” Nah . . .) Here, the writers dwell on dissimilarities rather than similarities – the dissimilarities between the two Democratic candidates, of course. They go so far as to write of the Spagat that Obama is daring to attempt in his quest to win the presidency – a word which I didn’t know previously, and which in German means “the splits” as in “doing the splits”! Interesting, huh?

Splits Personalities

Yes, in his choice of Biden Obama is attempting “the splits” because the two are just so different. There’s black-vs.-white of course but, more to the point, Biden is very “old Washington,” old and familiar, where Obama is quite “new Washington” and unfamiliar. But lately it has been precisely this newness and unfamiliarity which has been Obama’s problem, and which seemingly has enabled the McCain camp to gain ground in the opinion polls through its ad hominem ads about “The One” and “Messiah,” guest-starring Charlton Heston, Paris Hilton, and Britney Spears. And Biden adds considerable value with two other differences: from his personal history and frugal persona, he is someone much easier for the “Joe Sixpack” average American voter to comprehend, and accept and – seemingly in contradiction! – his foreign policy smarts and worldly experience are just what the doctor ordered in these days of international peril, e.g. of a newly-aggressive Russia, not to mention all the other foreign wars and messes that someone will have to come along and clean up. One downside is that Joe Biden is so much a long-standing creature of Washington, DC that the Obama campaign’s anti-Washington message is not so viable anymore, but that Obama picked him anyway the FTD editors see simply as an encouraging sign that Obama is transforming himself into enough of a Realpolitiker to show that he is serious about winning this election. (And naturally they want to see him win; everyone over here wants to see him win.)

It’s clear that Christian Wernicke of the Süddeutsche Zeitung also would like to see Obama win the presidency – but Heaven help us if the McCain campaign ever gets wise and sends someone who knows German to go read the very first paragraphs of his piece on Joe Biden (The Man for the Rough Stuff). Talk about Messiah material! Describing Obama as he sat listening on that podium Saturday at the Illinois Statehouse in Springfield, Wernicke writes:

Finally someone else has to sweat. The Master savors it. . . . For one moment he even closes his eyes, puts his hand on his hip and turns his face to the afternoon sun. . . . He softly laughs and looks down at the rowdy crowd and at the blue-white posters, where from now on more than just his name stands: “Obama – Biden.” It is done, and he is well pleased.

Whew . . . the copywriter for one of the McCain campaign’s Paris Hilton ads could not have expressed it better. But anyway . . . Biden! Yes of course, Biden: that was the figure in front of Obama at the microphone on Saturday, busy displaying his attack-dog talents by laying into his good Senate friend John McCain about his “same-old” policies and his uncountable houses. Unfortunately, he also managed to display the trait the Obama campaign must be nervous about – his unkontrolliertes Mundwerk, or “uncontrolled mouthworks” – when he barely managed to stifle himself from introducing his senior partner on the Democratic ticket to the crowd as “Barack America.” Wernicke otherwise does a thorough job in this article of going through Biden’s personal history and history in the Senate, which indeed does go all the way back to the Nixon administration (and includes a vote in favor of the Iraq War resolution). Indeed, as he notes, he is old enough to be Obama’s father – and has anyone in the American press yet mentioned, as Wernicke does, that his middle name is “Robinette”? Inevitably, Wernicke picks up on what will clearly be the division-of-labor in the Democratic presidential campaign all the way to Election Day when he calls Obama Der Erneuerer (“the Renewer”) whereas Biden is, as in his article’s title, Der Mann fürs Grobe (“the Man for the Rough Stuff”).

Some Disappointment

For a change-of-pace, we see over at the Frankfurter Rundschau, that Dietmar Ostermann (Solid, Loyal, Boring) is considerably less impressed with Obama’s choice. “A sensation would have been Hillary Clinton or Al Gore,” he writes, but “Biden is of smaller caliber,” solid, but not the type to really inspire great enthusiasm. Obama is now struggling to recover from a series of electoral mistakes – including vacationing while the Russian-Georgian dust-up called for an engaged candidate – and it is mainly to himself that he will have to look to dig himself out of that hole at the Democratic convention.

Over in the Netherlands, one journalist who is already in-place in Denver (Bas den Hond of the daily Trouw) poses a question about Joe Biden that reflects a confusion that often affects observers of US presidential elections, foreign and domestic alike: Can he be Obama’s running-mate after he earlier said that Obama was “not quite ready” for the presidency? Yes he can, seems to be the answer, as Den Hond develops in his article (Joe Biden can make you forget Hillary Clinton). He can, because of his public statements to the crowd last Saturday in Springfield. Over the course of the presidential campaign, he said, he had had the chance to truly get to know Barack Obama, and had found him to be someone with “a good sense of judgment, intelligence and . . . steel in his backbone.” Still, as Den Hond cautions, the McCain campaign is already doing its best to use Hillary’s non-selection as the vice-presidential candidate to split her supporters from Obama. Both Biden and Obama still have their work cut out to make the entire party finally put Hillary behind them and unify behind the campaign.

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