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Obama’s Big Gift to Joe Biden

He had a mixed record as senator, but the vice presidency transformed his political legacy.

The White House / Getty Images

Last week was a near perfect encapsulation of the venerable American institution that is Joe Biden. We saw the bighearted, plainspoken statesman; the emotional, avuncular politician; and the cringe-inducing guy who sometimes overdoes it or just plain steps in it.

On Wednesday, in Boston, the vice president pitched his “moonshot” to cure cancer to healthcare professionals, saying, “We’re on the cusp of enormous, enormous progress.”

On Thursday, in Nashua, New Hampshire, he brought his working-class appeal to the campaign trail for Hillary Clinton, tearing into Trump for questioning the legitimacy of America’s elections and cozying up to Russian President Vladimir Putin. He is so stupid that he doesn’t understand,” Biden said of the Republican nominee. “It’s possible he doesn’t understand the damage he’s doing.”

And, as is his wont, he said at least one thing he shouldn’t have said. “The press always ask me, ‘Don’t I wish I were debating him?,’” Biden said, railing against Trump again in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, on Friday. “No, I wish we were in high school—I could take him behind the gym.”

It’s been eight years since Barack Obama tapped Biden as his running mate—a mutually beneficial relationship, to be sure. The former Delaware senator has been an asset to the president more often than not, including as an invaluable congressional negotiator and conscience on LGBTQ rights. But as the pinnacle of Biden’s public life comes to an end, with his favorability soaring, it’s never been clearer that Obama gave him the biggest gift of his political career.

The vice presidency has transformed Biden in the national consciousness, ensuring he’ll be remembered as more than a longtime lawmaker with a penchant for loquaciousness and gaffes. In fact, those flaws have largely been recast as lovable quirks (endearing examples of Joe being Joe”), while Biden’s greatest attributes (loyalty and resilience, along with an authentic human connection to working people) are the hallmarks of his tenure.

“I think it’s greatly enhanced his long-term reputation and legacy,” said veteran political journalist Jules Witcover, author of Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption. “He came into the vice presidency widely known as a guy who talked too much and was a loose cannon.”

Witcover said Biden gained more stature as “the most visible vice president ever” and a close confidante to Obama. He agreed to serve on the explicit condition that the president consult him on every major decision, and their relationship evolved into a genuine governing partnership as well as a strong friendship.

Biden has come a long way since 2008. He ran for president himself in that year’s Democratic primary, but dropped out the night of the Iowa caucuses after winning less than one percent of the vote. It was his second failed bid for the White House after a plagiarism scandal felled his promising 1988 campaign. (His wife, Jill, saw this first loss as a blessing in disguise, saying that leaving the race what allowed him to survive an aneurysm that nearly took his life, according to his memoir.)

In 2008, there was a different kind of silver lining, as recounted in John Heilemann and Mark Halperin’s Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime. The primary elevated Biden’s stature on the national stage, and his connection with the working class impressed Obama, with whom he hadn’t been close in the Senate. After assuming he’d run his last national campaign, Biden was back in the fray by August, bounding eagerly on stage outside the Old State Capitol in Springfield, Illinois, as Obama welcomed him to his ticket with Bruce Springsteen’s “The Rising” blaring.

It’s fitting that his music cue that day was a working class troubadour’s tribute to a firefighter on 9/11. “Ever since he lost his first wife and daughter in a 1972 car crash, in which his two sons were pulled from the wreckage, Biden has felt a bond with emergency responders,” The Washington Post reported last week. “Had he run against Clinton in the Democratic primaries [for president in 2016], the national firefighters union planned to endorse him.”

The firefighter bond is the perfect representation of Biden’s virtues. First, it’s about loyalty—the same fierce loyalty he’s showed Obama. Second, it’s about strength in the face of tragedy; visiting firehouses is “partly therapeutic,” the Post reported, “particularly after Biden’s eldest son, Beau, died last year from cancer.” And finally, it’s about the vice president’s unique connection with the white working class—a political constituency Democrats increasingly are losing to the likes of Donald Trump, but which, Biden argues, the left shouldn’t abandon. The Post’s Paul Kane summarizes his case thus:

On policy, the Democrats have relied too heavily on Ivy League advisers who can’t relate to poor and working-class white communities, even when their economic ideas are beneficial to those voters. Too many of those leaders can’t connect with the everyday lives of the middle class, Biden said. Politically, the party relies on demographic analysts and turnout experts driving up votes from niche groups of minorities, women and young voters.

Valuable as Biden’s insights may be, they didn’t ultimately lead him to make a third run for the presidency this year. Slate’s Jamelle Bouie and New York’s Rebecca Traister demonstrated how a third run could have tarnished his legacy, reviving his history, in Bouie’s words, as “the Democratic face of the drug war” and his mixed record on women’s issues. “He is admired by feminists for his great achievement, the Violence Against Women Act,” Traister wrote last August, “but his votes for the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban and for the Hyde Amendment—including versions with no exceptions for rape or incest—earn him wretched marks on reproductive rights and economic equality. Also, he is a documented creepy toucher.”

Biden’s decision to opt out of 2016 means this history is unlikely to be revisited by the public. Even historians are likely to see it as subordinate to the progressive role he played in the White House.

Molly Redden reviewed Biden’s first-term accomplishments for The New Republic in 2013. Most famously, he endorsed marriage equality, forcing the president to do the same. But he also kept waste and fraud out of the stimulus and then led its implementation, served as a useful liaison to moderate Republicans in the Senate, was a critical negotiator in passing the START treaty with Russia, resolved the “fiscal cliff” budget talks of 2012, and secured a series of other congressional deals.

In his second term, Biden marked the reauthorization of his Violence Against Women Act in 2014 by co-chairing a new White House Task Force to Protect Students From Sexual Assault. In July of this year, the Post called that effortone of the Obama administration’s most ardent policy initiatives,” which has “dramatically transformed the way colleges and universities respond to allegations of sexual misconduct”:

The Education Department has 253 ongoing investigations at 198 postsecondary institutions into the handling of sexual violence. Hundreds of schools have taken steps to make it easier to report allegations and discipline offenders. Many schools have appointed a specific officer to receive complaints and have determined that a “preponderance of evidence” is enough to establish that misconduct occurred, a less rigorous evidentiary standard than the “beyond a reasonable doubt” that applies in most criminal cases.

For many Americans, though, Biden’s most lasting legacy may be more personal than political. In the wake of Beau’s death last year—an unspeakable loss for a man who’d already lost a wife and a daughter in a 1972 car crash—the vice president was a model of grace through grief.

It called to mind perhaps the most affecting speech of his career, a May 2012 address to the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) Seminar in Arlington, Virginia, where he used his own life story to comfort grieving military families.

“There will come a day,” Biden said, “when the thought of your son or daughter—or your husband or wife—brings a smile to your lips before it brings a tear to your eye. It will happen. My prayer for you is that day will come sooner or later, but the only thing I have more experience than you in is this: I’m telling you it will come.”

That was the vice president at his most extraordinary, exhibiting equal parts resilience, caring, and hard-earned wisdom—qualities that redeem him whatever his other shortcomings may be.

“Joe, you are my brother,” Obama said in a beautiful eulogy for Beau last year. “And I’m grateful every day that you’ve got such a big heart, and a big soul, and those broad shoulders. I couldn’t admire you more.”

Biden isn’t a world-historical figure like Obama. But two terms as vice president have confirmed the essential goodness, if not greatness, of this man. As a senator, he famously commuted from Delaware to Washington to be home with his kids after they lost their mom. As vice president, he’s trying to turn tragedy into triumph by fighting the disease that took his eldest son. He’s nothing if not a testament to his own father’s mantra: “Champ, the measure of a man is not how often he is knocked down, but how quickly he gets up.”

Almost a full decade ago, appearing on Meet the Press, Biden announced what turned out to be his final White House run by saying, “I’m going to be Joe Biden, and I’m going to try to be the best Biden I can be.” That’s exactly what he’s been as vice president, and his legacy—and the nation—are better off for it.