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Tramps Like Us

DENVER -- The 40-something politician pledged to wage a campaign rooted in his generation's "moment of obligation and opportunity."

He sought the presidency at a time when "discontent over the failure of our political system is rampant throughout our citizenry" and said that "it is in this gathering of discontent that my candidacy intends to find its voice." He promised to "rekindle the fire of idealism in our society."

But the 44-year-old Joe Biden who announced his candidacy for president with those words on June 9, 1987, would not reach the political mountaintop. Instead, it has fallen to a 65-year-old Biden to help a 47-year-old Barack Obama succeed in running the very campaign of generational change and idealistic promise that the Delaware senator outlined but could never carry through.

In selecting Biden, Obama has signaled clearly what this week's Democratic National Convention will be about: He intends to move aggressively to ease the problems that have worried so many Democrats in recent weeks -- problems, it turns out, Obama is worried about, too.

One of them concerns limits of Obama's appeal to the white working class. Biden's unveiling was one long ode to line workers, cops and firefighters, to hard work and struggling families, to shuttered steel mills and lost manufacturing jobs.

Obama has chosen as his running mate someone who said many years ago: "We wonder why it is that blue-collar workers, who come from a heritage that is the Democratic Party, began to leave it. It's because we really don't respect them." This week, respect will be theirs and attention will be paid.

Democrats worry that Obama has been insufficiently aggressive in going after John McCain, and insufficiently attentive to the imperative of linking McCain to George W. Bush.

In private as well as in public, Biden is genuinely angry over the effect of Bush's policies, and he demonstrated in his debut performance how eager he is to go on the attack against both the president and McCain.

There is nothing dainty in Biden's approach to politics. "He's a happy warrior, he loves the whole thing, but he'll punch you out," a Democrat who has known him for decades said on Saturday. There will be nothing dainty in how McCain and Bush are dealt with during this week's convention.

Another theme of the week, or so Obama's lieutenants fervently hope, will be reconciliation with the millions in the party who rallied to Hillary Clinton. The Biden choice may have salutary effects on this front that have gone largely unnoticed.

After Biden ended his own presidential candidacy in January, he declined to endorse either Obama or Clinton. Instead, as the two rivals battled on without him, Biden was regularly on the phone with both of them, he told me earlier this year, offering views and advice and sometimes just comfort. Each candidate knew he was talking to the other. Each trusted him.

Biden is thus a Clinton-friendly choice, even if not all her supporters will see it that way. One of the largest gaps between Obama and Clinton is her perception that he has not worked as hard as she has to master foreign policy. In Biden, Obama has an interlocutor whom Clinton respects.

Biden will also broaden the range of advice Obama is receiving. "Nobody has as many ties in the foreign policy establishment as Joe does," says a friend. These ties will now be Obama's.

By selecting someone more for his qualifications than his ability to deliver a contested state, Obama pushed back hard against the McCain campaign's efforts to paint him as someone who puts "party, politics and self-interest" above national security. The Biden choice is about governing, not just about winning an election.

This convention hopes to serve another goal, a paradoxical one, perhaps: to cast Obama as a figure who can fix a broken political system by reaching beyond and transcending party.

Biden will recognize this theme, too. In that presidential announcement speech 21 years ago, he charged that the nation's political debate had "become a great pantomime, where the standard of judgment is no longer real results, but the flickering image of seriousness, skillfully crafted to squeeze into a 30-second spot ... . Have a problem? We have an answer -- but rarely a solution."

This week's convention is Obama's, not Biden's. But by setting the agenda for the work that needs to be done here, Biden may yet achieve a goal he set for himself back in 1987. His hope, he said, was "to bend history just a little bit."

E.J. Dionne, Jr. is the author of the recently published Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics After the Religious Right. He is a Washington Post columnist, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a professor at Georgetown University.

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By E.J. Dionne, Jr.