DANVILLE, Ky. – Summoning a lifetime of passion, skill, knowledge, blarney and blindingly perfect teeth, Vice President Joe Biden last night managed to right the listing U.S.S. Barack Obama.
But Biden’s success at rallying the Democratic base managed to beg the puzzling question of whether, when and how the captain himself will show up with the kind of gusto and focus that Biden (and former President Bill Clinton) have shown in defending the administration and attacking its Republican foes.
Ryan and Biden helped clarify the key issues: taxes, Medicare, jobs, and irreconcilable visions of the roles of government and markets.
Carefully schooled if sometimes a little frantic, Biden managed in his 90-minute debate with Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) to tick off a long list of defense and attack points that the president himself had failed to mention in his first debate last week with Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
Smiling, smirking, and shaking his head –- doing everything but turning over the chairs –- the vice president dominated the debate, though not always in a good way. But his antic overreach was just what the Democratic base wanted as a corrective.
Ryan, admonished by handlers to keep his cool, matched Biden’s at times eerie grins (Can you believe this guy?) with the pitying stare of a young man indulging the eccentricities of the crank next door.
The two men, who interrupted each other and cross-talked with moderator Martha Raddatz, were seated at the same table but essentially speaking to two entirely different audiences: Biden to dispirited Democratic loyalists; Ryan to “soft” Democrats and independents who want to believe that Romney and Ryan are mainstream, sympathetic figures not in thrall to right-wing ideology.
Obama’s task now is to take Biden’s substantive game plan, cool it down a little, and hit Romney with it at Hofstra University next week. But the president also has to show what Biden showed –- sometimes to almost comic excess –- which is a genuine concern for the lives and labors of average working people in this country.
In that sense, Biden’s modest win on points last night is a challenge to the president.
All of the helpful cheerleading that the president has received from Clinton and now Biden can work two ways: it can instruct and inspire Obama; or it can make him look bad if he can’t connect the way he was able to on the campaign trail four years ago.
The president knew who he was then: the crusading outsider and a symbol of change. He has yet to figure out exactly who he is now as a campaigner, and next Tuesday is arguably his last chance.
Substantively, Obama aides after the debate said they thought that Biden had done well in four areas in particular: by attacking Romney-Ryan on the campaign's deliberately mysterious tax plan and on the “voucherizing” of Medicare; by highlighting differences between the parties on abortion rights; and by immediately going at Ryan for seeming to suggest that the answer in Afghanistan might involve sending more U.S. troops there, perhaps even after 2014.
He also made Ryan look like a hypocrite for seeking stimulus funds.
Romney advisor Russ Schrieffer conceded that Biden had enumerated his debate points, though he added that the veep's urgent style had hurt him. "He was trying to stuff ten pounds of argument into a five-pound bag," he said.
Ryan, a master of the woeful sound-bite put-down, was able to get in enough attacks and counter-attacks on Biden to prevent the event from being seen as a triumph for the vice president.
His sad-sounding statements about the shortcomings of the economy were effective, as was his powerful statement that unemployment in Biden’s hometown of Scranton is actually higher now -– at 10 percent -– than it was when the president was sworn in.
Romney and now Ryan have honed their attack lines on the Obama record. They work, but aren’t enough to win the election.
Neither is Joe Biden or the approach he took last night here in Kentucky.
Even if the president on Tuesday is able to put Romney on the defensive, as Biden did, and even if he can sound populist notes, as Biden did, Obama still must find the optimistic voice and sense of eagerness for the future that he offered in 2008.
Maybe Joe Biden was grinning so much to remind the president to at least smile once in a while.