Do Good Men Have What It Takes to Be President?

American vice president Joe Biden appears on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, September 10
American vice president Joe Biden appears on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, September 10 (CBS/John Paul Filo)

A great politician isn’t necessarily a presidential one. This week, Americans saw one of their greatest politicians frankly sharing his doubts about running for the highest office and another drop out of the race.

In an emotional interview with The Late Show‘s Stephen Colbert on Thursday, Vice President Joe Biden reminisced about speaking to military families shortly after losing his son, Beau, to brain cancer in May when a soldier stood up and announced himself as having served with the younger Biden in Iraq.

“I lost it,” Biden said. “You can’t do that.”

“I don’t think any man or woman should run for president,” he continued, “unless they can look at folks out there and say, ‘I promise you have my whole heart, my whole soul, my energy and my passion.’ I’d be lying if I said that I knew I was there.”

It’s no wonder Biden is one of America’s most beloved politicians. It seems no one can speak frankly like him — if sometimes to the embarrassment of himself and others — and survive in national politics.

The Democrat spoke about that as well, wondering, “why in God’s name would you want the job if you couldn’t say what you believed?”

But a leader shouldn’t always say what’s on his mind. It’s not just that the media and voters can be unforgiving when a politician slips — although Biden seems uniquely immune to scandal. If that politician is the president or a cabinet member, a gaffe can have real-world repercussions.

John Dickerson writes at Slate that when politicians show authenticity — anger, fear, uncertainty, weakness — it often turns into a liability. The vice president, by contrast, offers the power of his personal example: “people can actually use what they see in another person to sustain them in their own lives.”

As much as his candor, his charity and his empathy make Biden an inspiring figure and sadly a rarity in politics, his aren’t necessarily the qualities of a president, however.

Biden knows that. It’s why he’s not running for president a third time.

On the Republican side, former Texas governor Rick Perry also found out that charity and empathy are not all it takes.

Matt Mackowiak relays a powerful anecdote from the last time Perry sought his party’s presidential nomination four years ago at Townhall. During one of the primary debates, candidates were seated around a table and furiously making notes while others were talking to remind themselves of a point they wanted to make.

One candidate, former US senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, noticed that Perry wasn’t writing very much. Through the course of the debate, Santorum told the story of the tremendous health challenges that his daughter Bella, who suffers from a rare disease, had faced through her life. It was a touching story. As the debate ended, the candidates stood up and shook hands. Santorum walked over to Perry and glanced down at his paper and saw just three words: Pray for Bella.

I don’t know how you can read that and not choke up.

When he announced he was suspending his presidential campaign on Friday, Perry said he shared the news with no regrets. As “I approach the next chapter in life,” he said, “I do so with the love of my life by my side, Anita Perry.”

We have our house in the country, we have two beautiful children and two adorable grandchildren, four dogs and the best sunset from our front porch that you could ever imagine. Life is good. And I am a blessed man.

Biden and Perry have both been enormously successful in politics. Although the former joked with Colbert about the respect the vice presidency deserves (very little, he suggested), Biden has been one of Barack Obama’s most important advisors and played a key role in the administration’s relations with a Republican Congress. Before he became vice president, Biden had a long and distinguished career as a senator. Perry has been Texas’ longest-serving governor and seen to it that his state is one of the economically most vibrant in America. Those are proud records and both men deserve (or deserved, in Perry’s case) to be taken seriously as presidential contenders.

But some of the very qualities that make them such good men should also give voters pause about their presidential ambitions.

The American presidency is probably the toughest job on Earth. The power and responsibility that come with it are too much to ask from most people. Like a surgeon who cannot let his personal affection for a patient get in the way of the job at hand, the president of the United States must be able to make life-and-death decisions without personal feelings interfering, or at least not too much.

Scientists say that people cannot do empathy and problem-solving equally well at the same time. A good president has the capacity for both. But when push comes to shove, Americans will often demand a man or a woman who’s better at the latter than the former, as they should.

It’s why former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, for all her perceived lack of authenticity, is still by far the favorite to win the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination next year and why real-estate mogul Donald Trump, despite his high poll ratings, is extremely unlikely to win the Republican nomination.

Americans like their politicians affable and folksy. But few would mistake those qualities for competence.

Biden: India, United States Want to Quadruple Bilateral Trade

Vice President Joe Biden gives a speech to sailors on board the littoral combat ship USS Freedom in Singapore, July 27
Vice President Joe Biden gives a speech to sailors on board the littoral combat ship USS Freedom in Singapore, July 27 (US Navy/Karolina A. Oseguera)

Vice President Joe Biden, the first to visit India in three decades, spoke of the two countries’ mutual desire to quadruple bilateral trade at a speech given in Delhi last week.

“Our bilateral trade has increased fivefold to $100 billion over the past thirteen years. We see tremendous opportunities (in India) and there is no reason that if our two countries make the right choices, trade cannot grow fivefold or more,” Biden said.

However, he acknowledged a lot needed to be done to remove trade barriers and that India needed to address its “inconsistent” tax system and barriers to market access.

Biden also stated that India has the full support of the United States for securing a seat on the United Nations Security Council and that Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh has been invited to the White House to meet with President Barack Obama at the end of September to discuss this particular topic, on top of other trade related issues.

In terms of immigration and education, Biden announced that the United States Congress is considering increasing the number of temporary visas available to skilled Indian nationals to come to the United States to live, study and work.

Biden later spoke at the Bombay Stock Exchange where he again stressed the need for Indian and American businessmen to work more closely together. Focusing on the need for greater ease in doing business with India, he called for further economic reforms, highlighting the frustrations many American businesses have had as they seek to tap into India’s potentially huge consumer market.

“India is no longer an economic island and will continue to rise as an economic power,” Biden said as he extolled the economic growth of the country. “However, significant challenges and problems persist. It is time we take this relationship to a new level to achieve our shared vision.”

“Imagine what our two countries can achieve together, not only for one another but for the economic and political stability of the region,” Biden added, while stressing the shared common values between the United States and India — democracy, human rights and an independent judiciary.

In the course of Biden’s two day visit, he was expected to meet with leading Indian industrialists and business people and to attend an event at the Indian Institute of Technology before flying on to Singapore.

The United States and India have a double tax treaty in place and although it dates back to 1991, it is still a useful tool to examine for tax benefits that American companies may enjoy when considering business in India.

“I have raised the issue of updating the Indo-American DTA with the American commercial attaché in Delhi and we understand that this is something that is being considered. American trade and investment in India is significantly increasing and we have already seen the likes of Ford commit to manufacturing vehicles in India for both the domestic market and export,” comments Chris Devonshire-Ellis, managing partner for Dezan Shira & Associates in India. “India remains a huge potential target for American investors both looking for market access and for export manufacturing. We welcome Vice President Biden’s comments and look forward to the development of American trade and investment with India.”

This story first appeared at India Briefing, July 25, 2013.

Biden Reiterates Uncompromising Iran Policy

Vice President Joe Biden speaks in Grinnell, Iowa, September 18, 2012
Vice President Joe Biden speaks in Grinnell, Iowa, September 18, 2012 (Obama for America/Christopher Dilts)

One year ago, President Barack Obama received a standing ovation from the pro-Israel lobbying group American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) when he sternly committed to preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. Containment of Iran, the president said, is not an option, adding that on his watch, Tehran would never be allowed to construct a nuclear device without dealing with the threat of military force first.

Twelve months later, Vice President Joe Biden laid out the same policy to an AIPAC conference. As if to underscore just how serious the United States consider a nuclear armed Iran, Biden framed his remarks in a blunt but strong tone: American policy is, and will continue to be, “to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. Period. Period. End of discussion.”

In terms of American foreign policy, there is nothing new in Biden’s vow. President Obama, after reaching out to the Iranian leadership during his first year in office in the hope of sweetening a relationship that has been one of the world’s most antagonistic for the past thirty years, has been one of the toughest presidents on Tehran in modern times.

Whereas Iran largely ignored the George W. Bush Administration and basked in the comfort of an overstretched American military while the Republican was in office, it has taken the Obama Administration seriously.

Partly as a result of the president’s success in forging an international sanctions regime, the Islamic republic is suffering one of the most painful economic periods in its history. The country’s oil exports have been slashed in half and its economy is losing billions of dollars every month.

All of this, in essence, to turn up the pressure to such an extent that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his government will be coerced into scaling back the nuclear program.

While his comments may therefore not appear newsworthy, Vice President Biden’s statements are still significant, particularly at a time when Iranian negotiators are back at the table for discussions about their nation’s uranium enrichment program.

The vice president has very little, if any, influence on how these multilateral talks, that include representatives of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany, progress but his tough rhetoric about using military force to curtail the building of an Iranian nuclear bomb could nonetheless negate the positive remarks that were produced during the most recent talks.

Coupled with a joint United States Senate resolution that would have the country actively back up Israel were it to strike Iran militarily, the very Iranian diplomats who spoke of “a turning point” in the negotiations could just as quickly scurry back into their corners.

The Iranians are not without blame. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s defensive language equating the West to a paper tiger trying to bully the rest of the world is not the sort of comment that helps the negotiating atmosphere. Nor are statements from senior Iranian officials about teaching Israel a lesson.

But when lawmakers in Congress push through uncompromising legislation on the Iranian nuclear issue and top White House officials constantly remind the Iranians that bombing them is a realistic option, there is a decent chance that the fractious government in Tehran will use the language as an excuse to ramp up its uranium enrichment efforts and perhaps cut negotiations short altogether.

If the talks are to succeed, both Iran and Western powers will have to tone down their rhetoric.

After Obama Win, Democrats Look for Successor

Democratic governor Andrew Cuomo of New York in Manhattan, October 12, 2009
Democratic governor Andrew Cuomo of New York in Manhattan, October 12, 2009 (Flickr/saebaryo)

Even if Barack Obama was reelected mere days ago, his Democratic Party has already to look for presidential candidates to run in 2016.

One of the reasons for Republicans’ poor showing in the 2008 election was that George W. Bush didn’t have a successor. His vice president, Dick Cheney, had always ruled out a presidential run of his own. Several high-profile Republicans, including former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, Arizona senator John McCain and Mitt Romney, tried to secure the nomination. McCain won but failed to enthuse conservatives.

Romney, similarly, was nominated after a long primary battle this year and without fully winning the confidence of his party’s base.

Obama proved in 2008 that a long and divisive primary campaign hasn’t to stop a candidate from the winning in the general election while Al Gore’s defeat in 2000 showed that an orderly succession isn’t a guarantee for victory.

Nevertheless, it doesn’t hurt to have a presumptive nominee early, especially if the other party is locked in a fierce nominating contest as Republicans could well be again in less than four years’ time.

In a country where 40 percent of voters identifies as “moderate,” the Democratic candidate wouldn’t want to be hampered from appealing to the center while vying for left-wing primary votes. Settling on a candidate early in the process should help Democrats position themselves as the natural ruling party for the twenty-first century while chastising Republicans as old fashioned and out-of-touch as Barack Obama’s reelection campaign did successfully this year.

Joe Biden

The vice president will be 73 years old in 2016; three years older than Ronald Reagan was when he assumed the presidency in 1981. Nevertheless, Joe Biden doesn’t seem ready yet to leave the stage and may throw himself into the primary race for a third time — which, incidentally, was how many times it took Reagan to be nominated.

Biden has great foreign policy experience and could hope to do well as the elder statesman in a general election, especially in Midwestern swing states where he appeals to blue-collar voters. His favorability among other groups is low though. The necessarily more partisan role that has assumed as vice president will make it difficult for him to reach out to centrist and conservative voters.

The Delaware native is also prone to gaffes and erred repeatedly both in terms of policy — he opposed the surge in Iraq and criticized General David Petraeus for it — and theatrics. Democratic Party primary voters may be willing to forgive those mistakes but will also likely recognize that Biden is far from a perfect candidate who could even cost them the White House in 2016.

Hillary Clinton

The secretary of state looks set to retire from politics but Democrats hope that she’ll run again. As in 2008, Hillary Clinton would be considered the frontrunner if she decided to enter the race. Indeed, other potential candidates are likely to wait for the former senator of New York to make her intentions clear before considering whether to run themselves.

Like Biden, Clinton is popular with working-class voters in the northern industrial states. In the 2008 primary, she carried Indiana, Pennsylvania, Ohio as well as Florida, four states that could well be battlegrounds in the next presidential election. She also polls well among minorities and women and, unlike the vice president, is respected by many Republicans after four years of diplomatic service. If Republicans were to nominate a reactionary candidate for the general election, she could well garner the support of moderates who might otherwise considering voting Republican.

Andrew Cuomo

In one of the most reliably Democratic states in the country, New York’s Andrew Cuomo has governed as a centrist. He held off raising taxes and reduced spending at the expense of alienating public-sector union workers. His greatest liberal accomplishment, legalizing gay marriage, was done with Republican support. It’s doubtful if he would generate much enthusiasm in a primary campaign but could with some credibility run as a third term custodian of Barack Obama’s legacy — if the president makes true on his promises of bipartisanship in years to come.

If, on the other hand, Obama is seen governing as a leftist, Cuomo, who has no ties with the administration like Biden and Clinton, could present himself as the “Third Way” progressive who will take the party back to the center like Bill Clinton did in the 1990s.

In any event, Cuomo has yet to build an impressive record to run on in the next two years. If he doesn’t, his tenure as housing secretary in the late 1990s could be more closely scrutinized. He pushed the government-sponsored enterprises Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to buy more loans from troubled homeowners at the time which contributed to the subprime mortgage bubble and subsequent financial crisis that led the United States into recession. The governor wouldn’t want to be defined by that.

Martin O’Malley

If Democrats interpret Barack Obama’s reelection as a victory for the left rather than a defeat of the right, they could do worse than nominate Martin O’Malley. The governor of Maryland made education a priority and has been a stalwart supporter of gay marriage and immigration reform.

Centrist and Republican voters will be less easily persuaded. As governor, O’Malley balanced spending exclusively by raising taxes. His approval rating has fallen in recent months and just 22 percent of voters in his own state say that he is ready for the presidency. He could appeal to the “coalition of the ascendent” — college educated young voters, racial minorities and single women — that propelled Barack Obama to victory twice but if Republicans nominate a reasonable alternative, blue-collar and suburban voters in the Midwestern states and Virginia may well decide that O’Malley is too left-wing.

Mark Warner

Virginia’s junior senator isn’t a Democratic Party leader yet but could become a key figure in upcoming budget negotiations between the two parties in Congress. As Republicans maintained their majority in the House of Representatives in Tuesday’s election and Democrats still control the Senate, compromise will have to be found to stabilize federal spending for the long term. Mark Warner’s behind the scenes talks — he participated in two bipartisan efforts to achieve fiscal reform — haven’t borne fruit so far but very well could if the president again shrinks from introducing a comprehensive plan for deficit reduction and it’s up to Congress to take the initiative.

As the former governor of a state that has thirteen electoral votes and was safely Republican in presidential elections for forty years before Barack Obama carried it in 2008, Warner is fairly pro-business, supports free trade, school choice and an expansion in offshore drilling. That’s a record that could well endear him to centrist voters and he would almost certainly keep Virginia in the Democratic column. He left the governorship in 2006 with a 71 percent approval rating.

American Middle Class Has Been Buried

A suburban home in New Jersey, August 23, 2009
A suburban home in New Jersey, August 23, 2009 (Flickr/vonSchnauzer)

Vice President Joe Biden last month now infamously said that the American middle class had been “buried” in the last four years. While Republicans were quick to frame Biden’s comment as a repudiation of President Barack Obama’s administration, the collapse of the middle class has more to do with the financial and housing crisis that started before the Democrats took office. Read more

“General Motors is Alive” But at What Cost?

Vice President Joe Biden’s case for reelecting Barack Obama in November is simple. “Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive.” He reiterated that message at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina on Thursday.

The president, said Biden, “saved more than a million American jobs” He added, “If the president didn’t act immediately, there wouldn’t be any industry left to save.” The former statement is true, at least in the short term, but the latter is patently false.

When Barack Obama took office in January 2009, automakers Chrysler and General Motors were on the brink of bankruptcy. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney famously wrote an op-ed in The New York Times in which he argued that the two companies had to go through bankruptcy to reduce employment costs and replace management. A “managed bankruptcy,” he wrote, “would permit the companies to shed excess labor, pension and real estate costs.”

But don’t ask Washington to give shareholders and bondholders a free pass — they bet on management and they lost.

The libertarian Cato Institute’s Randal O’Toole agreed and takes issue with Biden’s claim that there “wouldn’t be an industry left” if it hadn’t been for President Obama’s intervention. If Chrysler and General Motors had gone through bankruptcy, “most of their factories would have stayed open and they would have continued making and selling cars.” Read more

American-Iraqi Strategic Partnership Emerging

President Masoud Barzani of the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq greets American vice president Joe Biden at the airport in Irbil, December 1
President Masoud Barzani of the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq greets American vice president Joe Biden at the airport in Irbil, December 1 (White House/David Lienemann)

In a surprising development this week, Vice President Joe Biden traveled to Camp Victory in the heart of Baghdad to mark an end to the war and congratulate American and Iraqi troops on their joint success in suppressing violence across the country.

The trip, unannounced due to security precautions, was a chance for the vice president to highlight the Obama Administration’s pledge to withdraw all American soldiers from Iraq by the end of this month.

Far more important than beefing up the administration’s foreign policy bona fides however was the real intent of the American delegation — to reassure Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki and his coalition government that the United States are not abandoning Iraq but rather excited to establish a new strategic relationship between the two countries. Instilling that type of confidence within the Iraqi government is a smart and effective move at this point in time, given that the Iraqi Security Forces continue to battle domestic terrorist organizations throughout the country’s eighteen provinces.

The insurgency in Iraq has degraded considerably during the last three to four years. But the violence is anything but quelled completely. Armed groups, Sunni and Shia alike, are still strong enough to pose a threat to the Iraqi government. Al Qaeda in Iraq, now based mainly in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, is only one of those groups. 

To illustrate the troubles Iraq still faces, two separate attacks occurred in the province of Diyala during the vice president’s visit, killing eighteen people. At least 56 Iraqis have been killed in the past nine days alone.

Even with killings continuing on a near daily basis in much of the country, Biden was adamant that the Iraqi government is fully capable of defending its own people from domestic security problems, to which insurgent groups are still the main concern.

Compared to the early years of the war, Biden is right. Iraqi security has increased their manpower every year since the United States military began the process of rebuilding an indigenous army and police force. In Bagdad and other major cities, Iraqi forces have been in the lead since the summer of 2009 when American forces withdrew from urban areas. 

The Iraqi military stepped up its game further in 2010, when its forces took charge of security missions across the country. Iraq’s counterterrorism apparatus is the best of its kind in the Middle East, with hundreds of terrorist killed and captured on a yearly basis and dozens of plots thwarted with American assistance. The question is whether the Iraqi can keep up the pressure without foreign aid.

There is also concern among officials of both countries about Iran’s motives as the United States hand over full military duties to the Iraqis. Without a lasting American military presence, Tehran will most certainly attempt to exploit the circumstances to its own advantage, as it has done since the first American troops hit Iraqi soil in 2003.

Iran’s connections in Iraq are strong with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps maintaining liaison with Iraq’s major Shiite parties. Despite its persistent denials of sponsoring violence in Iraq, the guards’ partnership with Shia militias has been well documented. Iranian investment is pouring into southern Iraq, buttressed by the millions of Iranian citizens who stream into Najaf and Karbala for religious pilgrimages every year.

With the bulk of American soldiers departing, Iran is faced with two options — either increase its support for radical groups in an attempt to retain leverage over the Iraqi government or slowly reinvest more of its resources from proxy conflict to Iraqi politicians, businesses and infrastructure development.

The average viewer may look at the vice president’s visit to Baghdad as nothing more than a ceremonial and camera waving event but the administration clearly had something else in mind — the beginning of a brand new, strategic relationship with Iraq that expands cooperation from the security and defense files.