Obama was never going to ditch Biden

Pundits love Bold, Decisive Action from presidents but switching running mates is almost always a dumb move

Published November 2, 2013 11:15AM (EDT)

  (AP/Susan Walsh)
(AP/Susan Walsh)

The news this week that Team Obama supposedly seriously considered dropping Joe Biden for Hillary Clinton during the run-up to the 2012 election is, more than anything, evidence once more for how the imperative to Do Something! produces foolish ideas for campaigns, which produce foolish stories in the press, which in turn push candidates to consider Do Something! even if it’s foolish.

At least Barack Obama wasn’t foolish enough to act on the impulse; indeed, Team Obama is busy now tweeting out denials that there was anything to it in the first place.

Back in the real world, Barack Obama’s troubles in 2011 were mainly caused by one thing: a stubbornly lagging economy, and a Republican House that was dedicated to implementing policies that would make it worse. While there were actually things he could have been doing about it (such as nominating people for Federal Reserve Board vacancies and pushing for confirmation), mostly he was playing defense, and at best good bargaining with the House would only make marginal differences.

That’s exactly the environment in which White House staff and campaign operatives are tempted to Do Something! Indeed, it was at about that point in 1979 that Jimmy Carter performed perhaps the ultimate in Do Something!, asking his entire Cabinet for their resignations and accepting five of them. One of the differences between the mostly competent Obama administration and the mostly not Carter was that the latter actually acted on this impulse.

Of course, the press is always there to urge them on. Presidents, after all, are supposed to Lead. They’re supposed to take Bold, Decisive Moves. Never mind whether those moves make any sense or not; very few traditional pundits urge presidents to be prudent.

As it happens, dumping a V.P. is about the most foolish thing a president can do. Well, I suppose on the assumption that said V.P. isn’t Spiro Agnew and there’s no evidence of him taking comic-style bags of cash with big dollar signs on them in exchange for political favors.

Why? Because, as John Sides reminds us, vice-presidents have very little effect on vote choice. That’s not surprising, actually; political scientists generally have found that presidential candidates really don’t have all that large an effect on vote choice. Most people vote based on party, in the first place, and beyond that on a general sense of how things have been going in the nation (rewarding the in-party, especially incumbents, when times are good, and punishing them when times are bad). All the rest of it – personal traits of the candidates, electioneering, specific issues – can move the needle a little, so it’s worth it for a campaign to do what it can, but in most cases it more or less cancels out. Given all that, what are the odds that a vice-president would have any important independent effect? The number of people who otherwise thought that reelecting Barack Obama was a wonderful idea but were hesitating because of Biden … well, there might have been a handful of them out there, but I doubt that there were a dozen.

And if there was ever an opportunity in which dumping the V.P. would help, 2012 wasn’t it, since Joe Biden is – as I’ve argued – the Practically Perfect Veep. That is, he’s a plausible president; he’s a good team player; and, yes, he was born to be cast in the role of national punch line, which is the sad fate of every politician who winds up in that job.

As for Hillary Clinton, as Sides argues, her very high approval ratings would have crashed right down as soon as she was lifted from a job in which she represented the nation into a job in which she would be the butt of all jokes. Granted, it wouldn’t have been a bad idea for her, since it would have made her formidable grip on the 2016 nomination even more solid. But it’s hard to see what it would have done for Barack Obama.

All in all, it’s no surprise (assuming it’s true) that Team Obama was tempted to make a big statement and to Do Something! It’s also typical of this president’s strengths that he probably wasn’t all that tempted, and at any rate he didn’t do it.

Do Something! is for rubes and easy marks. With any luck the next president will learn from this one not to fall for it when pundits and panicked staffers suggest it.

By Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein writes at a Plain Blog About Politics. Follow him at @jbplainblog

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