Not-So-Average Joe

Biden’s relative unpopularity is undeserved—he’s been a pretty good vice president.

While baseball may be America's favorite pastime, especially at World Series time, unsubstantiated political speculation is the number one recreational activity in Washington year-round. One of the most recent topics has been new polling results revealing that Vice President Joseph Biden has a favorability rating of just 42 percent-considerably less than his president and, according to some accounts, less than his predecessor Dick Cheney at a comparable point in the Bush administration.

Analysts and commentators (but mostly commentators-who needs analysis anyway, facts are too complicated) have a variety of explanations for this, generally cut to fit their political preferences. Those sympathetic to Mr. Biden argue that he was not a national figure before the election, that President Obama has given him some of the toughest issues, and that it is not really fair to make any comparisons to Cheney, who at the same point in his first term had benefited from a post-9/11 lift in the polls. Those with an axe to grind point to the wider unpopularity of much of the administration's agenda, including concern over Iraq and Afghanistan, where Biden has had a high-profile role.

My own unscientific observation? Look at Google. If you type "biden" into Google's search box, the site displays the ten most common searches starting with the Vice President's last name. Number one is "biden gaffes." And numbers eight and ten are "biden quotes" and "bidenisms" respectively, which clearly cover the same ground. If you enter "joe biden," the results are similar but not quite so striking. It's too bad Google doesn't provide the number of similar searches anymore, which would have helped in interpreting these results.

Being the butt of jokes, fairly or unfairly, is rarely good for one's popularity. But I suspect (and it is a suspicion, not an assertion) that Biden pays an unexpectedly high price in the polls for this less because of Republicans-whose anger is more squarely focused on the "socialist" president-but rather due to the unhappiness of some in the Democratic base who resent the political damage to the administration from Biden's frequent trips off the reservation. To me, this seems like the subtext of much of the (liberal-friendly) Saturday Night Live mockery of Biden.

This reaction strikes me as particularly ironic in view of the vice president's clear loyalty to the president and because whatever his shortcomings, he has been pretty successful in one key respect: maintaining significant influence without appearing to outshine his boss. While individually problematic, bearing in mind recent history Biden's occasional gaffes may not be such a bad thing.


Paul J. Saunders, Executive Director of The Nixon Center, is the associate publisher of The National Interest.