HBO recently aired the film Game Change based on the book by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin about the 2008 presidential campaign. While the movie focused on John McCain and Sarah Palin during the fall of 2008, Heilemann and Halperin chronicled the efforts of many of the people from both parties who ran for president during that year’s primary and general election cycles. Barack Obama’s selection of Joe Biden to be his vice presidential candidate was also a “game-changing” decision. This thread will analyze the personalities of the two men and their impact on the campaign and explain how Biden’s temperament was a significant factor in propelling Obama to the presidency.
Obama, a Rational, appears to be either a Mastermind or Inventor, while Biden, an Artisan, is most likely a Promoter or Performer. However, my discussion will merely discuss their respective general Rational and Artisan personalities. Pinpointing their most specific types would not seem to add any insight into their election victory.
Among the Rational Obama’s main challenges as a candidate was connecting with the specific people whose votes would make the difference in the general election. On the one hand, he had inspired legions of African Americans, young people, opponents of the Iraq War, and others who did not always participate in the political process to vote for him during the primary season. However, in spite of his following among these groups, he struggled to connect with working-class white voters, people of faith, and other people in rural areas. Obama’s primary opponent, Hillary Clinton, defeated him badly with these demographic groups. He made several statements along the way that did not help his efforts to warm these sectors of the population up to him. He commented during one speech that white, working-class people were “bitter” and “clung to guns and religion”. In addition, he responded to a question about abortion during a forum on faith by saying that defining when life began was “above his pay grade”. Furthermore, back when Obama first arrived in the Illinois Senate years before 2008, he initially gave fellow African American Senators there the impression that he had a detached view of the experiences of many black people: merely reading about them, listening to gospel music, or watching Julius Erving play basketball on TV.
While this chronicle of Obama’s experiences is not by any means comprehensive, it can be argued that Obama had come off to a number of people he encountered as arrogant and out of touch with their experiences and ways of life. On the one hand, he had also had a very successful academic career, having earned a degree from Harvard’s Law School, been president of the Harvard Law Review, and served as a law professor at the University of Chicago. The package of Obama’s particular personality and career path is not an uncommon one for Rationals. Unfortunately for Obama, his challenges in connecting with certain individuals are additionally not unusual for those of his temperament either. Rationals frequently leave people feeling after interactions with them that they are disconnected, cold, distant, and unable to relate back to them. Moreover, the grand visions that they are wont to offer (ie Obama’s “Hope” and “Change We Can Believe In”) can annoy those of other temperaments.
A narrative formed due to Obama’s shortcomings that he had to choose a candidate for Vice President whom the people he struggled to connect with could relate to. In Joe Biden, he found a running mate with a “common touch” who could reach and had lived some of the same experiences as the people whose votes he needed. The Artisan Biden was known when he was young as the “scrappy kid from Scranton”, Pennyslviania. Political writer Howard Fineman has described him this way: “Biden is not an academic, he’s not a theoretical thinker, he’s a great street pol. He comes from a long line of working people in Scranton—auto salesmen, car dealers, people who know how to make a sale."
Stories about Biden from throughout his life – albeit described on Wikipedia – show a clear Artisan temperament on display. When he was in high school and college, he played football, was more interested in socializing than studying, and did not get good grades. He eventually went to law school, which he found boring, and used plagiarized material in his coursework while he was there, an act he would repeat in speeches while running for president years later. On the other hand, he spent countless hours reading poetry aloud for a time to overcome the stutter he had during his youth. This exemplifies the preoccupation with technique found in many Artisans.
Biden has unquestionably taken his life in a more positive direction as he has aged, but his temperament has continued to influence the chapters in his story. His tenure as a Senator began on a tragic note following the death of his first wife and daughter in a car accident. He has stated since that at the time, he wandered around seedy neighborhoods at night so he could improve his chances of getting into a fight. These feelings of vengeance following personal defeats or losses are most often found in Artisans. Nonetheless, Biden continued with his career in spite of the tragedy and his feelings about it. During the fall of 2008, he said that his father had told him when he was young to get back up whenever he fell down and described how this inspired him to go on. Like his election opponent John McCain, after being physically tortured as a POW during the Vietnam War, and Franklin Roosevelt, after contracting polio (McCain and Roosevelt are both also Artisans), Biden would not be kept broken and miserable for long following personal difficulties.
As with my retelling of Obama’s experiences, this sampling of stories and events from Biden’s life does not completely cover his career and personality. Nonetheless, this chronicle does portray someone who had struggled through a number of situations and tragedies in his life, occasionally got himself into trouble, but rebounded and overcame his difficulties to be successful. Biden’s experiences and his ability to connect them to those of hard-working individuals who were the “salt of the earth” gave many of these people the sense that he was cut from the same cloth as them: his story was also theirs. His concrete, common-man Artisan existence was a stark contrast to that of the book-smart and seemingly detached Rational Obama, at least in the eyes of many working-class constituents whose votes the Democrats needed.
In sum, Barack Obama’s selection of Joe Biden to be his partner was a “game-changer” in the 2008 campaign, as Biden helped the Democratic ticket connect with the working-class people who gave them the votes they needed to win. On the other hand, Biden’s role here was undoubtedly far from the only influence on the outcome of the election that year. The candidates’ positions on the major issues, the economic collapse, Sarah Palin, Obama’s race, his experience in national politics or lack thereof, his relationships with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and Bill Ayers, among many other things, were all major factors at one point or another. Nonetheless, the whole that was created by Obama’s addition of Biden to his campaign was greater than the sum of its parts, at least the part of Obama in the eyes of a good number of Americans.