By Michele Tallarita ’12
In anticipation of Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Lafayette May 2, a panel of government and law faculty and a student held a panel discussion Monday night in Kirby Hall of Civil Rights about Biden’s role as vice president, his foreign policy positions, and his service to the Democratic Party.
Participants were John Kincaid, Meyner Professor of Government and Public Service; Bruce Murphy, Kirby Professor of Government and Law; Ilan Peleg, Dana Professor of Government and Law; Helena Silverstein, professor and head of government and law; and Caitlin Flood ’12 (Bellerose Terrace, N.Y.), a double major in government & law and philosophy. They reflected on Biden’s career in a four-part talk, followed by a question-and-answer session. The Lafayette community filled the seats to hear the panel paint a detailed portrait of President Barack Obama’s right-hand man.
Flood launched the discussion with a biography of Biden, detailing his middle class upbringing, high school football stardom, and college career in which he showed more interest in forging relationships with his peers than pursuing his studies. He attended law school, practiced his profession in his home state of Delaware, married and had three children, and was elected to the Senate in 1972. At the time, he was the sixth youngest senator in United States history.
Before Biden took his seat in the Senate, however, his wife and daughter were killed in a car crash. A single father of two small boys, Biden had to be persuaded by his mentors to head to Washington anyway.
“To be at home every day with his young sons,” Flood says, “Biden began the now famous practice of commuting every day by Amtrak train for one-and-a-half hours each way from his home in the Wilmington suburbs to Washington, D.C., which he continued to do throughout his Senate career.”
Biden served six consecutive terms in the Senate, making him the 15th longest-serving senator in history. On Nov. 4, 2008, he was elected the 47th Vice President of the United States.
After Flood’s biography of Biden, Kincaid discussed the role of U.S. vice presidents in general, drawing laughs from the audience as he talked about the nation’s earliest vice presidents’ distaste for the position. Though perceived as powerless at the country’s beginnings, the vice presidency has grown in gravitas over the centuries. As Kincaid explained, the VP now handles many crucial duties, like advising the president, helping to draft policies, negotiating with Congress, and acting as a spokesman for the administration.
According to Kincaid, Obama, in particular, has come to rely heavily on Biden, and the VP will prove especially important in the coming elections.
“Biden’s working class background, solid liberal record in the Senate, close ties to labor, and the longtime support for issues important to liberal women will be employed to help mobilize the Democratic Party’s base to vote in November, while the president can focus more on independents and others,” he says.
Peleg discussed Biden’s role as a foreign policy expert, citing his experience in international affairs as extremely significant in Obama’s election as president.
“Obama did not have a foreign policy background at all,” Peleg says. “Biden, on the other hand, served for many years on the Senate’s Foreign Affairs Committee, so I think Obama’s credentials were fortified and enhanced by the appointment of Biden.”
Murphy discussed Biden’s role in the Democratic Party. A skilled negotiator, Biden is known for his ability to reach out to staunch opponents and grapple with them on hard issues like health care bills, tax cut extensions, and, famously, the question of whether to raise the debt ceiling. Murphy suggests Biden’s talents as a negotiator are the reason Obama has turned to him more and more.
Murphy also posits that Biden will be instrumental in winning the young voters of Pennsylvania, since the VP was born in Scranton and spent much of his career in nearby Delaware. Garnering the youth vote, Murphy says, is one of four possible paths to Obama’s reelection.
“The fourth path is an expansion path, but it’s generational: go out and get first-time voters and college students and people under the age of 30 to vote for Obama again,” he says. “About half the voters under the age of 30 voted last time. Of those, 66 percent voted for Barack Obama.”
Of particular concern during the question-and-answer session were the issues of women’s reproductive rights, voter registration policies, and Mitt Romney’s choice for a vice presidential nominee. Students and faculty are eager to see which topics the vice president will choose to pursue in his address Wednesday.