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Veep call shows presidential deliberation

Jules Witcover, syndicated columnist

WASHINGTON — Prospective Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden led the country through a long and public guessing game about his running mate before choosing Sen. Kamala Harris of California. The process risked casting him as indecisive, but in the end his choice demonstrated his awareness of the heavy responsibility placed in his hands.

If elected, Biden at 78 will be the oldest American president. This puts special emphasis on his vice president. Should Biden die in office, or if he were to decide to serve only one term, a strong leader would be necessary to ensure continuity in government.

After due deliberation, Biden became convinced that either way Harris was the right choice to carry out his objectives as president, if it came to that. In a sense, he reinforced his own claim to the Oval Office not only by acknowledging the potential of the vice presidency but also factoring it into his selection of the younger Californian. In settling on Harris, Biden fulfilled his novel pledge to choose a woman, and he doubled down by picking a woman of color — Harris is of Jamaican and Indian descent — in an obvious political move that promises to swell support among the Democratic Party’s diverse voting constituencies.

In doing so, Biden brushed off a 2019 debate attack by Harris that might well have cost her the VP nomination. She castigated him for working in the Senate with two segregationists, and for opposing busing mandates to desegregate schools, noting that as a little girl in California she benefited from busing. At the time, Biden’s wife, Jill, said Harris’ charge was “like a punch in the gut.” Later, however, she spoke well of Harris, who served as California’s attorney general at the same time Joe Biden’s late son Beau served as Delaware’s.

In any event, Biden’s choice of Harris as his running mate harkened back to what the first vice president, John Adams, reminded his wife, Abigail, in a famous letter: “In this I am nothing, but I could be everything,” It reflected Biden’s awareness that the vice presidency embodied more than its immediate slight responsibilities, in terms of its potential. Long since then the vice president, under enlightened presidents starting with Jimmy Carter through Barack Obama, has become much more involved in policy-making and implementation, with the exception of Trump’s obedient sidekick, Mike Pence. The scheduled October debate between Pence and Harris, for all the recent publicity about the Democrat, could be prime nighttime entertainment fare by then.

Biden deftly turned the routine task of selecting a running mate into a running public narrative. He played it to the hilt for months through an accommodating news media, stealing much of the thunder from Trump’s own insatiable quest for coverage. In that too, Biden had an unsolicited ally in the coronavirus pandemic, which imposed a hiatus on traditional presidential campaigning, to Trump’s open dismay.

In the halt to electioneering as usual, Biden was a clear beneficiary, as Trump’s bungling of the unprecedented health crisis dominated the nation’s news flow and appetite, and Trump spiraled down in the polls.

As the presidential campaign now approaches the two party national conventions, stripped of their past excitement and glamour, the otherwise low-profile Biden campaign is building and circulating the former vice president’s action agenda for 2021. He has advertised it as “an FDR style presidency,” full of economic recovery promises in the fashion of Franklin Roosevelt’s broad solutions to Herbert Hoover’s Great Depression.

Meanwhile, Trump has settled on a strategy of personal assaults not only on Biden but now on Harris. Soon after Biden named her, Trump tweeted an ad that said this: “Voters rejected Harris. They smartly spotted a phony — but not Joe Biden. He’s not that smart. Biden calls himself a transition candidate. He is handing over the reins to Kamala while they jointly embrace the radical left. Slow Joe and Phony Kamala, perfect together, bad for America.”

But former President Obama chimed in, saying; “Joe Biden nailed this decision. By choosing Senator Kamala Harris as America’s next vice president, he’s underscored his own judgment and character. Reality shows us that these attributes are not optional in a president.”

In a sense, whatever their differences, Biden appears to have seen in Harris a person to assume the role he played so well for Obama, as a standby who shares his governing and political objectives now and, hopefully, into the future.

Editor’s note: Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books. You can respond to this column at juleswitcovercomcast.net.

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