How did Joe Biden go from a bore to the beloved avuncular caricature of himself he is these days? Back in the Senate, he was such a boring, milquetoast presence that during one of his speeches, the newly elected Sen. Barack Obama passed a note to an aide saying, "Shoot. Me. Now."
So what happened to make that dullard the kind of guy who eats ice cream cones while wearing aviators? The vice presidency raised his profile dramatically, obviously. The Onion's coverage of him solidified the hard-living, Corvette-driving persona that's served him so well, as did Annie Lowrey's Daily Biden feature, starting in 2009-'10.
But I think the transformation started earlier, in the early to mid-2000s. That's when Biden actually stopped caring about looking like a respectable politician and started to mine the "friendly older dude who tells it like it is" role for all it's worth. This Daily Show appearance during the 2004 Democratic National Convention is as good an illustration as any:
Biden tells a story about making up a coal-mining uncle to help his 1988 presidential bid:
BIDEN: Look, everybody tells you "don't take any chances," because the truth of the matter is I've gotten myself in trouble. Hell, I might be president now if it weren't for the fact I said I had an uncle who was a coal miner. Turns out I didn't have anybody in the coal mines, y'know what I mean? I tried that crap — it didn't work! [APPLAUSE] But I actually thought it!
STEWART: You believed it!
BIDEN: I actually believed it. I'm from Scranton, Pennsylvania, I figured there had to be a coal miner somewhere in the family.
STEWART: Nothing, huh?
BIDEN: Nothing! He was an engineer. We were Irish, y'know, and I thought the Welsh and English owned the deal, so we must be coal miners.
STEWART: You took a stab in the dark, huh.
BIDEN: I took a stab in the dark, and I found out he graduated from Lehigh! What can I say?
All of the essential components of Biden's current jovial persona are present here:
- The one essential fact about Obama-era Joe Biden is that he gives zero fucks. He'll call the Affordable Care Act a "big fucking deal" while miked up. He'll hang out with a trio in biker gear at a diner in Ohio. He'll tell a senator's grandson, "You've got some killer eyes. The girls are in trouble." Jokingly admitting to fabricating a family member for political gain is of a piece with this other, characteristic DGAF.
- The "tried that crap" line is the kind of dad-trying-to-be-edgy joke at which Biden has become a natural (see also "big fucking deal").
- His mistakes are minimized as character quirks. He didn't lie; he "got himself in trouble." He ends with, "What can I say?" not, "I'm sorry." And Biden leaves a big part of the story out: He didn't say his uncle was a coal miner because he thought it was true; he did it because he plagiarized his speech from then-British Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock, who does come from a family of coal miners. Biden didn't just make someone up, he stole someone else's life story. That's kind of shitty!
- But the media loves it. Stewart is laughing hysterically at the novelty of an older politician not giving a shit and admitting to this kind of thing. And Biden remains beloved by the DC press corps, which famously loathes Hillary Clinton.
The new Joe Biden, in other words, isn't that new. He's been years in the making. And he was very present in the 2008 race. Remember when Biden said every sentence Rudy Giuliani utters includes "a noun, a verb, and 9/11"? New-era Biden at his finest. It's all perfectly entertaining. But 2008 Biden was also a colossal failure of a candidate, who finished behind Bill Richardson.
And beneath the persona, Biden is still the guy who helped inaugurate the era of mass incarceration by passing the 1994 crime bill, who botched the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings, and who advocated a ridiculous and dangerous plan to partition Iraq. He's a fun guy. But he's not someone the Democratic Party is going to seriously consider nominating for president.