Election 2020

Biden’s World Experience Proves a Lead Balloon

Despite promising to restore U.S. leadership, the former vice president is fast fading from the 2020 race as his “most electable” pitch falls flat.

Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden addresses the crowd during a campaign launch party in Columbia, South Carolina, on Feb. 11.
Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden addresses the crowd during a campaign launch party in Columbia, South Carolina, on Feb. 11. Sean Rayford/Getty Images

Joe Biden has been around Washington so long that he cast one of his first big votes as a U.S. senator during the Vietnam War—at a time when Bernie Sanders was a shaggy-haired radical in rural Vermont, Amy Klobuchar was in middle school, and Pete Buttigieg wasn’t even a glint in the eyes of his parents, who weren’t yet married. 

As Biden frequently (and truthfully) tells voters about his vast and unmatched experience, especially in foreign policy: “I’ve dealt with every one of the major world leaders that are out there right now, and they know me. I know them.” And those same leaders, he said at another point, were phoning him and begging him to run, to save the world from an ogre of an American president, Donald Trump, and restore U.S. leadership.

None of it seems to be working. Democratic voters in this election season don’t appear to value experience, particularly on the world stage. Indeed most signs are that Biden’s experience, and his often halting efforts to explain it on the stump, may well have been working against him, if his devastating fifth-place finish in New Hampshire’s primary on Tuesday, with just 8.4 percent of the vote, is any indication. Combined with his equally disappointing fourth-place finish in the Iowa caucuses a week before, Biden’s performance at the polls already has many electoral experts suggesting that the man once considered the Democratic front-runner may be on his way out of the race, though he’s still hoping for a big comeback victory in South Carolina, the next primary on Feb. 29.

It appears many voters across the spectrum don’t want a restoration of anything—including, apparently, U.S. global leadership and the decades-old status quo that Biden is identified with. Instead they are looking for the new, even if the new is old—like the 78-year-old Sanders, the anointed front-runner who would bring a radical shift toward anti-war, anti-free trade policies, many of which resemble the views of Trump more than those of traditional Democrats. 

It is an enduring irony of presidential politics: While presidential legacies are most often shaped by foreign policy, for good or ill, presidential elections are not. “Unfortunately, foreign policy, the area where the president of the United States has the most authority, rarely resonates with voters as a top priority,” said Michael Haltzel, a former senior policy advisor to Biden. “Joe Biden understands international relations far better than any of the other Democratic candidates, but unless in the next few weeks there is a major international crisis—and I hope there isn’t—I fear that Joe’s foreign-policy expertise and record won’t count for much with most primary voters. It’s a sad fact of American political life.”

Biden, of course, has faced other difficulties on the campaign trail, many of them self-inflicted. At 77, he has proved uneven at best as a campaigner, with more foot-in-mouth episodes than any other candidate—most recently when he bizarrely called a young woman in New Hampshire a “lying, dog-faced pony soldier” after she asked him about his poor performance in Iowa. And Trump may have succeeded somewhat in his goal of fatally smearing Biden—a campaign that ultimately led to the president’s impeachment—by highlighting Biden’s activities in Ukraine while he was vice president as well as those of Biden’s son Hunter. Even Biden staffers admitted that Hunter had created a serious conflict-of-interest issue for his father by taking a well-compensated job with a Ukrainian energy company.

Biden’s foreign-policy experience has also proved a double-edged sword, since his many votes and policy stances have left him vulnerable to criticism—none more so than his vote to authorize the Iraq War in 2002. On the stump and at the Democratic debates, Biden has tried mightily to explain the nuances of his position: that the George W. Bush administration lied to him about its invasion plans and that he had pressed unsuccessfully for a resolution that would have required the president to delay the use of force until the United Nations approved a new resolution. 

But such messages don’t seem to resonate well when fresh-faced candidates like Buttigieg, whose political experience is limited to serving as mayor of a small city, South Bend, Indiana, deliver one-line appeals to voters like Buttigieg’s call for the party to “finally turn the page”—as he put it at the most recent Democratic debate on Feb. 7. Buttigieg made clear he was taking aim at Biden in particular, adding, “I freely admit that if you’re looking for the person with the most years of Washington establishment experience under their belt, you’ve got your candidate, and of course it’s not me.” 

Considering that Buttigieg came in a close second to Sanders on Tuesday night with about a quarter of the vote—nearly three times Biden’s total—many Democratic voters appear to see things his way.

If the end is indeed near for Biden in politics, it would mark the close of one of the most remarkable political careers in modern U.S. history. It has been nearly 50 years since Biden, as a first-term senator who was inaugurated in 1973, voted to end foreign aid for South Vietnam. In later years, Biden was deemed one of the most powerful chairmen of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and as Barack Obama’s vice president for eight years was a key figure in the withdrawal from Iraq, relations with Syria and Ukraine and many other issues. 

In an interview with me in 2010, at the height of his influence in the Obama administration, Biden spoke of the delightful partnership he had with a president whose popularity has grown since he left office—and which Biden once thought might carry him, by association, to the Democratic nomination. At the time, Biden liberally used the phrase “Barack and I” and told me that Obama had continued to “turn over big chunks” of policy to him to oversee. 

Judging from recent trends, that may be the closest Biden will ever get to the presidency.

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh

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