(PHOTO ON LEFT: Vice President Joe Biden's signature and handwritten note on my copy of Promises to Keep, his 2007 memoir; it reads: 'Mr. President, Keep the faith and please stay involved.')
HAPPY BIRTHDAY, MR. VICE PRESIDENT!
Happy 72nd birthday to Vice President Joseph R. Biden, Jr., the greatest vice president in American history. For a decade, I've deeply admired Vice President Biden, ever since I saw him appear as a guest on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart in 2005. It's not just because he's from northeastern Pennsylvania, like me. Biden overcame several difficulties and challenges in life, ranging from the financial misfortunes of his father to the death of his first wife and child in a car accident to a brain aneurysm in 1988. The manner in which he handled himself and the strength of character he displayed amid these troubles reflect a solid moral compass.
Martin Luther King, Jr. compelled us to find the true character of an individual when that individual is tested by adversity, not when that person is prospering. When Biden was tested, he demonstrated moral strength, most notably when he made the decision to take the train home every single day as a senator, after the 1972 car crash, to spend time with his sons. Like all of us, Biden is not perfect in this regard and he would be the first to admit it. Nevertheless, as seen in his compelling memoir Promises to Keep, Biden has shown real grit, resilience, and compassion in his productive life.
In his political life, Biden has also excelled -- another reason why I admire him. His advocacy for victims of rape and sexual assault inspired me to work to reform sexual assault policies at GW, as a senator in the Student Association Senate. He was ahead of his time on this issue. When Biden wrote the Violence Against Women Act, laws across the country were fundamentally flawed in how they addressed sexual assault. Due to his work in writing VAWA, federal and state policies are dramatically better for victims of sexual assault. Further, his efforts in crafting strong gun safety laws in 1994, securing decades of federal funding for Amtrak, his longtime support for tackling pregnancy discrimination in the workplace, his successful bid to block Robert Bork from sitting on the Supreme Court, and his call for intervention in Kosovo are all part of a solid, progressive public policy record.
As Vice President, Biden has built on this success. His stewardship of the Recovery Act was vindicated as the law saved or created 3.5 million jobs and had virtually no corruption, his advice on Afghanistan proved prescient, the three legislative deals he struck with the congressional GOP avoided entitlement cuts and delivered key Democratic policy victories, and his early endorsement of marriage equality rightly compelled President Obama to support it months before he was set to announce his support. In the political arena, Biden is imperfect and has been wrong on several policy issues but on the whole, the country is better because of his work.
On a personal note, Biden treated me with the utmost respect, affection, and appreciation when we brought him to campus here at GW to be the end of year speaker for the GW College Democrats. The conversations we shared before and after the event, backstage, were reflective of his genuine affability, personable qualities, and his love of people. We chatted a lot about our northeastern Pennsylvania roots, our shared interest in strengthening how our country addresses sexual assault issues, and the trouble some have with our names.
If he were to run for president, he wouldn't be the first person with "name troubles," if you will, though to seek the job. I genuinely hope Vice President Biden does make the decision to run for president in 2016. He would be in a strong position as Barack Obama's vice president. We are likely to see economic growth continue to accelerate in the next two years -- and, barring other crises, that ought to increase Obama's job approval rating. Biden can successfully run on the growing economy and vow to continue the economic policies that brought us the recovery. In The Message Matters, political scientist Lynn Vavreck notes that candidates for whom the economy benefits them in the general election are "clarifying candidates" and, to maximize their chances of victory, such candidates ought to run on the economy. Biden could easily do this given that he ran the Obama administration's $826 billion stimulus package which breathed new life into the economy. The public seems to be pleased with Biden's work in this regard too: his job approval rating is at 51 percent, nearly ten points higher than Obama's approval.
Beyond that, he is consistently polling ahead potential GOP presidential candidates Rand Paul, Paul Ryan, and Marco Rubio in general election polling. His strength in the general election would be amplified by a likely solid debate performance; in the 2007 Democratic primary debates and in the 2008 and 2012 general elections, Biden consistently delivered widely praised debate performances. In the general election, Biden would also likely help his own chances by giving a strong Democratic National Convention address. In fact, the speech he delivered at the 2012 DNC was the highest-rated speech of the entire convention -- the same convention that gave Obama a robust boot in polling. Given his roots in Pennsylvania and his appeal to working-class voters in Ohio, Biden would be able to do well electorally as well. He should give it a run.
OBAMA'S IMMIGRATION MOVE
Last night, on MSNBC's All In with Chris Hayes, host Chris Hayes argued that President Obama's upcoming executive decision to provide deportation relief to millions of undocumented immigrants was "bold and politically risky." I couldn't agree more. As frequent Obama critic Glenn Greenwald wrote in May 2009 when the President nominated Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, "at his best, Obama ignores and is even willing to act contrary to the standard establishment Washington voices and mentality that have corrupted our political culture for so long." In the realm of immigration, Obama today will be demonstrating that same trait. Much of the "standard establishment Washington" elite is solidly against the President's decision. Political pundits, some members of Congress from both parties, editorialists, and other figures in the DC elite are insistent that Obama's action is "poisoning the well," an attack on bipartisanship, and an allegedly radical move.
If Obama listened to these voices, more families would be tragically separated, the economy would not benefit from the work that these immigrants will not be authorized to engage in, and the future that the real people involved here would face would be uncertain at best and deadly at worst. It's true that Obama had a disturbingly hawkish record on deportation in his first term; the Secure Communities program of his first Homeland Security Secretary, Janet Napolitano, had mixed results at best. It should also be noted though that those policies were likely executed in part to assuage congressional concerns that the "border is not secure" and that the administration was not "faithfully enforcing the laws." Still, the policies were troubling -- and they failed to convince those congressional critics anyway.
Nevertheless, thankfully, Obama is reversing course now from his earlier, incorrect proclamations that he did not have the executive authority to relieve deportations. His 2012 policy of giving deportation relief to hundreds of thousands of so-called "Dreamers" was the right move for our economy, it was humane, and it was a reflection of smart prosecutorial discretion. The fact that he is going to expand on such discretion now is welcomed news. He deserves credit in large part because not only does the decision fly in the face of DC political establishment voices but also because it is the right thing to do, it is still politically unpopular given recent public opinion polling, and it runs the risk of galvanizing a right-wing congressional majority against him.
Ultimately too, as former President Bill Clinton noted, Obama is on clearly strong legal footing, something reaffirmed by conservative Supreme Court justices, the (conservative) Federalist Society, and the precedent of previous GOP presidents providing deportation relief. Lastly, it should be noted that advocates for immigration reform deserve tremendous credit too. Their persistence, pressure, and persuasiveness, in assembling legal scholars to back their case and meeting with the president personally many times, helped make this day possible. In American political history, groups like these advocates are the ones who shape and form the evolution of our rights and liberties. Nobody makes this case better than the late political historian Howard Zinn, who wrote the famous A People's History of the United States. That was the case with abolitionists in the 1850s and 1860s, it was the case with the civil rights movement, it was the case with the LGBT rights movement, and it was the case with immigration advocates too.
Finally, I want to make a note about the midterm elections. The fact of the matter is that even the best run campaign sometimes cannot overcome the fundamentals of an election. Look no further than Alaska. In the Senate race there, Democratic incumbent Mark Begich ran on a progressive platform that included a defense of the Affordable Care Act and expanding Social Security. Begich also had a superb ground game operation, evidenced in the fact that a large percentage of Alaskans reported being contacted by his campaign. Despite all of this, Begich still lost the race, albeit by a narrow margin. If anything, Begich did not lose for any lack of campaigning or bad messaging. He came extremely close but the fundamentals are the fundamentals: he represented a very Republican state, a state which voted against President Obama twice, and it was a year in which the sitting Democratic president was unpopular due to various perceived leadership crises. Given this climate, even a strong campaign cannot be enough to lift a senator likely doomed from the start.
I emphasize this because so much of the commentary, especially in The New Republic, post-midterms is focused on Democratic messaging and that if only that was better, would the party's chances have improved. Probably not. Democrats across the country ran on popular issues like raising the minimum wage but they still lost. It's very likely their advocacy on those issues did help their chances but it was not enough. Kay Hagan is a perfect example of this. She ran, by all accounts, a great campaign focused on popular issues but she still lost likely due to public disapproval of the Democratic president's handling of ISIS and Ebola (especially in North Carolina, which Obama lost in 2012).
A final point is to address the fact that some may argue: the economy is doing well so why did Democrats suffer? The best explanation I heard about this comes from Ross Dothuat in The New York Times. It is quite possible that in 2012, voters were patient on economic growth and gave Obama the benefit of the doubt of pulling the nation out of a severe recession. Now, it's likely voters' patience with seeing wages pick up for lower and middle income voters has run out -- and I think this is absolutely correct. Dothuat's observation was reaffirmed by exit polling, in which voters overwhelmingly said the economy favors the rich. It's true that some Obama policies, like the Medicaid expansion in the ACA and the bolstering of anti-poverty programs in the Recovery Act and raising the minimum wage for federal contractor workers, have put a dent in income inequality and aimed to boost wages. However, the next Democratic nominee for president ought to lay out a vision to build on these policies and to be even bolder if the nominee wishes to connect with voters' concerns about economic growth not being broadly shared.