Editor’s Note: David Axelrod, a senior CNN political commentator and host of “The Axe Files,” was senior adviser to President Barack Obama and chief strategist for the 2008 and 2012 Obama presidential campaigns. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Who should presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden be thinking about as he closes in on the choice of a running mate? Maybe it is someone like Biden himself.
I was part of the campaign team that interviewed Biden before he was chosen for the ticket by Barack Obama, and I served with the Vice President in the White House. He was a picked for a variety of reasons: his years of experience in Washington DC that complemented Obama’s short tenure there; a deep familiarity with global leaders; and a cultural and political base in the industrial heartland.
Beyond that was Biden’s considerable experience in national politics, including his decades in the US Senate and his time as a primary candidate in 2008. Obama felt Biden was pressure-tested and unlikely to be flustered by the maelstrom that is a national campaign.
Finally, Obama believed that his Senate colleague could be a good and loyal counselor who could take on major assignments and would, if called upon, be prepared to serve ably as president.
During the White House years I witnessed, Biden met and exceeded those expectations. He was impeccably loyal in public and unstintingly frank with his counsel in private. He took on major assignments, such as the management of the around $800 billion Recovery Act after the Great Recession, mediated the delicate dance among Iraqi factions to form a government there, and navigated the equally challenging negotiations with a Republican-led Senate during an unexpectedly productive lame duck session of Congress in 2010.
Biden and Obama were distant colleagues and friendly competitors before they became a team. Their relationship, however, was forged in the cauldron of the crises they faced together.
Now, facing the prospect of taking office in the midst of crises even more daunting than those that confronted Obama in 2009, my guess is that Biden will be seeking a partner who can similarly help him not only win an election but govern in what promises to be a whirlwind.
Vice presidential speculation is one of the favorite parlor games this time of the political season, and you will hear many theories about what Biden should do and why. But all the public knows so far is that the candidate will be a woman – and that, among the contenders, four women under review are Black. Beyond that, there are other layers of considerations.
The Black community was essential to Biden’s nomination. Black voters represent almost a quarter of the Democratic base in a country that is growing more diverse by the day. Motivating turnout among voters of color, which was less than robust in 2016, will be important to Biden’s chances on November.
Beyond the short-term politics is the larger principle of racial equity at a time when the scourge of White privilege and systemic racism has been elevated to its rightful place in the public discourse, spurred by the grotesque killing of George Floyd. Naming a Black woman as his running mate would be a powerful signal of change.
Biden over-performed with older voters but did poorly with the young during the primary season. He needs a stronger youth turnout than Hillary Clinton drew in 2016. The presence of a woman of color on the ticket might help, but many young activists also hunger for a vice presidential candidate on the left to offer ideological balance to Biden’s perceived moderation.
But should Biden seek to balance the ticket or double down and amplify his strength with suburbanites and a small but decisive band of swing voters? This theory would lead him to a woman more reflective of his center-left approach – perhaps someone who, by dint of philosophy or geography, might improve his chances in the key battleground states.
And then there is the matter of age. Some say the oldest candidate in history must pick a youthful running mate to offset his own surfeit of years. But you also can hear the counter argument that he should pick an older partner, less likely to be running for president from the moment she arrives in the White House.
All of these arguments have merit, though for all their energy, there is not a lot of empirical evidence in the modern era that the vice presidential choice means all that much at the polls. People vote for the candidate at the top of the ticket. For electoral purposes, you mostly want a candidate who is a competent campaigner and debater, someone who will not fumble the ball and create unhelpful issues.
The deeper question for Biden is what kind of partner that running mate will be after the election.
My guess is that Biden will be looking for someone a lot like himself – a loyal partner, who will place the success of the President and his initiatives first, and a partner whose counsel he values and who can take on weighty assignments when the need arises.
And given that he would be the oldest president ever to serve in the Oval Office, Biden may feel a special obligation to choose the woman he believes would make the best president and not just the best candidate this November.
In the next few weeks, Biden will be sitting down or zooming with a final list of contenders, whittled from a larger roster by intensive vetting and preliminary interviews by Biden’s team. Those conversations will be more important than any political calculations.
It could lead to a candidate of color – or not. It could yield a nominee who is relatively young, or one who is older. But it almost certainly will produce the candidate with whom, in his gut, Biden feels most comfortable and in whom he has confidence as a partner for the years, and not just months, to come.