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CloseReading: Are Joe Biden's "Gaffes" Accidental? Or Brilliant?

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Role of Vice Presidents

Obama would not be the first president to use his #2 to lob incendiary devices he could never handle himself -- what with concerns about presidential dignity. Richard Nixon famously used Spiro Agnew to play to his base with relentless attacks on leftists, the media, and other perceived enemies. George H.W. Bush had Quayle play a similar role, and so, to varying extents, have almost all presidents.

Here are a few from Agnew, a crude man lent elegance by speechwriters, notably William Safire:

-"A spirit of national masochism prevails, encouraged by an effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals."

-"In the United States today, we have more than our share of the nattering nabobs of negativism."

-"Some newspapers are fit only to line the bottom of bird cages."

-"Yippies, Hippies, Yahoos, Black Panthers, lions and tigers alike -- I would swap the whole damn zoo for the kind of young Americans I saw in Vietnam."

***

Now, let's consider the impact and benefit of Biden's issuing purportedly unauthorized statements that supposedly create problems for his boss. His role in another recent controversy is instructive.

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Barack Obama has alienated a number of his core constituencies by behaving differently as president than he had as a presidential candidate. Perhaps none was more important than the gay vote. Wealthy gays are a hugely vital part of the democratic constituency, and many important gay donors had been withholding their support because of Obama's reticence to publicly endorse gay marriage rights.

When North Carolina, an important swing state, had its ballot measure on marriage equality in May, Obama remained silent. Big gay donors were none too happy -- and the funds were drying up.

Then, two days before the North Carolina vote, Biden went on the program "Meet the Press" and declared that he was "absolutely comfortable" with same-sex marriage. Members of the media, such as Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank, reacted quickly, declaring that, by appearing to contradict his boss, Biden had created a "mess" for Obama.

Some mess. Biden's comment came just two days before North Carolinians voted by a 61%-39% margin to ban gay marriage.  Because it was Biden, and adjudged an "unauthorized" comment and a gaffe, the White House did not have take any flack from black voters in North Carolina, many of whom supported the ban. North Carolina, like Virginia, where Biden delivered his most recent alleged goof, are crucial swing states with sizable black populations. North Carolina is especially delicate because it is also the site of the Democratic convention where Obama will be renominated.

And what was the upshot?

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Almost immediately after the North Carolina vote was in, Obama switched his position, offering a more modest version of Biden's, following in the veep's tail wind, and facing little of the criticism he might have faced had he been out front on the matter.

Obama ended up satisfying his gay donors...on Wednesday morning. And the story was put out that Obama's hand had been forced by Biden...but also that the president had been undergoing a gradual metamorphosis himself on the issue. The media, of course, totally bought it. As the New York Times wrote:

"Before President Obama left the White House on Tuesday morning to fly to an event in Albany, several aides intercepted him in the Oval Office. Within minutes it was decided: the president would endorse same-sex marriage on Wednesday, completing a wrenching personal transformation on the issue."

Within minutes, the floodgates began opening. As the Los Angeles Times reported:

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Author, investigative journalist, editor-in-chief at WhoWhatWhy.com

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