A Contrast in Styles: Obama and Biden


Chandler, Arizona, witnessed a recent event that celebrated 21st Century technology by evoking memories of 20th Century Democratic politics. President Joe Biden flew in and surrounded himself with politicians to announce $8.5 billion in grants and $11 billion in loans for Intel to build manufacturing plants for semi-conductor research and development.

Semi-conductors are an underpinning to all modern industrial and national security innovation and emerging technologies, according to a recent Congressional Research Service study.  Revival of manufacturing in America is an integral part of the Biden Administration’s reelection strategy, as is the CHIPS and Science Act, massaged through Congress by Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.

At the dais, Biden showed how his presidency is very different in tone and personality from the Obama Administration, where Biden did dutiful service for eight years as vice president. Joe Biden is an old fashioned glad-handing guy. Barack Obama was regal and somewhat aloof — memorably photographed by Seattle photographer Jordan Stead sitting alone in his limousine headed for a fundraiser in Medina. Obama was from the people and for the people, but not OF the people.

Joe Biden loves to be in the midst of politicians and workers in hard hats. His words in Chandler evoked memories of Franklin D. Roosevelt announcing an alphabet-soup New Deal program: “We’re going to build these new fabs – these factories they call them. They’re like, twice the size of football fields and guess what the average pay is? About 100,000 to 110,000 bucks per year, and you don’t need a college degree to have a job.”

Senior ranks of the Obama Administration were populated by former (and future) Wall Street mavens, personified by National Economic Council director Larry Summers and U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner. U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar had been a stalwart defender/advocate of the oil and gas industry in the U.S. Senate. The president first made national news as a student, the first African-American to edit the Harvard Law Review.

Biden was 76th in his class at the Syracuse University Law School, and scuttled his own initial run for president by describing his own background in words taken from a speech by Britain’s Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock. He made awkward headlines in 2010, as Obama prepared to sign the Affordable Care Act, caught on camera whispering that this was “a big fuckin’ deal.”

“Our plan for the American people is working now,” Biden said in Chandler, courting a state he narrowly won in 2020. He boasted that the CHIPS Act has “ignited a manufacturing boom, a clean energy boom, a jobs boom, all here in America – finally.”  Its beneficiaries are a beleaguered middle class. Its goal is defined as building prosperity “from the middle up and the bottom up, not from the top down.”

Soaring words can inspire a nation, such as was the case with Obama’s 2008 speech on racial reconciliation in America, or John F. Kennedy’s promise of Medicare under Social Security. But the battle for progress is more often fought and won in the trenches. The political skills of Lyndon Johnson muscled through Medicare and the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Nose counting by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi produced the 220-215 vote margin for the Affordable Care Act.

Obama was a product of what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., described as “the urgency of now.” He rose in four years from the Illinois State Senate to the U.S. Senate, and then to the presidency. He was impatient with political rituals. During Obama’s short senatorial tenure, as Joe Biden held forth endlessly at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, Obama passed a two-word message to his chief of staff: “Shoot me.”

Biden resided in the Senate for 36 years, having been elected at age 29 after just two years on the New Castle County Council in Delaware. He joined a body whose commitment to longevity, seniority, and ritual have been likened to a New Guinea tribe. As Biden put it of his role as second banana, “With President Obama, I would always say to him, ‘Mr. President, all politics is personal.’”

Over the years, Biden has made friends with the Senate’s Southern segregationists — which later got him in trouble — made deals, changed his position on abortion, and ceaselessly campaigned for fellow Democrats. A classic Biden story: On a visit to St. Louis, he gave a shout-out to Missouri State Sen. Chuck Graham. “Chuck, stand up, let the people see you,” said our future president. (Turns out Chuck was in a wheelchair). At a 2022 White House conference, Biden summoned Indiana’s GOP Rep. Jackie Walorski to the dais, asking: “Jackie, are you here? Where’s Jackie?” (Walorski had been killed weeks earlier in a car crash.)

Don’t laugh. Expressions of condolences are a trademark connection for a politician who lost his first wife and daughter in an automobile accident, and saw his son and political heir Beau Biden die of brain cancer. Joe Biden has been known to pass out his private phone number to wounded strangers he meets on the campaign trail. He has counseled young people who stutter, having overcome the affliction himself. The ability to put one’s self in the shoes of others is a cherished skill in politics.

It yields victories.  Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell set out to flummox the Obama Administration from day one, telling a GOP gathering: “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” He memorably blocked even a hearing on Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to succeed deceased U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, a key move in assembling a right-wing majority.

Obama made a much-publicized 2011 visit to the crumbling Brent Spence Bridge over the Ohio River, a vital connection between Kentucky and Cincinnati. He called out McConnell to pass a bill repairing the nation’s decaying infrastructure, but to no avail. By contrast, there were two 80-year-old guys, Biden and O’Connell, at the bridge touting the $1 trillion Infrastructure package that is a centerpiece of the Democratic president’s program.

Infrastructure had passed with a bipartisan majority and McConnell’s vote.  It was a product of mutual interest — McConnell’s in getting credit for a vitally needed home state project, Biden’s for delivery of on-the-grounds jobs. “The country needs to see examples like this,” said McConnell, with the old Kentucky obstructionist describing the infrastructure deal as “literally a legislative miracle.”

The bridge over troubled waters was reminiscent of Lyndon Johnson cajoling ultra-conservative Virginia Sen. Harry Byrd into supporting an income tax cut, and persuading Senate Republican leader Everett Dirksen to back the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights law. Or Franklin Roosevelt’s masterful passage of New Deal legislation, before falling victim to his own hubris and failing in his efforts to pack the U.S. Supreme Court.

Achieving cooperation has become almost impossible in a divided, polarized America. Indeed, Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives are divided and polarized. Biden can still make it work on occasions, but can display an FDR-like ability to draw the line.  He has used the 2023 and 2024 State-of-the-Union speeches to bait GOP crazies, to elicit vulgar jeers from the likes of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Georgia, and to seize the high ground with such lines as: “History is watching you. Your children and grand children will watch what you do.”

Biden has also taught lessons to his fellow Democrats. In 2021, the liberal-left Congressional Progressive Caucus, led by Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Seattle, blocked passage of the infrastructure passage, holding it hostage for a Senate vote on sweeping reforms (such as Medicare For All) of the $2 trillion Build Back Better proposal. But BBB proved a no-go in a closely divided Congress.

The president helped rescue the impass with the Inflation Reduction Act, which gained support from holdout conservative Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema. Half-a-loaf to be sure, but the act makes historic investments including 272 new clean-energy investments in 44 states and 93 new battery manufacturing sites creating more than 90,000 new jobs. It provided an unprecedented boost to wind and solar energy development, even bolstered the Internal Revenue Service.

The relationship of our 44th and 46th presidents is complicated. As Biden announced his first bid for the White House in 2007, he said of Obama, “I mean when you get the first mainstream African-American who is articulate, bright, and a clean nice-looking guy, I mean that’s storybook, man.” The first Biden presidential campaign apology quickly followed.

But the two men complemented each other’s abilities. Absent were the tensions seen when Al Gore distanced himself from Bill Clinton in the 2000 campaign. Despite Obama’s taking a stricken vice president under his wing after Beau Biden’s death in 2015, Obama made it clear his preference of former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton to head the Democrats’ 2016 ticket. As Biden has put it, “a lot of people . . . were encouraging me to run in this period, except the president . . . .He just thought that [Clinton] had a better shot of winning the presidency than I did.”

More recently, with passage of his landmark legislation, Biden has been heard to remark: “Obama would be jealous.” Such former Obama bigshots as Larry Summers have sniped from the sidelines, calling out Biden policies as contributing to inflation.

Locally, there was one brief cause of tension between the two men. During the 2008 campaign, Sen. John McCain was making an issue of Obama’s lack of experience on the national and world stage. Vice President nominee Biden came to the Seattle Sheraton for a big ticket fundraiser, giving Republicans ammunition by telling donors: “It will not be six months before the world tests Barack Obama like they did John Kennedy. The world is looking . . .  Watch, we’re gonna have an international crisis, a generated crisis, to test the mettle of this guy.”

The Obama campaign hit the ceiling. Sixteen years later, however, Obama is hitting the campaign trail for Biden, telling social media: “Joe and the administration are essentially finishing the job.” Biden is holding a big fundraiser this week at the Radio City Music Hall in New York, headlined by Obama and Bill Clinton, Queen Latifah, and pop superstar Lizzo, and Stephen Colbert hosting a conversation with Joe, Barack, and Bill.

The biggest donors to the event will get a picture of themselves with three happy-together presidents taken by celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz.

Joel Connelly
Joel Connelly
I worked for Seattle Post-Intelligencer from 1973 until it ceased print publication in 2009, and SeattlePI.com from 2009 to 6/30/2020. During that time, I wrote about 9 presidential races, 11 Canadian and British Columbia elections‎, four doomed WPPSS nuclear plants, six Washington wilderness battles, creation of two national Monuments (Hanford Reach and San Juan Islands), a 104 million acre Alaska Lands Act, plus the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area.


  1. There was also an ideological difference. Obama was a neo-liberal, surrounding himself with the Robert Rubins of the world. Biden is an FDR Democrat. Obama thought the best way to stimulate the economy was to cut taxes and regulations for the wealthy, and jobs would trickle down. Biden, who entered the Senate while the New Dealers were still there and remembered how FDR had saved his dad’s job, is a “middle-out” Democrat, just as FDR was. Focus on the middle class and labor, and watch the economy grow. That same clash will be a feature of the current presidential race between Trump (help the rich) and Biden (help the ordinary worker).

    • David, your concluding sentence is very accurate, at least as far as how things will be portrayed by the media. Reality seems to be just the opposite. Trump’s central campaign theme was jobs. His administration achieved record lows in unemployment, significantly among lower income workers. He helped the ‘ordinary worker’ and today, if you look at the core of his supporters, they are non-college educated blue collar types. On the other hand, Biden’s significant achievement has been to let millions of undocumented foreign nationals into our country. Who do you think has been hurt the most by that? It’s the ‘ordinary worker’ who is having to compete with all these new arrivals for jobs, not the college educated, white-collar elites who think everyone can afford to go out and buy a new Tesla. And, it’s these college educated elites who are the core of Biden’s support, not the ‘ordinary workers’.

  2. What Biden, Obama and Clinton have in common is the fact that they all came into ‘public service’ without a lot of personal wealth, and now they’re all multi-millionaires.


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