The Monitor's View

More than your average Joe

Joe Biden's got working-class roots, but his main strength is his foreign-policy expertise.

With the economy the top concern for American voters, it's not surprising that Barack Obama emphasized Joe Biden's working-class roots when he introduced him as his running mate last week. But Mr. Biden's expertise is his substantial foreign-policy experience, and that is the main strength he brings to the ticket.

It's tempting for politicians to separate the domestic scene from international relations in their campaign talk. The world "out there" can seem disconnected from concerns at home, such as high gas prices and a sluggish economy.

That's why the man who is the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee – and who has spent more than 30 years on that committee – was presented to voters in Springfield, Ill. on Aug. 24 as the son of a car salesman and boiler cleaner from scrappy Scranton, Pa.; a commuter who still takes the train from his home in Wilmington, Del., to his work in Washington; a man, as Mr. Obama put it, "who understands the rising costs of working people." In other words, your average Joe.

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On Wednesday, Biden is expected to stretch beyond average and focus more closely on national security issues when he speaks to the Democratic convention. It's the perfect opportunity to remind Americans that the country's overall well-being is not boxed off from events and trends in other lands but is tied to them.

The connection grows tighter every year. High oil prices in the US are fed by surging economic growth in China and India. Increased demand for more meat among the newly better-off in the world contributes to higher grain prices in the US, because livestock feed on grain. Mexico's economic development is an important piece of the illegal immigration puzzle that causes such passion in the US.

With no attack on America's mainland since Sept. 11, 2001, the threat of terrorism has receded in the minds of voters, as has the war in Iraq, where security has greatly improved. But the Taliban and Al Qaeda have regrouped in the largely lawless border areas of Pakistan, and dangerous surprises can spring at any time, as the world just saw with Russia's invasion of its tiny southern neighbor, Georgia.

The world's challenges require a deft use of "strong" and "soft" power by Washington, and Biden has turned to both. When ethnic cleansing threatened the Balkans, he pushed for military action to end it. He also voted for the war in Iraq – a mistake, he has since said. But recently he cosponsored a bill with Republican Richard Lugar of Indiana to build trust in the US among Pakistanis – and encourage them to root out terrorists – by tripling development aid to that country.

Biden doesn't join Obama without liabilities. He admits it, he can be a windbag. His verbal gaffes – and a 1987 incident of plagiarism – have gotten him in trouble. His novel proposal to divide Iraq along ethnic lines fell flat.

But Obama has chosen well by selecting someone who can shore up his greatest weakness – inexperience – and who can match Republican John McCain's greatest strength – national security know-how. The trick for the Democratic duo will be to show voters that foreign-policy expertise is not just a campaign tool, but necessary to governing 21st-century America.

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