Was Biden's 'back in chains' comment to black voters intentional?

Vice President Joe Biden told an audience that included African-Americans that Mitt Romney wanted to 'unchain' Wall Street from regulations and 'put y'all back in chains.' Team Romney called it a new low for the Obama campaign. Maybe Biden knew exactly what he was doing.

Steven Mantilla/AP/The Register & Bee
Vice President Joe Biden speaks at the Institute for Advanced Research and Learning in Danville, Va. on Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2012.

Joe Biden is famous for gaffes. But when the vice president told voters in southern Virginia that Mitt Romney’s plan to “unchain” Wall Street would “put y’all back in chains,” it’s far from clear that he misspoke.  

Mr. Biden was speaking Tuesday to an audience that included many African-Americans, and he seemed to be playing to the crowd. With the allusion to slavery, the comment could easily have been a political “dog whistle” to black voters – a coded signal to a demographic that turned out heavily to elect Barack Obama as the first black president four years ago.

President Obama needs heavy black turnout again to win reelection.

The Romney campaign cried foul, accusing the Obama campaign of reaching a “new low” and saying Biden’s comments are “not acceptable in our political discourse.”  

Speaking on CBS “This Morning” Wednesday, Mr. Romney himself objected, saying the suggestion that he wants to deregulate Wall Street is inaccurate and that the nature of Biden’s comments sinks “the White House just a little lower.”  

Biden has grabbed onto the controversy as a way to reinforce his point: that Romney would “unshackle” the economy of its regulations, and harm the middle class. He didn’t apologize for saying “chains” and said he really meant to say “shackles.” And, he said, it was Republican House Speaker John Boehner who put the term “unshackled” out there, when he spoke about the budget plan of Rep. Paul Ryan, now Romney’s running mate.

End result: an extended back and forth over Wall Street regulations with racial overtones.

It wouldn’t be the first time the Obama campaign is accused of playing the race card. Back in 2010, for example, before the midterm elections, Obama told a rally that Republicans were "counting on ... black folks staying home." But it’s too soon to say who “wins” with Biden's comments.

If the controversy reaches the attention of white working-class voters in key battleground states like Ohio and Virginia, then maybe Romney wins. Obama polls poorly among that demographic, and has to be careful not to push those voters into Romney’s arms. But if it’s really a political dog whistle – audible only to certain voters – then maybe this little skirmish ends up playing to Obama’s benefit.

Regardless, there are much larger issues at play in the campaign having to do with race. Those include the effort in some states to require voters to show ID to cast a ballot and the effort to remove ineligible voters from the rolls.

Democrats argue that those moves would disproportionately affect minority voters, who tend to vote Democratic. Republicans say they’re aimed at ensuring the integrity of elections.

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