Joe Biden goes shopping at Costco. Why there?

Vice President Joe Biden went to a new Costco Thursday morning. There are several reasons a man who's a heartbeat away from the most powerful job in the world might spend a few minutes there.

Susan Walsh/AP
Vice President Joe Biden pushes his cart after shopping at Costco in Washington, D.C., Thursday. Biden went shopping for presents and to highlight the importance of renewing middle-class tax cuts so families and businesses have more certainty about the nation's fiscal direction.

Why did Vice President Joe Biden go shopping at Costco Thursday morning? He’s got a day job, after all. We’d have thought he might have spent the a.m. holed up in his White House office plotting strategy for “fiscal cliff’ talks. Or maybe preparing a greeting for Mitt Romney, who’s lunching Thursday with President Obama.

But no, Mr. Biden was out setting an example for holiday shoppers by priming the pump at the grand opening of the first Costco in Washington, D.C. Among other things, he bought cookies, children’s books, an apple pie, fire logs, and a 32-inch Panasonic TV. He tried some food samples. He declined to purchase a new set of tires.

“Hey man, I don’t need tires,” he said, according to the pool report. “I don’t drive anymore.”

No, we’re not making that tire thing up. Sometimes reality needs no improvement.

Anyway, we can think of several serious reasons that a man who’s a heartbeat away from the most powerful job in the world might spend a few minutes checking out pallets of dress shirt three-packs.

The first is an obvious one: He’s rewarding a supporter. Costco co-founder Jim Sinegal endorsed the Obama ticket, held a fundraiser at his New York home, and even spoke at the Democratic National Convention. Mr. Sinegal was present Thursday as Biden appeared at Costco’s door. Undoubtedly he was pleased at all the free publicity about the new store he’s getting because of his administration friends.

But this wasn’t just an economic/political quid pro quo. Our second point is that the administration tries to promote Costco as an example of how US businesses should treat employees. Costco’s people are well paid (for retail), and the firm offers good health insurance. Sinegal himself took home $350,000 in the last year he served as CEO, which sounds like a lot but is about one-third of the average for firms of Costco’s size.

That’s why the DNC got him onstage in Charlotte, N.C. His speech didn’t get that much attention, as he’s not exactly a rousing orator, and it went on late. Maybe Biden’s visit is a way of trying to raise those issues again.

“At our company, we recognize that job creation requires time and investment and commitment to the long term,” Sinegal said in his convention speech.

Last, Biden may just have been boosting D.C. Or an area of the city underserved by retail, in any case. The new Costco that the VP visited looms on a cliff in the northeast part of the city near the Anacostia River and the border with Maryland. It’s a lower-income area called Fort Lincoln, where local officials have put together a new shopping area named the Shops at Dakota Crossing. Costco is the first big tenant to open. Shoppers Food Warehouse and Marshalls are supposed to follow.

D.C. officials have long lamented that city residents who don’t live in the prosperous northwest quadrant have few retail options and must drive to Virginia or Maryland to shop. In visiting Costco, Biden brought attention to a place where D.C. residents can spend their bucks in D.C. – keeping jobs and tax revenue within the city.

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