From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, and Huma Zaidi
Sen. Joe Biden (D) certainly practiced his presidential campaign announcement enough, repeating his intention to run so often that his actual filing appeared likely to be anticlimactic. At least at first.
Despite all the trial runs, Biden still stumbled upon leaving the gate. His comments to the New York Observer about primary rival and fellow Sen. Barack Obama -- that Obama is "articulate and bright and clean" -- sparked a firestorm on behalf of the Illinois senator, who didn't appear to feel all that slighted yesterday. "He called me," Obama told reporters when asked about Biden's remarks. "I told him it wasn't necessary... I have no problems with Joe Biden." His shots at Obama and Sen. Hillary Clinton for being latecomers to the Iraq war debate also got notice, though not as much.
So, what are the takeaway points from this hubbub? Of course, some people took genuine offense at Biden's remarks about Obama, perhaps especially his use of the word "articulate," articulateness seeming to be a given for a US senator. He may get a cool reception when he addresses the Democratic National Committee meeting on Saturday, where the crowd will be packed with African-American and liberal activists.
Second, given Biden's history of ill-judged comments, including the "borrowed" remarks that sank his last presidential bid and his recent quip about Indian-Americans and 7-Elevens, the Observer interview fulfilled expectations that at some point during this campaign, Biden was going to say something foolish. That it happened on the day of his announcement only makes it worse for him. Biden clearly has hoped that his roughness around the edges and blunt talk would be seen as an asset at a time when many national politicians appear too cautious or staged, but he lost the chance to introduce himself that way.
Third, some people, including some members of the press, probably were quick to assume offense on Obama's behalf -- a development that was inevitable in this first presidential campaign featuring a viable African-American contender. As Obama weighs the politically tricky question of how strongly he needs to target black voters, he has to consider how to respond to comments that some in the black community might find more offensive than he does. Indeed, later yesterday, Obama revised his original statement: "I didn't take Senator Biden's comments personally, but obviously they were historically inaccurate. African-American presidential candidates like Jesse Jackson, Shirley Chisholm, Carol Moseley Braun and Al Sharpton gave a voice to many important issues through their campaigns, and no one would call them inarticulate."
It's also a reminder that race remains such a sensitive topic that comments and even inferences about it can easily be turned into political fodder. Just over one year ago, Republicans got mileage out of pouncing on Clinton's remark that the GOP-controlled House was run "like a plantation," while Democrats and prominent African-American leaders took no offense.
Meanwhile, there was significant movement yesterday on the Iraq resolution front, NBC's Ken Strickland reports. GOP Sen. John Warner made some big concessions that won over Armed Services chair Carl Levin, with more likely to follow suit. Per Strickland, the changes are expected to alleviated the concerns of many in both parties and draw more Republicans to vote against Bush's proposed troop increase. Majority Leader Harry Reid is so pleased with it that he's now trying to make it the starting point for debate next week, instead of the other resolution crafted by Levin, Biden and Sen. Chuck Hagel (R).
At its core, the non-binding resolution still "disagrees" with Bush's plan, but it eliminates phrasing that many Democrats (especially Levin) felt gave Bush too much leeway on troop size. The new version also nods to Republicans who strongly opposed any cuts in funding for the troops. It now says that Congress should take no action that will endanger US forces, "including the elimination or reduction of funds for troops." And finally, it elaborates more on benchmarks, requiring that they be in writing and agreed to by Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki and the Bush Administration, Strickland reports.
It's still unclear how the debate will unfold next week, he says -- but the changes give Warner's measure new momentum.
And President Bush, top Democratic presidential contenders Clinton and Obama, and a whole host of other lawmakers attend the National Prayer Breakfast this morning.