Biden back on stump, off script

Vice President Biden said Thursday that President Obama “has a big stick” on foreign policy in an offhand remark during a fiery speech attacking Mitt Romney that highlighted both Biden’s efficacy as a surrogate and his major liability: a propensity for going off script.

Seeking to maximize the gains Obama and Democrats have made with voters on national security issues, Biden presented a greatest-hits compilation of the Obama administration’s foreign policy, with al Qaeda’s former leader front and center.

“If you are looking for a bumper sticker to sum up how President Obama has handled what we inherited, it’s pretty simple: Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive,” Biden said.

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But Biden, who at one point quipped sarcastically that he’s immune from slips of the tongue, also slipped in a joke about Obama that raised more than a few eyebrows.

“Now is the time to heed the timeless advice from Teddy Roosevelt: ‘Speak softly and carry a big stick,’” Biden said.

“I promise you, the president has a big stick,” he added, drawing embarrassed laughter from the crowd at New York University.

As the No. 2 man on the ticket, Biden has wide latitude to push the most direct and hard-hitting attacks against Romney, the presumptive GOP presidential nominee, without the risk of appearing unpresidential. 

On the campaign trail in 2008, he honed his image for being fast on his feet, but at the same time he was prone to gaffes that often required Obama and his aides to walk back Biden’s remarks.

Unlike Obama, who rarely departs from his prepared remarks, Biden spoke freely and with a characteristically casual attitude, varying frequently from the excerpted script circulated to the media before the address.

But for Biden, his penchant for making words his own is a major element of his charm, allowing him to relate to blue-collar voters with a level of spontaneity that frequently eludes Obama.

“They’ll make fun of Biden, but it won’t hurt the ticket that much because it’s Biden doing it, not the president,” said Craig Smith, a former speechwriter in the Ford and first Bush administrations. “The public attributes the mistakes to the person that made them, rather than the whole ticket.”

Biden and Obama have lobbed attacks against Romney in the past, usually in broad, passing comments slipped into remarks on other topics. With the GOP primary effectively over, Obama and his team are now in full campaign mode — a fact that was on display Thursday as Biden spent almost an hour quoting specific statements by Romney then rebutting each one line by line.

“Without question, our No. 1 geopolitical foe is Russia,” Biden said, quoting a comment Romney made in March while criticizing Obama.

The vice president paused to let the audience laugh before continuing.

“As my brother would say, ‘Go figure,’” Biden said, accusing Romney of a Cold War mentality that viewed foreign policy through a rear-view mirror.

Although Democrats are struggling to convince voters they have the correct approach on the economy, on foreign policy Obama has built up a clear advantage. Voters gave Obama a 17-point advantage over Romney on handling of international affairs in a Washington Post/ABC News poll conducted at the beginning of April. 

The killing of bin Laden, the ouster of former Libyan leader Mohammar Gadhafi, the signing of new trade pacts and the winding down of the war in Iraq are just some of the talking points Obama and Biden are deploying as they make the case for how their administration has rooted out terrorists and protected the nation.   

“What would Gov. Romney do? The truth is we don’t know for certain,” Biden said. “But we know where the governor starts. He starts with a profound misunderstanding of the responsibilities of the president and the commander in chief.”

Parsing Romney’s comments from speeches in the past, Biden said the GOP candidate exposed his lack of knowledge about world affairs by advocating for sanctions against Iran that are already in place. He insinuated that Romney and Republicans, by speaking loosely about the possibility of war with Iran, had created instability in world oil markets and driven up the price of gas.

“This type of Romney talk is just not smart,” he said.

He also blasted Romney for claiming in 2008 that the president need not be a foreign policy expert, brandishing his own expertise acquired from years as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

“It’s an odd dynamic. They’re reversing the traditional trends of Republicans going after the Democrats for being too weak,” said Julian Zelizer, a presidential historian at Princeton University. “It’s a total reversal from the Bush years.”

Biden didn’t refer to President George W. Bush by name, but the attempts to tie Romney to the unpopular foreign policy legacy left behind by Obama’s predecessor were readily apparent. Biden reminded voters how Obama had done away with secret overseas prisons and banned torture, rejecting what he described as the false choice between American values and national security.

In anticipation of Biden’s speech, Romney’s campaign dispatched foreign-policy surrogates to claim that it was Obama, not Romney or Bush, whose approach to international affairs falls outside the mainstream of what both parties have pursued over recent decades.

“He’s constantly giving while the others take and we get nothing in return,” said Pierre Prosper, a war crimes ambassador under Bush. “Meanwhile weapons are produced, atrocities are committed, as I said, democracies are being trampled and U.S. influence wanes.”

Former Navy Secretary John Lehman, another Romney backer, told reporters that the United States had failed to lead efforts to combat pirates off the coast of Africa and that Obama’s proposed defense budget amounted to “unilateral disarmament.” 

“This is serious crisis and perhaps could be the central issue in the campaign,” Lehman said.