I think people underestimate Joe Biden. In fact, I think that every time someone makes fun of him for being “gaffe prone”, he chortles with the glee of a sinister mastermind.
What is his most famous gaffe during his Vice Presidential term? Arguably, it was when the Affordable Care act passed, and he said (ostensibly not meant for the public to hear) “This is a big f___ deal.” People still make fun of this. I heard Sean Hannity refer to it again just this past week. But I’m convinced that it was absolutely no accident. This was the kind of thing that liberals and Democrats and progressives across the country were saying to each other. This was exactly the kind of positive reinforcement that liberals and progressives wanted to hear articulated. Hearing their own feelings expressed outwardly by a politician is empowering: its an affirmation, it’s a validation. It’s a way that a politician let’s the people on his side know: “My heart is where your heart is.”
But let me ask you a question: did anybody in the media talk about it as a secret message meant to pump up the base and rally people emotionally? Well, maybe a few people pointed this out; but it was not how most people talked about the event. It was a “gaffe.” As a result, most conservatives didn’t see it as a strategy. Oh, that old Joe Biden: so gaffe-prone. So Joe got away with completely manipulating the situation, saying the thing that the President couldn’t (with propriety) say but that was exactly the right thing to say to rally the base, and nobody accused him of messaging or manipulating because it was dismissed as a “gaffe.”
It was dismissed because he already had the reputation. Why? Let’s look at some of the other “gaffes” in his history. When talking about the stimulus, he said: “”If we do everything right, if we do it with absolute certainty, there’s still a 30% chance we’re going to get it wrong.” This is a statement which, all posturing and politicking aside, was probably pretty accurate. It was also an important strategic move, which in the business world we call “managing expectations.” Anyone from a project manager to a President of a company knows that if there’s a good chance that things will go to crap for reasons outside of your control, then you tell people that things could very well go to crap as early on as possible. That way, one of two things happens: they go to crap, and you’re the expert who was able to predict it; or they do not go to crap, and you were the guy who was able to prevent it.
In politics this was seen as a “gaffe”, but it was actually a brilliant, and even necessary, strategic move from a people-management perspective. But again, did the opposition come up with this? Did the conservatives say: “He’s setting the stage so that if something goes wrong, it won’t look like the Democrats’ fault, but instead it will just look like something they predicted?” I’m sure some people did think of this and talk about it… but for the majority of the media, this wasn’t the conversation. Instead: Oh, look, a gaffe.
The exact same analysis applies to his comment when Obama was first inaugurated, saying “we’re going to have an international crisis, a generated crisis, to test the mettle of this guy.” It was managing expectations, it was setting up a prediction that could only be defied in a positive way. But the media did not identify it as a strategic manipulation of the psychology of the people. They just laughed it off: Oh, look, another gaffe.
There is nothing more powerful, perhaps especially in the world of politics, than being underestimated. I can’t say for sure whether Joe Biden originally came by his reputation for being “gaffe prone” on purpose or not. It’s entirely possible that much of his early career was, in fact, pockmarked with bungles and errors.
But he is a smart man, and I can tell you this: once he realized that he was branded with the label of being “gaffe prone,” he sighed a sigh of relief and decided he might as well take full advantage. Think of how freeing it is, to know that other people have put you in a box and will label you a particular way no matter what you do. It means that he can now say whatever he wants, and if it is in any way considered “impolitic” then the media will simply call it a “gaffe” and write it off.
He can even get away with telling the truth. Just imagine.