MARTINS FERRY, Ohio — Vice President Joe Biden returned to the campaign trail this week , just days after he forced President Barack Obama’s hand in supporting gay marriage — a move that infuriated a White House that spent the better part of the week trashing its Vice President in the press.
But Biden’s weaknesses in Washington are his strengths on the road, and his intuitive, emotional style of politics is what put him on the ticket in the first place. On a two-day “Made in Ohio” tour along the Ohio River, Biden delivered fiery lines, kissed babies, and scarfed down Dairy Queen.
“Barack Obama knew exactly what he’s getting,” said former Sen. Ted Kaufman, Biden’s long-time chief of staff who filled his Senate seat after the 2008 election. “I told them — Joe Biden’s a handful, he’s not a yes man, make sure you’re ready for him. He’ll always say what he believes, and he did that last week.”
One Democratic operative mused to BuzzFeed that the Obama team came down so hard on Biden to teach him a lesson. “Better now than in October,” the operative said.
On the road, campaign and White House officials found themselves working to avoid another incident of Biden “getting out over his skis” like he did on gay marriage without muzzling a key component of their electoral strategy. And Biden appeared unchastened.
“He’s apologized to the president, and now he just wants to put it behind him,” said one person close to Biden. “He’s happy to be back out on the trail.”
But his staff appeared eager to insulate him from another access to the Vice President was tightly controlled. Pool reporters only saw minutes of hour-long unscheduled stops and were instructed not to ask Biden any questions. Other national reporters were left behind.
On Thursday, reporters tried to approach a rope line where Biden was greeting a handful of supporters, but after one reporter asked his question about coal — a hot-button topic in this corner of the state, Obama staffers ordered Secret Service to move reporters back.
Even here, flashes of Biden’s rogue surrogacy shone through his aviator sunglasses. Biden angrily lashed out at the rich — and Romney —for accusing the middle class of “envy,” in an exchange some on the right compared to the infamous Howard "Dean Scream."
"I said it yesterday, and I’ll say it more calmly today,” Biden said in a more reasoned voice on Thursday before continuing, as the campaign tries to keep him on the right side of the fine line separating effective attack dog from over-zealous firebrand.
In the words of one local Republican operative, Biden’s sole job between now and November for the Obama campaign lies in the industrial heartland between Youngstown, OH and Allentown, Pa.
And Biden’s uninhibited temperament gives him the authenticity to talk to voters in this blue-collar corner of the state, a raw ability to connect that neither Obama nor Mitt Romney has.
From the grandmother who declared that it was “awesome” to meet him in person, to the firefighter who presented him with a commemorative T-shirt and boasted of received a hug to his colleagues, Biden is an awkward hero in a part of the nation that, in Biden’s words, “has been to hell and back.”
“They don’t get who we are,” Biden shouted about the wealthy at a rally in a Youngstown factory Wednesday. The next day he branded himself “Middle Class Joe” at a car dealership here.
“He’s a middle class guy who’s not trying to be anything else,” Kaufman said. “It’s not something he runs away from.”
Indeed, Biden did everything but tattoo his forehead with the words “middle class” here. Biden slept at a Hampton Inn and had a sole complaint about his Dairy Queen ice cream cone, with just one complaint — he wanted a chocolate-vanilla swirl, but the swirler was broken. Instead he settled for vanilla dipped in chocolate, distributing ice creams to staff and a reporter, and gobbling his own with gusto.
It’s that authenticity that the Obama campaign latched onto in 2008 as a balance against the candidate who said decades of economic malaise led voters to “cling to guns or religion.” But it’s also what has put Biden — and at times the administration — in hot water. From declaring the health care reform signing to be a “Big F##ing Deal” to the gay marriage overstep, Biden has proved unable to be anyone other than Joe Biden. His gaffes are often endearing, but they cut against the fierce discipline at the core of the Obama campaign and the White House.