Barack Obama didn't even want to pick a running mate in the summer of 2008. Assured of his impending victory in the general election, he had already begun planning his presidential transition and was "thinking expansively about his place in the world." He would have picked himself if that was allowed, but ultimately settled on Joe Biden, the "overly loquacious and overly self-assured" lifelong senator who placed fifth in the Iowa caucus earlier that year. The rest is history.
The Long Alliance: The Imperfect Union of Joe Biden and Barack Obama by New York magazine correspondent Gabriel Debenedetti is a thorough examination of this "nearly two-decade relationship that has a claim to being the most consequential of any in 21st century politics." The passage of time—not to mention the steady stream of candid remarks leaked to the press—has eroded the conventional wisdom regarding the Obama-Biden duo as an unlikely partnership that blossomed into a full-blown bromance. Long Alliance explores in great detail how this relationship was (and still is) "more complicated than widely appreciated."
Neither Obama nor Biden agreed to be interviewed for the book, but Debenedetti is able to re-create their "decisions, motivations, beliefs, hopes, and concerns," gleaned from hundreds of interviews with aides and associates with firsthand knowledge, in a way that feels authentic. The author succeeds, for the most part, by refraining from superfluous punditry and letting the reporting speak for itself. The result is a largely sympathetic but not always flattering portrayal of the two protagonists.
Long Alliance is a great example of how the benefit of hindsight has improved the media's ability to assess Obama and his presidency. More than a decade removed from his historic election as the country's first black president, he is no longer the messianic figure who sent a thrill up Chris Matthews's leg and won the Nobel Peace Prize just because. Some journalists, having outgrown the compulsion to grovel at Obama's feet to prove their opposition to racism, have been emboldened to accurately describe the former president as a "self-consciously arrogant" narcissist—"never … short of confidence" because "no one who writes a memoir in his 30s is"—surrounded by "a coterie of strategists and number crunchers who fancied themselves brilliant world-changers."
Biden, of course, is a different breed of politician. Debenedetti explores the two men's contrasting styles at length, while also highlighting a crucial similarity: Anyone who wants to be president is by definition a self-absorbed psychopath. The book reveals how Obama viewed the presidency as the ultimate homework assignment or an exclusive internship with which to pad his résumé, and pretty much hated every aspect of the job he started running for "almost immediately" after becoming a senator—a public figure who "bristled at the inconveniences" of being a public figure and openly fantasized about being an ex-president before getting elected.
The book contains several examples of Obama's preternatural arrogance and capacity for self-delusion. For example, after refusing to adequately prepare for the first presidential debate against Mitt Romney in 2012, Obama explained his abysmal performance by suggesting "he just wasn't as desperate as other politicians for approval." He mused—he was always "musing" or "ruminating" in "grand terms"—that he was "ahead of his time" and Donald Trump's shocking victory was due to the fact that "people were bored with all the successes of his own administration." A notorious aloof weirdo, Obama hates it when people call him aloof. In 2016, he spent Election Night watching Doctor Strange with his wife and Valerie Jarrett.
Biden is also an arrogant weirdo. Most politicians are. That alone could explain why he and Obama got along so well at times and butted heads at others. Before teaming up with Obama in 2008, Biden was repeatedly disheartened that the American people didn't share his exceedingly high opinion of himself. He wasn't a fan of Obama's "messianic" coverage and the rookie senator's refusal to wait his turn. He had to be prodded to accept the VP nomination—the single best thing that ever happened to him—because he thought he should be secretary of state and didn't want to tarnish his "brand" by taking a less influential gig.
Debenedetti recounts that Biden's first thought upon taking the vice presidential debate stage against GOP nominee Paul Ryan in 2012 was "I could physically take this guy." Months earlier, the VP had "basked in the positive headlines" after spoiling Obama's carefully orchestrated "evolution" by blurting out his support for gay marriage during an interview on Meet the Press. Some time later, he sat down with son Beau and "rewatched the interview over and over, to marvel at what he'd done." He had a habit of blatantly lying to make himself look good, falsely claiming to have supported the bin Laden raid and suggesting he "asked" Obama not to endorse him in 2020. Historian Jon Meacham didn't just write his speeches, he helped decorate the Oval Office.
Biden turned out to be right about 2020, winning the general election after Obama urged him not to "embarrass himself" by running. He was right about 2016, when he insisted that Hillary Clinton was a weak candidate who would struggle to win working-class white voters in the Midwest, but ultimately decided against challenging her for the nomination after Beau's death in 2015. Nevertheless, Obama is the reason Biden is president today. Their imperfect union spans a tumultuous period in American politics that, more than anything, has revealed how little professional politicians and pundits understand about American voters: Obama didn't stand a chance against the Clinton machine. Neither did Trump. And Biden couldn't possibly prevail against the likes of Pete Buttigieg, Beto O'Rourke, and Elizabeth Warren.
Obama and Biden are still in touch, Debenedetti reports, connecting every few weeks for "political therapy" sessions, presumably to commiserate about how Democratic presidents are always victims of forces beyond their control, which includes "a skeptical public unwilling to be won over" by politicians explaining that the economy is actually better than they think it is according to this chart. Their relationship will soon face another test as Biden decides whether or not to seek reelection at the age of 81 and Obama decides which celebrities to invite to his next birthday party.
The Long Alliance: The Imperfect Union of Joe Biden and Barack Obama
by Gabriel Debenedetti
Henry Holt, 432 pp., $29.99