All You Need to Know About Obama’s VP Options

Now that Obama has nearly clinched the nomination, who’s on tap to be his running mate? Your guide to the contenders.

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Barack Obama, the likely Democratic nominee, has two options in his hunt for a partner on the Democratic ticket. He can double down on strengths or he can compensate for weaknesses. If he mimics the last Democratic president and chooses the former (Bill Clinton selected another young Southerner, Al Gore, in 1992), the decision-making process is relatively easy: Find someone youthful and energetic with a devotion to reform, a foreign policy approach that rejects conventional wisdom, and a short or nonexistent Washington resume. If Obama chooses the latter, however, things are decidedly more complex. Does he choose a VP who bolsters the ticket on foreign policy or on executive experience? Is there anyone with foreign policy expertise who isn’t a creature of Washington? Does he find someone with appeal to working-class voters in Appalachia or white women nationwide? What about Jews in Florida and Latinos in the Southwest? And hanging over all of this is the geographic question—does Obama pick someone who hails from a swing state that he or she can deliver?

There is not a lot of evidence that suggests vice presidential candidates make a serious difference (good or bad) for the ticket. Two words: Dan Quayle. One study showed that a veep pick can increase a ticket’s performance by less than one half of one percent in the VP’s home state. Presidential candidates do not assume the assets (or race, or gender) of their running mates, and voters generally focus on the top of the ticket. The most important questions for Obama may be the simplest. Which potential VP can be president should the unthinkable happen, and whom can Obama spend four (or eight) harmonious years with in the White House?

With these caveats in mind, let’s look at the contenders. Hillary Clinton isn’t on this list—not because she is an unlikely pick, but because the merits of adding her to the ticket have been debated ad nauseam.

Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D-Kan.), 60
Sebelius is frequently mentioned because she is a living embodiment of Obama’s message. She won the governorship of deep red Kansas in 2002 and 2006. In both campaigns, she convinced a Republican to switch to the Democratic Party in order to become her lieutenant governor. In 2006, Sebelius also recruited the then-Republican district attorney in Johnson County to run as a Democrat for attorney general against a Republican incumbent. He did, and he won.

Sebelius is also on the list because it is assumed she will strengthen Obama’s support among female voters. But is that really true? Will women who are devoted to Hillary Clinton warm to Sebelius simply because she is a woman? That would be a fairly patronizing assumption for Obama and his strategists to make. And hardcore Clinton supporters may by angered if Obama selects a female running mate who isn’t Hillary Clinton. A final consideration on the topic of gender is whether putting an African American and a woman on the same ticket is too much of a political risk in a country that has elected neither to the top office.

Sebelius has other advantages. Because she has worked with a Republican legislature, she has been forced to issue bold vetoes of abortion restrictions, a harsh voter identification measure, and the creation of new coal plants. She is also anti-death penalty. In sum, Sebelius is a strong and successful progressive in a state where one doesn’t expect to find them.

Her lack of foreign policy credentials and Kansas’ paltry six electoral votes are liabilities. And no discussion of Sebelius is complete without a mention of her soporific response to Bush’s 2008 State of the Union address. Given the opportunity to showcase her talents, Sebelius came off as wooden and uninspiring. For one speech at least, she was the anti-Obama.

Gov. Ted Strickland (D-Ohio), 66
Governors and senators from Ohio are always going to be considered (Strickland isn’t the only Buckeye State lawmaker on this list), but Strickland brings more than just pull with the swingiest of states. The son of a steelworker, and a former Methodist minister who promised to follow “biblical principles” when he ran for governor in 2006, Strickland can probably appeal to those fabled working-class whites, if anyone can.

Though Strickland has only been governor since 2007 (he won 20 percent of Republicans and 69 percent of independents in his fight against then-Secretary of State Ken Blackwell), he did represent Ohio for six terms in the House before moving to the mansion. During that time, Strickland was instrumental in creating SCHIP, the federal government’s leading program providing health care for underprivileged children. In fact, it was during the genesis of SCHIP that Strickland came to know then-first lady Hillary Clinton, whose presidential candidacy he endorsed. That fact alone wouldn’t make Strickland a thorny pick, but he did parrot some of the Clinton campaign’s harshest criticisms of Obama.

Age is a factor with Strickland. Of concern to the Democratic Party, though perhaps not to Obama, is whether the VP pick will be able to carry its flag eight years down the line. Initiating an era of long-term progressive governance requires someone who is young, energetic, and inoffensive to most or all of the factions within the party. In that case, Strickland, who will be 74 in 2016, most certainly isn’t their guy.

Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.), 62
Webb recently took on John McCain on the GI Bill and showed that he wasn’t intimidated. In characteristically gruff fashion, he said that McCain, who opposed the bill because he feared it would decrease retention rates, was “full of it.” It was reminiscent of when Webb, in a reception at the White House soon after his election in 2006, refused to take a photo with President Bush and told him off when Bush asked about Webb’s son, who was then serving in Iraq.

Incidents like that one have helped to forge Webb’s reputation as the Democratic Party’s ballsiest member. A former Marine, Webb has earned a Navy Cross, the Silver Star, two Bronze Stars, and two Purple Hearts. He was secretary of the navy in the 1980s (though he is now actively opposed to the Iraq War), and two of his recent books are called Born Fighting and A Time to Fight. Sense a theme?

But if Webb doesn’t sound too much like a Democrat, that’s because he wasn’t one until recently. He held that secretary of the navy post during the Reagan administration. He was once quoted calling liberals “cultural Marxists.” In 2000 he assailed affirmative action as “state-sponsored racism,” and in 2004 he wrote that John Kerry should have been condemned for his opposition to the Vietnam War.

But Webb says that the GOP lost him. As a former Republican, he serves Obama’s unity theme. As VP, Webb could hit the trail saying to Reagan Democrats and moderate Republicans, “I used to find answers in the Republican Party, too. But it got too extreme, too corrupt, and too hawkish.” And Webb’s conversion looks thorough: He now has a 100 percent NARAL rating, supports same-sex civil unions, opposes the death penalty, and is an advocate for prison reform.

But for the foreign policy credentials, the ability to put Virginia in play, and the outsized personality (Terence Samuel noted in the American Prospect, “some Democrats see in [Webb] attributes they long for in their party — conviction, strength, and a willingness to fight”), Webb has one thing that may keep him off the ticket: a horrible record on women’s rights. He wrote a 1979 article titled “Women Can’t Fight,” making the argument that women are biologically unsuited for combat. He called the Naval Academy “a horny woman’s dream.” At a 1991 gathering of naval aviators known as Tailhook, widespread sexual assault/harassment of female attendees took place; Webb publicly denounced the military’s subsequent attempt to clean up shop. He called the investigation a “witch hunt.”

Capping the defeat of the first nearly successful female presidential candidate by putting a one-time spouter of chauvinism on the ticket might be a seriously dumb idea for the Democrats. “It would be seen as a big ‘screw you’ to Hillary’s supporters and to feminists in general,” writes blogger Kathy G.

Gov. Ed Rendell (D-Pa.), 64
Obama needs Pennsylvania the way fish need water. One reason Clinton won the Pennsylvania primary so decisively was Rendell’s support. He served two terms as Philadelphia’s district attorney, followed by two terms as the city’s mayor. (The New York Times called his tenure “the most stunning turnaround in recent urban history.”) Then Rendell took a year to chair the Democratic National Committee before running for governor. He won twice statewide. He brings a roadmap for success in the Keystone State and valuable executive experience.

That long resume in public service, however untainted by Washington as it may be, could be a deficiency if it is perceived as clashing with Obama’s agent-of-change theme. A bigger disadvantage, however, is Rendell’s seemingly genetic inability to stay on message. He has a long history of problematic truth telling, including his claim that Obama would struggle in Pennsylvania because “You’ve got conservative whites here…who are not ready to vote for an African American candidate.” Rendell would be an irrepressible personality in a position that sometimes calls for self-suppression. No presidential candidate wants to be upstaged by his or her running mate.

Rendell also brings no foreign policy background, and his age is no asset. The fact that he is Jewish, however, could help Obama in Florida and with Jews nationwide who question Obama’s commitment to Israel. But there’s always the other hand: Is America ready for a ticket that includes a fellow whom a significant number of Americans still believes is a secret Muslim, and a Jew?

Gov. Bill Richardson (D-N.M.), 60
His impressive resume—former Secretary of Energy, former UN Ambassador, 15 years in Congress, two-term governor—provided the justification for his presidential run, but Richardson couldn’t translate it into support with voters. He was often something of a sideshow and failed to convince voters that he was worthy of serious consideration.

Richardson’s history of negotiating with tough characters around the globe would lend credence to Obama on his biggest split from foreign policy orthodoxy. And Richardson could help Obama with Latino voters in swing states like Nevada and Colorado (and deliver New Mexico’s five electoral votes). Minor concern: Does the Democratic Party want Richardson to be its best-positioned member for a 2016 run for the presidency?

Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), 61
An unlikely choice, no doubt. But selecting Hagel, an outspoken anti-war Republican, would be a powerful signal that Obama will walk the walk, and not just talk the talk, when it comes to reaching out to like-minded Republicans. The two-term senator has foreign policy credentials and unlike most other moderate Republicans who have gone queasy on the war on Iraq, Hagel actually votes with the Democrats nowadays.

But although Hagel has become something of a progressive darling because of his tough talk on the Bush administration, he is a bedrock conservative on most domestic issues. His Planned Parenthood rating was 0 percent in 2006. His League of Conservation Voters rating was 20 percent in 2007. These are likely deal breakers.

Gen. Wesley Clark (US Army, retired), 63
Clark, a retired four-star general, commanded the NATO forces in the Kosovo War during his term as the supreme allied commander (1997 to 2000). Obviously that background brings national security cred to the ticket.

But by Clark’s own admission, his political consciousness was born after his military duties ended in 2000. A history of suspiciously conservative statements and the fact that Clark did not seem to have clearly defined positions on major issues when he ran for president as a Democrat in 2004 led many to believe that his choice of political party was a matter of convenience instead of principle. But Clark has always been pro-choice, and is now firmly against the Iraq War. And since 2004, he has become a fully integrated part of the progressive movement, even giving the keynote address at YearlyKos, the annual convention for liberal bloggers and their fans, in 2007.

Clark endorsed Clinton last September and is identified as one of her most prominent (and combative) surrogates. As a result, many in the media argue that his selection would help unify the party. But will heartbroken Clinton supporters really be mollified if one of Clinton’s good friends is on the ticket? Picking Clark would only be a bridge-building gesture if Clinton herself feels as though Clark’s presence on the ticket ensures that her agenda will have a place in the next administration.

Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), 69
Nunn is almost as old as McCain, the man Democrats are hoping voters will consider too geriatric for the presidency. If something were to happen to Obama, the face of the presidency and the face of the Democratic Party would change drastically. He is essentially a Cheney pick.

That said, Nunn has his strengths. A favorite of the folks who consider themselves national security experts, Nunn served for 24 years as a senator (1972 to 1997). He was chairman of the Armed Services Committee, and cosponsored the bill that formed the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, which helps foreign countries secure and destroy their nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons.

And after leaving the Senate, Nunn didn’t stop working on the issue of nukes, a focus he shares with Obama, whom he endorsed. He is currently the cochairman of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a nonprofit that seeks to reduce the global threat from weapons of mass destruction. He is routinely considered a top choice for secretary of defense or secretary of state in Democratic administrations, and offers something to everyone on foreign policy: He was often considered a hawk, but opposed both Gulf wars.

Throughout his Senate career, Nunn was a moderate to conservative Democrat on domestic policy. He fiercely opposed President Clinton’s attempt to integrate openly homosexual Americans into the military and was a committed deficit hawk. He left politics, citing a lack of “zest and enthusiasm,” meaning he would probably shy from the attack-dog role traditionally played by the VP candidate. And his long career in Washington makes the “change” slogan a hard sell.

Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), 52
Though young and telegenic, Bayh resembles a generic politician. He has a long career in politics—he was elected governor of Indiana in 1988 (at the age of 33) and again in 1992, and was elected to the Senate in 1998 and again in 2004. Like many lifetime politicians, Bayh is a legacy. He is the son of Birch Bayh, who was a senator from 1963 to 1981 and ran for president in 1976, losing to Jimmy Carter in the Democratic primary.

Bayh is a moderate. As governor, he cut taxes and earned the favor of the Wall Street Journal, which called him a “genuinely fiscally conservative Democrat.” After moving to Washington, Bayh served as chair of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, a group that has been criticized for its corporate funding and willingness to embrace Republicanism Lite. He is a member of the Senate Centrist Coalition.

While Bayh is competent, his name is typically met with a yawn in VP discussions. He isn’t known for any bold positions or legislative achievements. He is close to the Clintons—top-tier DLCers—and has been an active surrogate during the campaign. He is frequently cited, like Wes Clark, as one of the Clintonites Obama could choose as a sop to the defeated camp.

More purely political concerns: Indiana is deep red, and though Obama fared well against Clinton there, his only hope of winning the state in November may be by selecting Bayh, who has won by historic margins in the state. (Even with Bayh, it will be very tough to take a state that Bush won by 21 percent in 2004.) If the Democrats, with Bayh on the ticket, were to win the White House, Indiana’s Republican governor would likely replace Bayh with a member of the GOP, costing the Dems a seat in the Senate and potentially undermining their chance of achieving a 60-seat filibuster-proof majority.

Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.), 65
As the current don of the Democrats’ foreign policy community, Biden shores up Obama on a key front. Currently serving his sixth term in the Senate, Biden is the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and a former chairman of the Judiciary Committee. The senator from tiny Delaware would be a perfect liaison to Capitol Hill. That comes with the obvious flip side, however. When you’ve been in Washington more than 30 years, it’s hard to argue you can suddenly play an agent of change. You are as complicit in Washington’s problems as anyone.

Biden has a famously big mouth. He talks too much and too often says things that he immediately regrets. Early in the campaign season, for example, Biden said that Obama represented a break from black presidential candidates of the past because he is “clean and articulate.” But as Steve Kornacki wrote in the New York Observer, “By embracing [Biden], Obama would be sending a signal to well-meaning white voters of a certain generation that he understands if they—like Biden—haven’t fully figured out how to talk about race.” And that big mouth can be an effective weapon. Biden could be an attack-dog with infinite credibility. When Bush likened Obama to Nazi appeasers several weeks ago, Biden roared, “This is bullshit. This is malarkey. This is outrageous.”

There are problems to overcome. Biden supported the war in Iraq and is relatively hawkish by Democratic standards. When he campaigned in Iowa as a presidential candidate, Biden frequently said that he would oppose any move to make war funding dependent on withdrawal timetables because of a “sacred obligation” to the troops.

Gov. Janet Napolitano (D-Ariz.), 50
Here’s someone for whom age is definitely not a factor. Of all the people on this list, Napolitano is the closest to Obama in years. Napolitano first entered the national stage when she represented Anita Hill in her sexual harassment case against Clarence Thomas. In 1993, Napolitano was named the US attorney for Arizona. In 1998, she was elected attorney general. By 2002, she had won the governorship. In 2005, Time named her one of the five best governors in the US. As a two-term governor, like Sebelius, Napolitano has a longer record of executive achievement than Strickland, Virginia governor Tim Kaine, and Montana governor Brian Schweitzer.

Napolitano has tons of experience with the immigration issue. When disgruntled Arizona voters passed Proposition 200, which prohibited undocumented immigrants from receiving benefits from the state, Napolitano stood up against it. She has done so with other bills targeting undocumented immigrants. But Napolitano understands something must be done: In 2005 she declared a state of emergency in Arizona because of the border situation. Like Obama, Napolitano supports comprehensive immigration reform.

The negatives are there, however. She is perhaps the least well known nationally of all the candidates on this list, and she brings no foreign policy expertise to the ticket. Though Arizona generally could be a swing state, it will be essentially impossible for the Dems to win McCain’s home state. Napolitano is unmarried, which might prompt distracting gossip about her sexuality. If Napolitano is not Obama’s VP pick, she will be term-limited out of office in 2010. She could run for John McCain’s seat, whether he’s sitting in it or not.

Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), 54
If Edwards desires the vice presidential nod—and that’s no sure thing considering his experience in 2004—it would have served him well to endorse Obama early and campaign with him in those late primary states where he might have helped Obama the most: Pennsylvania, Indiana, West Virginia, and Kentucky. By endorsing late and declining to play an active role for Obama, Edwards missed an opportunity not only to test-run an Obama-Edwards act, but also to prove that he could help Obama attract the votes of working-class whites.

Some might argue that Edwards’ pitch to those folks—he was the strongest economic populist in the Democratic presidential field—was manufactured, and not really part of Edwards’ personal history (like Strickland or Webb) nor part of his long-term public record (like Sherrod Brown, below). His critics assailed him as a hypocrite, citing his expensive haircuts, his big house, and his work for a hedge fund. He also brings little to the table on national security, and in 2004 he didn’t deliver his home state.

All of that said, he reinforces Obama’s strengths. He is young, lively, a good speaker, and has been around Washington just long enough to know where it’s broken. He spent a very significant portion of his time in the race slamming the power of lobbyists and the sway of special interests. His “Two Americas” message was fundamentally a call to create one America, which fits Obama’s rhetoric like a glove. We noted on more than one occasion that there was serious overlap between the Edwards and Obama messages. In fact, Edwards hinted that they made natural partners.

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), 55
Brown represents, like Edwards, an opportunity for Obama to double down. He is an energetic campaigner and an early and consistent opponent of the war in Iraq. He is fresh to the Senate (though he did spend 14 years in the House). He is one of the upper body’s leading advocates for the populist economic policies that have become standard rhetoric for both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton this campaign season. (Back when Brown was in the House in 2005, he was a leader in the fight against CAFTA.) Brown has built a serious reputation: Political observers consider him a top-flight economic mind. Though Brown adds nothing to the ticket in terms of national security bona fides, he speaks the language of those working-class whites on the nation’s No. 1 issue. And he’s an unabashed progressive.

Did I mention he’s from Ohio? If Brown leaves the Senate, Gov. Ted Strickland can replace him with another Democrat, thus preserving the Dems’ count in the Senate. Ultimately a 60-seat majority in the Senate may mean more to an Obama administration than any vice presidential choice.


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Straight to the point: Donations have been concerningly slow for our hugely important First $500,000 fundraising campaign. We urgently need your help, and a lot of help, over the next few weeks so we can pay for the one-of-a-kind journalism you get from us.

Learn more in “Less Dreading, More Doing,” where we lay out this wild moment and how we can keep charging hard for you. And please help if you can: $5, $50, or $500—every gift from every person truly matters right now.

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