The Obama campaign is struggling to respond to mounting criticism of Vice President Joe Biden’s bizarre behavior during last night’s debate with Rep. Paul Ryan.
Biden not only interrupted Ryan frequently–82 times, according to Republican National Committee chair Reince Priebus–but frequently laughed, smirked, and snorted at serious moments, showing contempt for his opponent and disturbing even friendly observers.
A CNN poll conducted after the debate, which handed Ryan a narrow 48%-44% victory, also showed that Ryan had beaten Biden by an even wider margin when it came to “likeability.” Viewers in the poll–with an admittedly small sample– also said Ryan “expressed his views more clearly,” “was more in touch with the needs and problems of people like you,” and “did a better job of defending his running mate.”
The only category in which Biden defeated Ryan? “Spent more time attacking his opponent.”
Amidst mounting criticism, the Obama campaign has tried to push back. Obama’s campaign manager, Jim Messina, claimed that Biden was “a happy warrior.” Biden may have been trying to compensate for Obama’s perceived passivity in last week’s debate. He may also have been trying to cover gaps in his own argument–he referred to Obama by name only once, and told several characteristic untruths when pressed on the Obama administration’s record. But Biden’s interjections and body language left a lasting impression with voters.
Women, in particular, seem to have reacted negatively. Writer Mollie Hemingway thought that Biden had done well but remarked: “Tonight, Joe Biden is embodying everything that women hate about talking with men.”
She later added: “I’m even willing to give this debate to Biden, in the very short term. But in the long term, I bet he lost it. Think about what will stay with people after the debate. They’ll remember a rude, interrupting man.”
Peggy Noonan, a conservative who has not been shy about criticizing Romney and Ryan in the past, said that Biden lost the debate by “confusing strength with aggression.”
She elaborated: “Did Mr. Biden look good? No, he looked mean and second-rate. He meant to undercut Mr. Ryan, but he undercut himself. His grimaces and laughter were reminiscent of Al Gore’s sighs in 2000–theatrical, off-putting and in the end self-indicting.”
It wasn’t just conservatives who took offense. Piers Morgan of CNN repeatedly tweeted his alarm about Biden’s smirk during the debate. Erik Wemple, the left-leaning media critic at the Washington Post, criticized Biden during the debate as well: “Biden really pushing it with his interruptions.”
And the criticism continued to build the morning after, with NBC’s Tom Brokaw telling Morning Joe that Biden “shouldn’t be laughing” when discussing the prospect of thermonuclear war with Iran. “However amused you are, it’s about tone,” he said.
That is the impression that has lasted–and which Biden and Obama will likely regret in the days ahead.