INDIANOLA, Iowa – Vice President Joe Biden, speaking to a decidedly anti-war audience in Iowa on Sunday, played down the Obama administration’s pledge to use military force to rid Syria of chemical weapons.
Biden, weighing a run for president in 2016, instead touted the U.S.-Russian diplomatic proposal for Syria to relinquish its chemical arsenal under international supervision.
“We’re going to the United Nations with a resolution this week that will in fact call on the United Nations of the world to put pressure on Syria to have the confiscation and destruction of all those weapons,” Biden told hundreds of Iowa’s most devout Democrats at Sen. Tom Harkin’s annual steak picnic and fall fundraiser.
Biden touched only lightly on the administration’s continued insistence that “there are consequences should the Assad regime not comply.” National public opinion polls show a military strike on Syria is unpopular, especially with Democrats.
The vice president worked to stoke hope that the diplomatic solution would work. Making the administration’s first trip outside Washington since President Barack Obama’s speech to the nation Tuesday, Biden said Obama “is the reason the world is facing up finally, finally to this hideous prospect of this largest stockpile of chemical weapons.”
There was no applause for his Syria comments from the audience, supporters of Harkin, a veteran Democrat popular with his party’s anti-war activists.
But listeners rose to their feet and cheered loudly when Biden ticked through the economic gains the country has made since Obama took office, improvements the vice president could benefit from, should they continue, if he runs for president in 2016.
Biden praised Harkin as the “conscience of the Senate,” and the senator also raised hope the U.S.-Russian proposal would resolve the Syria issue, which is dominating world headlines.
“We didn’t lose one American life,” Harkin said, in introducing Biden. “That’s leadership folks, that’s leadership.”
The hopeful tone in Biden’s and Harkin’s remarks came despite Obama’s warning in an interview Sunday, “if diplomacy fails, the United States remains prepared to act.”
Obama, who rode an anti-war wave to victory in Iowa’s 2008 presidential caucuses, had proposed limited air strikes in Syria in response to what the U.S. says was a chemical weapons attack last month that killed more than 1,400 people. His administration blames the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Some Democrats in attendance said that even if the president later orders a military strike, Obama will not have rushed to war.
“At the end of the day, if that terrible option has to be played out, this crowd, what they voted for Barack Obama to do, what they wanted, was this kind of leadership: smart, thoughtful not reactionary,” said former state party Chairwoman Sue Dvorsky.
His own party cool to a military strike, Obama has struggled to win support for military action from members of Congress, whose constituents have endured more than a decade of war.
An Associated Press poll taken Sept. 6-8 showed 34 percent of Democrats said they wanted Congress to back military action. More than three-fourths said they thought any military such action was at least somewhat likely to turn into a long-term commitment of forces, including 44 percent who said it was extremely likely.
Asked if he could rally leery Democrats should diplomacy fail, Biden told reporters briefly “I think we’re going to be OK.”
Biden is considering running for the top job in the White House in 2016, and the crowd he mingled with Sunday, including many familiar with the two-time presidential candidate, would have the opening say during the state’s caucuses.
He linked himself with the administration’s efforts to lift the slow-recovering economy, and with Obama in particular. And while Biden is well known in Iowa from his presidential races, Obama’s approval nationally, under 50 percent, would be a challenge for him.
“We have a clear vision for America that rests on a growing and prosperous middle class, where the playing field is level,” Biden said, “and where we lead the world again in the power of our example.”
With Hillary Clinton and Biden as the most prominent Democrats being discussed for their party’s 2016 nomination, Obama said in a broadcast interview that he suspects both politicians would say it was “way too premature” to focus on the race.
Asked about Biden’s visit, the president told ABC’s “This Week” that “Iowa’s a big state and (Biden is) an old friend of Tom Harkin’s.” The two were Senate colleagues.
“We consider Joe Biden one of our own,” said Jon Mixdorf, who serves on the executive committee for the Black Hawk County Democrats. “If Joe Biden can carry that tradition Obama has started, we would be behind him. But honestly it would be close.”