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Barack Obama Reveals How He Popped the Question to Joe Biden

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Picture this: A photographer asks Democratic running mates Barack Obama and Joe Biden to squeeze together for a portrait. “We’re kind of insecure,” jokes Obama, while Biden counters, “I carry my wife’s pocketbook – I’m fine.” “Okay,” declares Obama, posing for the camera, “get tight!”

When PEOPLE caught up with the candidates the day of their Aug. 23 announcement, the banter was easy between the onetime rivals – who became a team once Obama, 47, asked the senator from Delaware, 65, to help on the ticket. Also joining in the conversation: wives Michelle Obama, 44, and Jill Biden, 57.

This is the first mate you’ve chosen since Michelle.
Barack Obama: That’s a good point.
Michelle Obama: Barack is looking for people who will challenge him, who will tell him no.
Barack: That’s exactly what you need [in a vice-president].
Michelle: That’s why he married me. (Laughs.) So I’d tell Sen. Biden, don’t pull any punches.

Now, if Sen. Biden starts yelling at you about picking up your socks …
Barack: Then we’re in trouble. Don’t do that, Joe.
Joe Biden: Don’t worry.

How did you pop the question?
Barack: I called his office and they had to hunt him down. When I finally got him, he said he was at the dentist’s office. I realized only later that he was being a doting husband, looking after Jill during a root canal.

How did Sen. Biden tell the family?
Jill Biden: My granddaughter, Maisy, turned 8 and we were having a little birthday party for her. We had just finished blowing out the candles and were cutting the cake. Joe said to everybody, ‘Hey, I have something that I’d like to announce.’ And he said, ‘Barack called me and asked me to be vice-president.’ Everybody – I get so emotional when I think about it – and everybody clapped and started hugging.
Joe: Every single birthday, all of our kids and grandkids – no matter where they are – they come home to our house. We have this big, old farm table [in the kitchen], and that’s where we were. Maisy was totally unfazed. She said, ‘Pop, can I have some more ice cream cake?’

Sen. Joseph Biden
Sen. Biden, are you ready to hit the basketball court with Barack?
Joe: Hell yeah, man.
Jill: He plays with the grandkids; we have a basketball hoop. He can train with Maisy.
Joe: I can’t keep up with Maisy! The one thing I want my kids to remember about me is that I was an athlete. The hell with the rest of this stuff.

You were a college freshman when your new boss was born. Does that make you feel old?
Joe: I’m not old. There are still 44 senators older than me.

Are you carrying your rosary with you?
Joe: (Grimaces) No. I did have it with me [earlier], but I had a light blue suit on and Jill said, ‘No, wear a dark one.’ So I changed my suit and forgot the rosary in my pocket. I keep losing them. I think people steal ’em on me – I’m joking.

You used to stutter. Is it still something you have to consciously control?
Joe: I don’t worry about it, but every once in a while you catch yourself and you’re like, ‘Oh, man.’ It’s not very often, but it’s a humble reminder.

You conquered it when?
Joe: Really finished with it by my third year in college. I had to screw up all my courage to take a public speaking class in college. I was scared to death to take it. Speech therapy was a luxury no one could afford. But stuttering taught me a lot. It was probably the best experience. I wouldn’t trade it – but I am so glad it’s gone.

Michelle Obama and Jill Biden
Mrs. Biden, what should Sen. Obama know about your husband’s habits?
Jill: He’s pretty much a night owl, so they have that in common. He’s on that Blackberry and his phones constantly. I won’t let him drive the car because everything’s ringing. I say, ‘Pull over!’ It’s too dangerous. Or we go the wrong places. (Laughs.)

What kinds of plans have you had to un-do now that you’re otherwise booked until Election Day, at least?
Jill: I teach English at the community college, and I’ve already taught one week. This morning, early, I was putting my grades together, answering my students’ e-mails. So that still needs to be resolved. I’ve been teaching 27 years. I teach writing, so you can bet that I’m going to journal this experience every chance I get.

Sen. Obama has said that chemistry was important to his choice. What do you see when you look at the two of them together?
Jill: I see a historic moment. This country has to change direction [and make] sweeping changes. I think the two of them will pull in all Americans. I have goose bumps, really, when I think of what these two can do for the country.

Have you had much time to get to know the Obamas?
Jill: Not really. It’s always been at the debates, always sort of, ‘Hello, how are you? How many more of these do we have to do?’ But Michelle and I spent some time together this morning and we’re really looking forward to being together. (Hugs Mrs. Obama.) If you think those guys have chemistry, I think we have chemistry.

Mrs. Obama, anything Sen. Biden should know about working with your husband?
Michelle: Barack is a very easy guy to work with.

What did he say when he told you his choice – and when was that?
Michelle: I’ve stayed out of this process. But when he told me his choice, I said, ‘That’s the right choice.’ I was like, (snaps fingers) ‘Good!’ And the thing that was important for me is the reputation that Joe Biden has of being a good man. He’s a good guy, he loves his family. I like the fact that he’s on the train every day getting back home. Those are the kind of values that I respect. And uniformly, people have said the same thing about Jill. So, you want people you can hang out with, that you trust, that you sit down and have a good conversation with, in addition to the advice, guidance and wisdom he brings. I think about it as a wife who’s got to hang out with this crew, right?

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