'Regular Joe' plays a key White House role

As vice president, Biden is yin to Obama’s yang. But he’s definitely no Cheney.

By , Staff writer

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    Vice President Biden worked a crowd after a town hall meeting last month in St. Cloud, Minn. He was pressed about the local impact of the stimulus.
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Joe Biden leans into the microphone and tells the assembled Washington elites just how important he has become to his new boss, Barack Obama.

“To give you an idea of how close we are,” the vice president says at the annual Gridiron dinner of journalists and politicos, “he told me that next year – maybe, just maybe – he’s going to give me his BlackBerry e-mail address.”

Ba-da-boom.

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By many accounts, Vice President Biden is, in fact, a key player in the Obama White House, with a finger in most of the central issues of the day. Whether it’s going to Munich, Germany, to deliver the administration’s first major foreign-policy address or traveling around the country as head of the Middle Class Task Force and chief enforcer of stimulus spending or attending most of President Obama’s daily briefings, Mr. Biden appears to enjoy the confidence of the boss – and plenty of face time.

But then there are the jokes, implying that Obama may find his understudy a bit annoying at times. Biden, after all, is famously long-winded and gaffe-prone, tending to speak emotionally and from the heart. Obama, though nearly 20 years his junior, is more composed and cerebral.

“I would liken it to a marriage,” says Allan Loudell, a longtime political analyst at WDEL-AM in Wilmington, Del., Biden’s hometown. “It’s like a couple who are the reverse of one another, yin and yang. And it seems to be working.”

Still, Obama himself has perpetuated the questions about how he views Biden. When Biden cracked a joke about Chief Justice John Roberts’s muffed inaugural swearing in, Obama shot a stern look in Biden’s direction and squeezed his elbow. In his first full press conference as president, Obama answered a question about a Biden comment with an air of bemused exasperation.

Administration officials insist that those instances have been overplayed and overanalyzed, and that Obama values Biden’s experience and input. As the administration has gotten into a rhythm, the two men, who didn’t know each other all that well on Inauguration Day, have settled into their own symbiosis, appearing in public together regularly. If Obama wanted Biden to be less visible, he would be.

There are superficial similarities to the Bush-Cheney administration. Like George Bush, Obama selected a more experienced Washington hand as his No. 2 to help him navigate the corridors of power and lend expertise in foreign affairs. And as Dick Cheney did long before he joined the ticket with then-Governor Bush, Biden has given up his dream of winning the presidency in his own right. By the end of a second Obama term, Biden would be 74, considered too old to run. This means that his sole focus will be serving the boss’s needs, not his own political ambitions.

But there the similarities end. After 36 years in the Senate, Biden has assumed the interesting task of following the most powerful, most controversial, and perhaps most reviled vice president in history. Mr. Cheney’s approach – in which his office became an independent power center, bent on expanding the reach of the executive branch and at times withholding information from the president himself – is a model Biden rejects.

In fact, Biden is probably the first vice president in history who seeks to reduce the power of his office – not because he doesn’t want influence, but because he sees Cheney’s handling of the job as counterproductive.

Before taking office, Biden told The New York Times he wants to “restore the balance” in the vice president’s role.

“The only value of power is the effect, the efficacy of its use,” Biden said. “And all the power Cheney had did not result in effective outcomes.”

Last fall, before the election, Biden told The New Yorker that the best model for him would be President Kennedy’s vice president, Lyndon Johnson – that is, an experienced Senate man (serving a young president) who would maintain his close ties to Capitol Hill from the White House. The comment struck Joel Goldstein, a scholar on the vice presidency at St. Louis University, as odd, since Johnson was “miserable” as vice president, Professor Goldstein says.

The name that comes up more frequently as a model is Walter Mondale, President Carter’s vice president, now seen as the first “modern” vice president. Mr. Mondale introduced the concept of vice president as across-the-board adviser, not one who could be sidetracked with boutique projects. Mondale also started the ritual of the weekly lunch with the president, which continues to this day. Biden spoke with Mondale before taking office.

Biden’s stewardship of the Middle Class Task Force and his role making sure stimulus money is spent wisely could sound like just the kind of “project based” vice presidency Biden didn’t want. But Jay Carney, his communications director, lays out a schedule that shows Biden maintaining a broad portfolio. Though the vice president is spending 1-1/2 to two days a week as stimulus enforcer, which involves travel to other cities, he’s still pulling major time with Obama.

Is Biden “the last guy in the room” when major decisions are being made, as he told Obama he wanted when they discussed the job? Not always literally, says Mr. Carney, but when Obama and Biden are both in town, they’re spending at least three hours a day together, sometimes four or five, depending on how many meetings they have together – between the morning intelligence and economy briefings, plus meetings with visiting heads of state and national security principals.

All this time together has solidified their relationship, administration officials say. Biden is “a peer, not a staffer,” says one.

Biden also has a weekly breakfast with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, a date they keep religiously.

As for Biden’s relationships with his former colleagues in the Senate, it’s always tough for former members to remain a true member of the club once they’ve left. But the White House credits Biden with helping to get three critical Republican senators – Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine – to vote for Obama’s economic stimulus plan in February.

Biden is also close to Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. The two men traveled to Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iraq not long before the inauguration, and speak well of each other, even if they differ on policy. Biden also famously delivered the eulogy at the funeral of conservative Sen. Strom Thurmond (R) of South Carolina six years ago.

“Historically, one of his strengths has been working well with people,” says Goldstein. “Given some of the people the president has brought in, it could be another strength he brings to the table.”

Biden also brings his Roman Catholic working-class roots to the mix – a boyhood spent in Scranton, Pa., before the family moved to Delaware when hard times hit.

By the time Biden was ready for high school, the family could afford the elite Archmere Academy. But even if Biden comes across at times more as Country Club Joe than a Regular Joe, he is still a favorite of organized labor – and Obama’s political advisers view him as an emissary to blue-collar America.

The key to Biden’s success, though, hinges on his relationship with Obama. Perhaps the best indication yet that they’re settling in came at the Gridiron dinner, where he felt comfortable enough to razz the boss. Obama “can’t be here tonight,” Biden said, “because he’s getting ready for Easter.” He lowers his voice to a whisper: “He thinks it’s about him.”

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