Biden May Be the Most Influential Vice P

January 02 [Wed], 2013, 1:54
Barack Obama just cant get enough out of Joe Biden these days. Andanybody whos been following Bidens steady ascent in stature over thelast several years -- from gaffe-happy presidential contender to one ofthe most powerful vice presidents in U.S. history -- couldnt be lesssurprised.

Perhaps the only surprise at all is that, in contrast to a year ago,it took Biden quite this long to become the presidents point man onthe latest round of fiscal talks. The exact reason for the delay is notclear. Perhaps it is that, only a week and a half ago, Obama had calledon his vice president to lead a commission to expedite recommendationson a truly serious national issue, gun violence (as opposed to thepresent trumped-up issue, fiscal reform, which requires only thesmidgeon of political courage necessary to depart from ideologicalrigidities). Maybe Obama wanted to keep his veeps powder dry for that.

Or maybe it is just that, in the awkward pattern of political dancepartnerships that have emerged over the last couple of years, wheneverBarack Obama and Speaker John Boehner fail to execute as they didafter the Plan B debacle -- its Biden and his old Senate colleague,Mitch McConnell, who step into the spotlight. The Biden-McConnell duodidnt cut it during last years cliffhanger over the debt limit, ofcourse. But in a sign of just how important a figure the vice presidenthas become in Washington, Bidens absence until now has been one reasonthat Republicans doubted Obamas seriousness about cutting a deal, mycolleague Chris Frates reported last week.

As the inevitable brinksmanship plays out, its useful to step backand look at just how central a role Biden has played throughout Obamaspresidency.

Over the past four years Biden has insinuated himself into the WhiteHouse, while seeming hardly to try, in a way that no other vicepresident in memory has done. He and Obama, both consummate pragmatiststhough they tend to be liberal in outlook, have achieved something closeto a mind meld across a whole range of issues, including foreignpolicy, the economy, and political strategy. Biden said it outright inhis speech during the presidential campaign: I literally get to be thelast guy in the room with the president. Thats our arrangement. Thatsno small thing in a town where power is often measured in minutes ofpresidential face time.

It wasnt long ago that Bidens predecessor, Dick Cheney, was seen asthe gold -- some might say sulfurous -- standard in vice presidentialpower. Biden himself, ironically enough, once described Cheney asprobably the most dangerous vice president weve had because of whatmany observers saw as Cheneys undue influence over George W. Bush.

But in terms of the sheer number of issues Biden has influenced in ashort time, the current vice president is bidding to surpass evenCheney. Fiscal issues and guns are only a small sampling of this vicepresidents portfolio. Back in 2010 it was Bidens office that, in themain, orchestrated the handover to the Iraqis. It is Bidens view ofAfghanistan that has, bit by bit, come to dominate thinking inside the2014 withdrawal plan. On financial reform it was Biden who prodded anindecisive Obama to embrace, at long last, Paul Volckers idea ofbarring banks from risky trading, according to Austan Goolsbee, formerlythe head of Obamas Council of Economic Advisers. The VP also tiltedthe discussion in favor of a bailout of the Big Three auto companies,according to Jared Bernstein, Bidens former economic adviser. I thinkhe made a difference in presidents thinking," Bernstein said. "Heunderstood the importance of the auto companies to their communities,and throughout the country.

In an interview in the fall of 2010, Biden could hardly contain hisenthusiasm for his partnership with Obama. The phrase Barack and I fell from his lips naturally, with no hint of diffidence. He told methen that to his continuing surprise Obama has continued to turn overbig chunks of policy to him to handle, whether its Iraq, middle-classissues, overseeing the recovery act. At an early meeting, all ofsudden Obama stopped. He said, Joe will do Iraq. Joe knows more aboutIraq than anyone.. The [Economic] Recovery Act, he just handed it overto Biden, according to a senior administration official who attendedthe meetings and would talk about internal discussions only on conditionof anonymity.

All of this power makes for quite an irony. Until his ascent to veep,Joe Biden was largely known as an amiable guy with a brilliant smileand a rather big mouth in which he frequently inserted his foot. Andits not as if anyone could have expected that hed be much moreimpressive as vice president. The vice presidency is a job that hastried to be taken seriously throughout U.S. historyand usually failed.John Adams, the nations first vice president, bitterly derided his jobas the most insignificant office that ever the invention of mancontrived. Like Adams, it was often men who had tasted real power whohad the most disdain for the job. John Nance Garner, a former Housespeaker and FDRs equally slighted No. 2, declared the job wasnt wortha bucket of warm spit (its believed he used an even saltier term). Inmodern times the vice presidency began to grow in stature, especiallyas the hair-trigger calculus of the Cold War required presidents to keeptheir putative replacements informed. But the job remained for the mostpart a funeral-attending, snooze-inducing post, barren of almost allconstitutional duties.

The previous two vice presidents, Cheney and his predecessor, Al Gore, significantly changed that power dynamic. But on Bidens watch the OVPOffice of the Vice President-- has become something even more: almost a conjoined twin to the presidency, organically linked and indivisible from the Oval Office. Cheney succeeded for a time by creating a kind of shadow presidency, yet theres nothing shadowy about Biden. Indeed Biden remains, in many respects, the anti-Cheney.

Yet in two critical respects the Delaware Democratand the Wyoming Republican do resemble each other. Both are known to be confident in pushing their views, and both became masters of the Washington insider game. Whereas John Adams was not invited to participate in meetings of George Washingtons Cabinet, Biden handles so many issues that when, say, the national security team leaves the Oval Office, he is often left alone chatting with Obama because he needs to be part of the discussion when the economic team arrives to brief the president. He will also often sit down with Obama in the residence before an important National Security Council meeting.

Now, if Barack Obama does leave a lasting legacy on gun violence that comes out of the terrible tragedy in Newtown, Conn., Biden will be a big part of it. And if anything like an agreement is reached on fiscal issues, Biden is likely to be part of that as well. His long Senate tenure, and the many relationships he developed across the aisle, are once again proving crucial. As I reported in the fall of 2010, shortly before the looming congressional election that gave the Republicansand the Tea Partythe House, no one has more experience working with the other party, reaching across the aisle, and that talent may be critical to just keeping the government going in the coming months. He can sit down in foreign policy or other issues and find a common interest and drive the ideas forward. Look at what he did with Jesse Helms and Strom Thurmond in passing the chemical weapons treaty and crime bills, respectively, in the 90s, his former chief of staff (and later successor), Ted Kaufman, noted back then. I mean, Jesse Helms and Strom Thurmond! You dont get more conservative than that.

Actually, you do, as the current breed of Republicans has demonstrated in this era. But if anyone can talk to Mitch McConnell, its Joe Biden. Whose stock is still rising steadily.
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