The Joe Biden factor
By: Edward-Isaac Dovere and Darren Samuelsohn
September 5, 2012 04:34 AM EDT
Imagining an Obama presidency without a Biden vice presidency is almost impossible.
But imagining a Biden vice presidency wasn’t easy.
At the Bank of America Stadium on Thursday, as he has during the past four years, Biden has a key role — but one that’s completely subsumed to Obama. He doesn’t get his own night. He doesn’t get his own headline. He doesn’t get his own agenda. The man who hadn’t had a boss since his first election to the Senate at 29, who never had to answer for anyone but himself for the (many) words he said, reports to Obama.
Biden has caused some problems — none greater than his ill-timed support for gay marriage and his injection of racial undertones into the campaign by asserting that Mitt Romney wants to put Americans in “chains.” But there’s no one the White House would rather have — on the ticket or within the administration.
Biden’s political value is even more crucial this year than in 2008 — and by putting the vice president on the same night as Obama, the campaign will guarantee more coverage for him to deliver the standard base-rousing, attack-dog running mate speech and appeal to those white, working- and middle-class voters the campaign is still counting on him to swing.
Then there’s the policy value: Biden played a leading role with the stimulus, health care reform, the 2010 lame-duck session, the salvaged debt ceiling breakdown and the withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan. He helped guide the White House through its relationship with the Catholic Church over birth control and the president’s relentless middle-class reelection messaging. Top Biden aides Ron Klain and Cynthia Hogan were detailed to manage the Supreme Court confirmations of Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. Biden has helped shaped the underlying policy and the message — but they’re all Obama policies and messages.
Biden’s former chief economic adviser Jared Bernstein recalls the president capturing that sentiment in the Oval Office in April 2009, after the vice president’s secret negotiations helped convince Arlen Specter to switch parties and give Democrats their 60th vote in the Senate.
“Joe Biden,” Obama said, sitting back in his chair after getting off the phone with Specter, “employee of the month.”
The terms of the original Obama-Biden deal are well known. Biden, finally done running for president for the first time in 40 years, was going to be the next great gray lion of the Senate. He didn’t want to be vice president, and he only agreed on the condition that he would be the last person in the room on major decisions. He wouldn’t be assigned special commissions or funeral duty, and every assignment would have a set expiration date. Biden and his staff, meanwhile, would put the strength of his résumé to work on behalf of the president’s agenda, and they’d keep any second-guessing they might have out of the press.
Then something odd happened, especially for a D.C. deal: It worked.
“They know they’re all wearing the same jersey, on the same team. There’s not a junior varsity and a varsity team. Not separate teams. And they’re not competing against each other,” said Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s first chief of staff. “That can’t be said under Bush-Cheney. Towards the end, it couldn’t be said under Clinton-Gore. It’s what stands out in this White House.”
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Sports metaphors go a long way in the Obama White House. In this one, the president is the star and Biden is the older, once-promising player who’d been passed over then called back up to anchor the team.
Take the stimulus, Biden’s first big assignment. He was on the phone for weeks with local leaders — many of whom he’d developed relationships with over the years — gathering their input and selling them on the plan. Within the White House, he was tempering the natural exuberance of less experienced officials coming off a blowout election, guiding them through the only-in-the-federal-government allocation of billions of dollars and telegraphing the politics of the situation, current and former aides who were in the meetings said.
Not since Lyndon B. Johnson has an administration featured someone with such deep congressional ties. Biden is, after all, the only person both Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms requested eulogies from in their wills, and there isn’t anyone who can match his connections to current senators either.
“I feel like if there’s something really important I needed to deliver, he’d be the guy to call,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said.
Biden’s negotiations were more conversations with former colleagues, and results flowed in ways that they never did for Obama — even before the Republican takeover of the House.
“He relates. He was in this body forever, and so everybody knows him,” Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) said. “And the president is traveling a lot, and he’s just — he’s lucky to have Biden.”
Between the daily briefings and other meetings, Obama and Biden regularly spend four to six hours each day with each other, with Obama nearly always asking for Biden to weigh in, senior aides say. He’s the experienced Washington operative, longtime legislator and son of middle-class America.
He’s also a live line from a little further outside the bubble than Obama’s ever able to get.
Bernstein recalled getting a phone call one Saturday morning from Biden, who was at a Delaware hardware store. Another customer had just complained to him about high credit card fees, and Biden told Bernstein he wanted a memo explaining the issue. Before long, the vice president was pushing to get a solution to the problem into discussions at the White House.
Nowhere, though, has Biden’s influence on messaging been more apparent than at the outset of the reelection campaign. He kicked things off, making a March trip to a Toledo, Ohio, union hall for a Romney-ripping speech that Chicago headquarters celebrated with a full screen shot of him in aviator sunglasses, one leg up on a stool and a “Welcome Joe back to the trail” banner. He was the first to poke at the Republican nominee’s Swiss bank accounts. His speeches seeded attacks on Bain and other themes big and small that have since rolled out of Chicago.
“He set the tone,” said Obama deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter.
But as with his “chains” line, Biden’s instincts aren’t always reliable.
The Romney campaign doesn’t spend much time talking about Biden, but it eagerly await gifts like that to arrive from him.
“Joe Biden has proven to be a gaffe-prone surrogate who has managed to undermine President Obama and throw his campaign wildly off message,” said Romney spokesman Ryan Williams, referring in particular to the gay marriage episode.
Obama and Biden hit their rockiest moment in May, when Biden inadvertently forced Obama into endorsing gay marriage — the day after swing-state North Carolina had voted for a ban, and six months out from an election that Obama was trying to keep from becoming a culture war.
“There are days when the message you had planned for the day isn’t the message by the nightly news,” a Biden adviser said. “The challenge was then just how to deal with the issue.”
Pundits debated whether Biden’s comment was a trial balloon or the most extreme case of crazy uncle Joe, and the rumors of Biden being dropped from the ticket gained new life. Biden was distraught at being seen as disloyal to the president. Obama let him hang in the wind for a few days until he returned to the White House for a private Oval Office meeting to move them past it.
“The best thing is always for them to spend time together,” the Biden adviser said.
But voters only know Biden the gaffer, said Ben Porritt, a Republican strategist who did opposition work on Biden for the McCain-Palin campaign.
Biden “probably is a credible adviser to the president, but it’d be hard for anyone in the public to look at Joe Biden and not laugh — not at him, but the stories he tells, the way he speaks,” Porritt said.
Still, the reelection campaign sees the benefits as outweighing the trouble that Biden occasionally brings.
“We don’t consider them gaffes,” Cutter said. “Joe Biden is who he is, and that’s what makes him so effective out there across the country.”
After all, Obama knew what he was getting. Former Sen. Ted Kaufman (D-Del.) recalled one day during the health care negotiations when he took advantage of being left alone in the room with the president. Kaufman, who spent decades as a Biden aide, complimented Obama for picking a man whom he knew never kept his opinions to himself.
“And he said, ‘Oh yeah, Joe is great.’ But I said, ‘Joe Biden’s a handful. Joe Biden is not an easy person to pick to be vice president of the United States,’” Kaufman said. “There are a lot of people who would have made better political choices, and frankly easier choices. And they’ve made it work.”
Kaufman recalled Obama’s response: “He laughed.”
Early in 2009, Biden convened a meeting of vice presidential historians at the Naval Observatory geared around a simple question. “This is not a meeting to decide what Joe Biden’s going to do — this is a meeting to decide what Joe Biden’s not going to do,” Kaufman told them. But focusing on foreign affairs was never in question. Not only did Biden know the issues, he knew most of the foreign officials the administration would be dealing with — a major advantage for a president short on foreign policy experience who inherited the most complex economic and geopolitical situation in history.
There was a conscious choice to avoid the Bush-Cheney dynamic here, too. Biden’s team has been integrated with the West Wing — “He didn’t set up his own little empire,” former State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said.
Biden’s time in Iraq and Afghanistan shaped the transition. His pre-inauguration trip helped force a new focus on the mission in Afghanistan after he reported back on just how confused even U.S. troops were by what their goal was.
With Biden in the midst of a metamorphosis from also-ran to possible 2016 contender, his relationship with the West Wing is becoming more complicated. Obama aides weren’t even open to the idea of Biden picking his own chief of staff, underscoring how presidential staffers aren’t used to — and don’t take well to — players starting to look outside the franchise.
If Obama wins, the president will have a legacy to start cementing and a to-do list that will require Biden’s skilled hands in the Senate, in meetings and out selling to the public. But if Biden’s skilled hands are busy focusing on his own political agenda, Obama will feel the difference.
Biden would be forced to run on the administration’s record in an economy that likely won’t fully be turned around. And though he laughs at the caricature of himself that’s taken root on “Saturday Night Live” and in “The Onion,” voters might be unwilling to trust that persona to finish the turnaround.
“Even if we improve, as the No. 2, people are OK with Joe Biden, but as a No. 1 presidential candidate?” Porritt asked. “Joe Biden? People kind of laugh and say ‘No chance.’”
For now, though, the praise flows in from both Democrats and Republicans.
“Everyone has come to believe that he has been the perfect choice,” former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle said.
Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) agreed: “Since Joe has worked out so well, you can only say this was the way it was meant to be.”