Biden: Most powerful VP ever?

Madalyn Ruggiero/AP file photo

Joe Biden was never much good when it came to running for the top job. In fact, he was a disaster. Back in 1988, Biden dropped out ignominiously amid allegations of plagiarism. In 2008, when he thought he’d be a real contender after spending 36 years in the Senate, Biden received a pathetic 1 percent of the Iowa caucus vote.

But in the No. 2 job over the past three years, Biden has excelled -- to the point where he now ranks as one of the most powerful and influential vice presidents in American history. Biden proved that again on Thursday when, in the fifth in a series of what the Obama campaign is describing as “framing speeches,” Biden delivered a typically feisty address at New York University. He slammed Mitt Romney, claiming the former Massachussetts governor would take a war-weary country “back to a foreign policy that would have America go it alone, shout to the world, 'You're either with us or against us,' lash out first and ask the hard questions later, if at all."

The vice president, said one campaign official, will continue to spend a lot of time on the stump focused on issues that will be at the core of the general election in November. Biden speaks regularly with David Plouffe, one of Obama’s main campaign directors, and campaign officials point to his remarkable series of speeches in critical states, beginning in Toledo, Ohio, in March when Biden talked up the administration’s rescue of the auto industry and gave voice to what may be the signal catchphrase (or “bumper sticker,” as he put it Thursday) of Obama’s campaign: “Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive.” Since then Biden has delivered speeches on retirement security in Florida, manufacturing in Iowa, and tax fairness in New Hampshire. And by most accounts, the Biden-Obama relationship is still strong. “The president definitely leans on the VP in many ways,” says one campaign official. “He’s going to go into the heartland.”

Obama’s heavy dependence on Biden is not new. Over the past three years Biden has insinuated himself into the White House in a way that no other vice president in memory has done. He and Obama, both consummate pragmatists though they tend to be liberal in outlook, have achieved something close to a mind meld across a whole range of issues, including foreign policy, the economy, and political strategy. He said it outright in his speech on Thursday: “I literally get to be the last guy in the room with the president. That’s our arrangement.” That’s no small thing in a town where power is often measured in minutes of presidential face time.

It wasn’t long ago that Biden’s predecessor, Dick Cheney, was seen as the gold -- some might say sulfurous -- standard in vice presidential power. Biden himself, ironically enough, once described Cheney as “probably the most dangerous vice president we’ve had” because of what many observers saw as Cheney’s undue influence over George W. Bush. 

But in terms of the sheer number of issues Biden has influenced in a short time, the current vice president is bidding to surpass even Cheney. It was Biden’s office that, in the main, orchestrated the 2011 handover to the Iraqis. And it is Biden’s view of Afghanistan that has, bit by bit, come to dominate thinking inside the 2014 withdrawal plan. On financial reform it was Biden who prodded an indecisive Obama to embrace, at long last, Paul Volcker’s idea of barring banks from risky trading, according to Austan Goolsbee, formerly the head of Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers. The VP also tilted the discussion in favor of a bailout of the Big Three auto companies, according to Jared Bernstein, Biden’s former economic adviser. “I think he made a difference in president’s thinking," Bernstein said. "He understood 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 his enthusiasm for the partnership between him and Obama. The phrase “Barack and I … ” fell from his lips naturally, with no hint of diffidence. He told me then that to his continuing surprise Obama has continued to “turn over big chunks” of policy to him to handle, whether it’s Iraq, middle-class issues, overseeing the recovery act.  At an early meeting, “all of sudden Obama stopped. He said, ‘Joe will do Iraq. Joe knows more about Iraq than anyone.…. The [Economic] Recovery Act, he just handed it over” to Biden, according to a senior administration official who attended the meetings and would talk about internal discussions only on condition of anonymity.

All of this power makes for quite an irony. Joe Biden is, after all, a gaffe-prone guy who has spent much of his four-decade career trying to be taken seriously in Washington. The vice presidency itself is, of course, a job that has tried to be taken seriously throughout U.S. history -- and usually failed. John Adams, the nation’s first vice president, bitterly derided his job as “the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived.”  Like Adams, it was often men who had tasted real power who had the most disdain for the job. John Nance Garner, a former House speaker and FDR’s equally slighted No. 2, declared the job wasn’t “worth a bucket of warm spit” (it’s believed he used an even saltier term). In modern times the vice presidency began to grow in stature, especially as the hair-trigger calculus of the Cold War required presidents to keep their putative replacements informed. But the job remained for the most part a funeral-attending, snooze-inducing post, barren of almost all constitutional duties.

The previous two vice presidents, Cheney and his predecessor, Al Gore, significantly changed that power dynamic. But on Biden’s watch the “OVP” -- Office 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 there’s nothing shadowy about Biden. Indeed Biden remains, in many respects, the anti-Cheney.

But in two critical respects the Delaware Democrat and the Wyoming Republican do resemble each other. Both are confident in pushing their views, and both are masters of the Washington insider game. Whereas John Adams was not invited to participate in meetings of George Washington’s 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. 

And now Biden is apparently going to be Obama’s main man in getting elected. There are risks to the strategy. Biden fell notably short of success in 2008 when he debated then-GOP VP choice Sarah Palin. And then there is always the next Biden gaffe, always just the next speech away. On Thursday he elicited titters from the crowd when he quoted Teddy Roosevelt’s admonition to “speak softly and carry a big stick” and added: “I promise you the President has a big stick.” 

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