Carolyn Kaster/AP

Joe Biden: The most influential vice president in history?

From the fiscal cliff to gun control to Afghanistan, Scranton's favorite son has transformed himself from affable gaffer to West Wing powerhouse.

Barack Obama just can’t get enough out of Joe Biden these days. And anybody who’s been following Biden’s steady ascent in stature over the last several years -- from gaffe-happy presidential contender to one of the most powerful vice presidents in U.S. history  -- couldn’t be less surprised.

Perhaps the only surprise at all is that, in contrast to a year ago, it took Biden quite this long to become the president’s point man on the latest round of fiscal talks. The exact reason for the delay is not clear. Perhaps it is that, only a week and a half ago, Obama had called on his vice president to lead a commission to expedite recommendations on a truly serious national issue, gun violence (as opposed to the present trumped-up issue, fiscal reform, which requires only the smidgen of political courage necessary to depart from  ideological rigidities). Maybe Obama wanted to keep his veep’s powder dry for that.

Or maybe it is just that, in the awkward pattern of political dance partnerships that have emerged over the last couple of years, whenever Obama and Speaker John Boehner fail to execute – as they did after the “Plan B” debacle -- it’s Biden and his old Senate colleague, Mitch McConnell, who step into the spotlight. The Biden-McConnell duo didn’t cut it during last year’s cliffhanger over the debt limit, of course. But in a sign of just how important a figure the vice president has become in Washington, Biden’s absence until now has been one reason that Republicans doubted Obama’s seriousness about cutting a deal, my colleague Chris Frates reported last week.

As the inevitable brinkmanship plays out, it’s useful to step back and look at just how central a role Biden has played throughout Obama’s presidency.

Over the past four years, Biden has insinuated himself into the White House, while seeming hardly to try, in a way that no other vice president in memory has done. He and Obama, both consummate pragmatists although 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. Biden said it outright in his speech during the presidential campaign: “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. Fiscal issues and guns are only a small sampling of this vice president’s portfolio. Back in 2010, it was Biden’s office that, in the main, orchestrated the handover to the Iraqis. 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 his partnership with 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. Until his ascent to veep, Joe Biden was largely known as an amiable guy with a brilliant smile and a rather big mouth in which he frequently inserted his foot. And it’s not as if anyone could have expected that he’d be much more impressive as vice president. The vice presidency is 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, but there’s nothing shadowy about Biden. Indeed, Biden remains, in many respects, the anti-Cheney.

Yet in two critical respects the Delaware Democrat and 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 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. 

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 Republicans—and the tea party—the 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 don’t 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, it’s Joe Biden. Whose stock is still rising steadily.