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Biden relishes role as ‘most involved’ VP in US history


The notoriously unpredictable Vice President Joe Biden has evolved from an easy target for stand-up comics into one of the most influential vice presidents in US history. takes a closer look at a politician in his prime.


Recalling his 36 years in Congress, US Vice President Joe Biden told reporters in 2011: “In the good old days when I was a senator, I was my own man.”

But it is hard to believe Biden feels particularly nostalgic these days.

The famously loquacious 69-year-old politician with the inimitable silver hair and exuberant smile has indeed evolved from an easy target for political jokes into one of the most active and influential vice presidents in US history.

And though Biden, a former White House hopeful himself (he ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination in 1988 and 2008), may have flinched before agreeing to play second fiddle to a man almost 20 years his junior, he now appears to be fully relishing his role in Barack Obama’s historic presidency. An article in The New York Times recently described him as “the one major Washington figure who consistently evokes a sense of thrill in what he is doing”.

And Biden has been doing a lot these last few months.

In October, he helped get the Obama re-election campaign back on its feet -- following the president’s feeble first debate performance -- by verbally pummelling Paul Ryan in their televised face-off. After Obama’s victory, Biden acted as an envoy to disgruntled Congressional Republicans during fiscal negotiations. Then, in the wake of the Newtown massacre, the vice president headed a commission to draft gun control proposals for Obama to review. And just this week, Biden was dispatched to Europe for high-profile meetings with French President François Hollande and British Prime Minister David Cameron.

(In his down time, Biden managed to squeeze in a cameo on popular sitcom “Parks and Recreation”.)

Biden ‘most involved’ VP in US history

“Out of all vice presidents in American history, Biden is the most involved in governance,” assessed Jules Witcover, a veteran journalist who authored a prominent biography of the current vice president. “Cheney was, too, but he was a shadowy figure, an inside man. Biden is visible, and what he’s done has been out front.”

The vice presidency has not always been as indispensable as it is today. The first American to occupy the post, John Adams, called it “the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived”, and according to Witcover, only when former President Jimmy Carter picked Walter Mondale as his running mate in 1976 did the job become a crucial element of a president’s administration.

Biden is the clearest example yet of a heavyweight second-in-command who is treated as a partner, regularly solicited for advice and asked to tackle major missions, Witcover said. “Before accepting the job, Biden made sure Obama would utilise him openly and widely, and he has,” the biographer noted. “Biden has a say in every aspect of the business of this administration.”

Consequently, Biden has built up a portfolio of accomplishments over the past four years: he oversaw the US handover of military operations to Iraqis; he was integral to financial reform, convincing Obama to prohibit banks from risky trading; and he led efforts to persuade the president to bail out the auto industry in 2009.

Biden has also served as what right-leaning political scientist John Fortier of the Bipartisan Policy Centre called “a liaison to Congress…with his touch being needed to cut several deals” – particularly on budget and debt matters. While Obama is known to avoid schmoozing even with other members of his party, Biden is as comfortable lobbying DC politicos as he is chatting up diner waitresses on the campaign trail. It doesn’t hurt that many of the people Obama counts on Biden to confront and cajole are the vice president’s former Senate colleagues.

“Biden’s gregariousness and his openness to meeting with people have made him Obama’s best negotiator with the Republican opposition,” Witcover noted.

Appealing to Obama’s better angels

Those qualities have also earned Biden his boss’s trust and affection. Obama and Biden “started out not knowing each other very well, but they’ve gradually established a good partnership and a good personal rapport”, according to Witcover.

That assessment was echoed by Vince D’Anna, a friend and former aide to Biden for 20 years in Delaware state politics and later in the US Senate. “His relationship with Obama is great,” said D’Anna, who currently advises Beau Biden, the vice president’s son and attorney general of Delaware. “They get along really well.”

There have, of course, been moments of mutual frustration between the two, mostly related to the vice president’s well-documented gaffes. Unlike the disciplined president, who has been derided for rarely straying from the teleprompter, Biden has a penchant for speaking off-the-cuff, peppering his appearances with lengthy asides, risqué jokes, or awkward turns of phrase.

“He’s always made gaffes, that’s just who he is,” D’Anna reflected. “It’s the risk you run with him. But you take the bad with the good.”

That was, reportedly, Obama’s attitude when he picked Biden to join the ticket. “Biden’s gaffes have caused some nervousness, but his willingness to speak his mind has also brought out the best in Obama,” Witcover said.

The biographer cited Biden’s impromptu endorsement of same-sex marriage during a TV interview last May as an example. Obama had planned to announce his own support for marriage equality at the Democratic convention in September. “Biden’s statement was unexpected. But it did Obama a favour by forcing him to quickly articulate his own position, which turned out to be very popular with his base,” Witcover explained.

Strategy in Afghanistan was another area where Biden’s insistent voice shaped the president’s approach in what many see as a productive way. Unlike former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and top defence officials, Biden was sceptical about sending 30,000 additional US troops in 2009. “Obama ended up acquiescing to the generals’ pressure for more troops, but Biden was outspoken in obtaining the caveat that the surge would only be for a period of time,” Witcover said. “He has been the constant force holding Obama to his pre-election promises of getting the US out of the wars.”

A ‘vulnerable’ presidential candidate?

It is no secret that Biden still harbours ambitions to be president; “It’s been a goal of his since the 70s,” D’Anna said.

Though many pundits have grumbled that 2016 would be too late (he will be 73), those close to Biden say that’s not a problem. “He has more stamina and energy than most 60 year-olds,” according to the former aide.

What Biden does see as an obstacle, however, is the possibility that Hillary Clinton will run again. “Joe and Hillary are really close, and respect each other deeply,” D’Anna noted. “I can’t see him challenging her.”

Witcover agreed: “Clinton’s intentions would likely be the deciding factor in whether Biden runs. He realises the stature she’s achieved over the years.”

Though a recent Time/CNN poll found Biden’s job approval at a strong 59%, surveys of Democratic primary voters show Clinton dominating the field – with the vice president coming in a distant second.

One reason for that, aside from Clinton’s popularity, is the history of gaffes that has clung to Biden -- despite what Witcover called “his undeniable intelligence, studiousness, and serious approach” to politics. “That’s a vulnerability that would continue through a presidential campaign, and Republicans would try to portray him as a clown,” Witcover speculated. “To a certain degree, they’ve already succeeded in doing that.”

D’Anna also sounded cautious about Biden’s presidential prospects (though he thinks he would be an “outlandishly strong” contender). “He’s been in an unfortunate situation where the Democrats are awfully rich in candidates,” D’Anna said, referring to Obama and Clinton in 2008 and Clinton in 2016.

But he added that while Biden might not realise his ultimate professional dream, he is unlikely to step down from public service. “Even if he doesn’t get the presidency, he’s not ready to retire,” D’Anna said with confidence. “I know Joe, and he’s not done.”

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