In October 2008, in a highly publicized and eagerly anticipated vice presidential debate between Joe Biden and Sarah Palin, Biden said something that would have been notable were it not for his reputation for bluster and braggadocio. When moderator Gwen Ifill asked the candidates about the job description and value of the vice presidency of the United States, Biden said this:
With regard to the role of vice president, I had a long talk, as I’m sure the governor did with her principal, in my case with Barack. Let me tell you what Barack asked me to do. I have a history of getting things done in the United States Senate. John McCain would acknowledge that. My record shows that on controversial issues. I would be the point person for the legislative initiatives in the United States Congress for our administration. I would also, when asked if I wanted a portfolio, my response was, no. But Barack Obama indicated to me he wanted me with him to help him govern. So every major decision he’ll be making, I’ll be sitting in the room to give my best advice. He’s president, not me, I’ll give my best advice.
This was Biden promising–and on the heels of the tenure of Dick Cheney, criticized volubly by the left for his active role in the White House–that he would be an unusually powerful vice president. And it was Biden’s way of reassuring those who were concerned about Obama’s inexperience. Obama may not be ready for all the challenges of the presidency, Biden was saying, but don’t worry: I’ll be in the room. And Obama may not have the kind of relationships with Congress that can get difficult legislation passed, but don’t worry: Uncle Joe will get it done.
It’s striking just how correct Biden was. Obama has bungled one negotiation with Congress after another, and Biden has stepped in. And when it comes to national security decision making, Biden has, in fact, been in the room. Journalists and commentators are starting to pick up on what Jonathan wrote about a couple of weeks ago: Biden’s “prime minister”-like role in the current White House and the steam it may help him gather for a potential 2016 presidential run. Foreign Policy magazine CEO and former Clinton administration official David Rothkopf now says Biden is “the most influential vice president in American history,” and expands on the national security dimension of Biden’s power:
Obama’s incoming national security team is Biden’s favorite players from his days as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. John Kerry and Chuck Hagel are seen as far closer to him than to the president. Tom Donilon, the president’s national security advisor, is also seen as close to the vice president, which should come as a surprise to no one since his wife, Catherine Russell, is the vice president’s current chief of staff. Biden’s previous chief of staff, Ron Klain, is one of two men considered likely to replace Jack Lew as Obama’s chief of staff. Biden’s top national security advisor, Tony Blinken, is seen as heading for a promotion….
But Rothkopf touches on a more important facet of Biden’s persona, and it’s the one that has always led the public to dismiss Biden as a goofball: his constant rambling, off-color, often offensive prolixity. Biden may not get much respect, but he’s everybody’s friend. In Washington, that’s usually good enough. It recalls the classic quote from Steve Carell’s character on “The Office,” Michael Scott: “Would I rather be feared or loved? Easy–both. I want people to be afraid of how much they love me.”
In a possible Democratic primary, those relationships matter, especially when it comes to endorsements. And he’s coming from the White House, after all. Biden is playing an insider’s game. But the insider’s game has its limits. Biden has run for president in the past, and each time has been an unmitigated disaster, in terms of vote totals–and that’s just in Democratic primaries. The thought of President Biden seems to have remained a terrifying prospect for most Americans.
And Biden’s success in this White House has raised another uncomfortable truth: that President Obama so often needs to be saved from himself. As Pete wrote yesterday, Obama’s press conference on the debt ceiling was filled with reprehensible, shameful slanders about Obama’s political opponents. Such was the case when Obama called that absurd rally/standup comedy routine to taunt Republicans while a deal on the fiscal cliff was still being hammered out by those who were working instead of kicking dirt at their opponents. Obama’s behavior should embarrass both the president and the Democrats, but it’s also the result of a moral hazard: Obama can refuse to engage intellectually with is opponents because someone else will do it for him. And he can work to destroy any progress on the problem solving others are conducting because Biden will clean up his mess.
This bizarre role reversal allows Biden to make one more argument in his favor should he run in 2016: he has experience handling presidential responsibilities already because, well, someone had to.