- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 25, 2009

Shortly after he took office, Joseph R. Biden Jr. invited a handful of experts on the vice presidency into his residence to seek their advice.

“He essentially said, ‘Look, previous vice presidents seem to leave office somewhat diminished from when they come in,’ ” recalled Jody Baumgartner, a professor of American politics at East Carolina University, who flew in for the gathering. “He made it clear, this is not necessarily a thing of protecting my legacy, but more, ‘What is the job, and how could I do it better?’ ”

What has emerged after nine months in office, Mr. Baumgartner and others agreed, is a powerful version of the vice presidency that bears its most striking, if unlikely, resemblance to the one that immediately preceded it - that of Republican Dick Cheney.

In short order, Mr. Biden has, like Mr. Cheney, turned the office into a central hub for a dizzying array of political and policy decisions, ranging from advising President Obama on Iraq and his Supreme Court pick to helping devise strategy on the economic recovery, on relations with Russia and, most recently, on the approach to war in Afghanistan.

Call it “Cheney Lite” - a vice presidency that has retained much of the power, while so far escaping the role of lightning rod for partisan critics and avoiding any whiff of ambiguity about who is really running the country. Much like the man who came before him, Mr. Biden has dipped repeatedly into a deep reserve of Washington experience to help the president push his policies.

“I would say that Dick Cheney and Joe Biden have brought the vice presidency to a new level,” said Les Gelb, the former president of the Council on Foreign Relations and a close friend of Mr. Biden. “It’s unusual for vice presidents to play as big a role as Cheney did for Bush, or that Biden is playing for Obama. It’s up a notch from [former Vice President Al] Gore, for example. They’re playing bigger roles and gaining much more public exposure.”

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That exposure was on full display last week, when Mr. Biden hustled to Eastern Europe after the administration had botched its announcement of a major shift in the missile-defense installations championed by President George W. Bush. Trading on long-standing friendships built during his years as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Mr. Biden quickly defused the flap, providing the precise reassurance that Poland and the Czech Republic needed to feel comfortable with the new approach.

Specialists on the region said they can think of few figures in Washington who would have carried into office the trust of so many foreign leaders.

“He’s more credible with these countries than anybody,” said Daniel Hamilton, a former deputy assistant secretary of state for European affairs. “He’s it. He’s the guy.”

It is a byproduct of that experience that has led Mr. Obama to rely heavily on his second-in-command. He repeatedly has been dispatched overseas to smooth over sticky situations. He flew to Iraq when local officials began to express concerns that their conflict was being pushed to the back burner. He went to the Ukraine after the president rattled nerves with his outreach to Russia. He went to Lebanon and Bosnia to reassure government officials that they were not going to be forgotten.

Antony J. Blinken, the vice president’s top national security adviser, said recently that he has seen Mr. Biden assume “a central role” on the foreign-policy team.

“You’ll recall that he went to, at the president-elect’s request, went to Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq in January before the inaugural. He gave the - again, at the president’s request - the first major foreign-policy speech of this administration, February at the Munich conference,” Mr. Blinken said.

“And since then,” he continued, “at the president’s request, he’s been virtually all over the world as a core member of the team, to the Balkans, to Europe, repeatedly to Iraq, where the president has asked him to oversee the Iraq policy, to South and Central America, and now to Central Europe.”

When in Washington, Mr. Biden sees the president almost every day. They attend the same economic and security briefings, dine together often, and appear outwardly to be very much on the same page.

That bond has occasionally been tested by Mr. Biden’s renowned lack of discipline when speaking publicly. (At the very moment Mr. Obama was trying to thaw relations with Russia, Mr. Biden told the Wall Street Journal he saw Russia’s economy as “withering.”) Last week, when Mr. Biden tried to pull back a dismissive comment about Mr. Cheney he made during an interview with The Washington Times, he insisted he was “getting a little bit better” at holding his tongue.

The relationship could face a much more serious test in coming days.

Mr. Biden has emerged on one side of a roiling debate within the president’s national security team over how best to proceed in Afghanistan. While the president’s top military advisers have been urging Mr. Obama to adopt a far more aggressive approach to the conflict - one that would involve sending tens of thousands of additional troops - Mr. Biden has advised a different strategy. His recommendations have focused more on bulking up the effort in Pakistan, while limiting efforts in Afghanistan to securing urban areas and targeting the limited population of al Qaeda who still operate there.

His supporters believe it is a sensible approach - the least bad of a series of unforgiving choices facing the president in Afghanistan. Critics, such as author and blogger Tom Ricks, argue that Mr. Biden has been consistently wrong on Iraq, starting with his opposition to the 1991 Gulf War and continuing with his support for the 2003 invasion of Iraq and then with the various policy recommendations he made that followed.

“That doesn’t mean he certainly is wrong on Afghanistan,” Mr. Ricks said. “But it means that his track record should be kept in mind.”

After five lengthy review sessions and another expected, it remains a fight the vice president very well could lose.

Much as Mr. Cheney did when Mr. Bush ignored his strong advice against talking to the Iranians and went against his advice in making a deal with the North Koreans, Mr. Biden says he will fight his battles privately, not in public.

When asked whether he would consider his role diminished if the president dismisses his advice on the Afghan strategy, Mr. Biden said it’s not ever something he considered.

“I’d be surprised if he publicly dismissed anything I had to say, number one. Number two, look, I knew when I signed on as vice president that he is the president. The only thing, the only guarantee I got, and that he’s kept, is that I get the opportunity on every important decision to be in on the deal, to give him the benefit or lack thereof of my opinion. The truth of the matter is,” Mr. Biden continued, “that he has kept that deal. He has sought my opinion; not generically, but in detail. And if he reaches a different conclusion than I do, that’s OK. He’s the president.”

Mr. Baumgartner, the professor who met early on with the vice president about his approach to the job, said he thinks Mr. Biden may have attempted to portray himself as someone ready to dial back the profile of a job that had become supercharged under Mr. Cheney. Given Mr. Cheney’s dismal popularity ratings, that move seemed almost a given.

“He made it sound like he was going to be going back to the traditional vice president,” Mr. Baumgarten said. “The surprise has been, I think, that he’s actually taking a far more active role than anyone expected.”

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