When explaining why President Obama has stuck by Joseph R. Biden for 3½ years of gaffes, overly exuberant flourishes and fumbles, political observers like to say the vice president is everything Mr. Obama is not: a garrulous, unscripted, yet seasoned political operator who loves to glad-hand and connect one on one.
Almost always jovial, with a twinkle in his eye and a ready slap on the back, Mr. Biden also is the polar opposite of his immediate predecessor, Dick Cheney, in style, substance and the way he has carried out the duties of vice president.
No other vice president in modern times has pushed the boundaries of his job and held more power than Mr. Cheney, pulling the strings so much behind the scenes that historians wrote books about his imperial vice presidency and comedians joked that George W. Bush was the one who was a heartbeat away from the presidency.
Charged with selecting Mr. Bush’s running mate during the campaign, he chose himself and never looked back. Moving quickly in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, in the administration’s war on terrorism, Mr. Cheney, who had served as defense secretary in President George H.W. Bush’s administration, became a dominant player on national security matters. He attended all the daily presidential security briefings and by many accounts was responsible for collaborating with his longtime neoconservative allies inside and outside of government to build irresistible momentum for the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
While Mr. Cheney and Mr. Biden both balanced their respective tickets by serving as elder statesmen familiar with the ways of Washington to their much younger bosses, Mr. Biden has not upstaged President Obama on key policy matters, stealing the spotlight only when he sticks his foot in his mouth or tells an ill-timed or off-color joke. His biggest policy gaffe may have come when, in Mr. Obama’s phrase, he “got out a little bit over his skis” in announcing his support for gay marriage earlier this year before Mr. Obama was ready to announce his changed position.
After Mr. Cheney’s tenure, Mr. Biden deliberately returned to a more traditional role for modern vice presidents — that of adviser, troubleshooter and diplomat — which scholars say began with Walter F. Mondale during the Carter administration and continued with variations through Al Gore’s time in office in the Clinton administration.
“I think the vice presidency was in a somewhat vulnerable position in the beginning of the Obama presidency,” said Joel Goldstein, a law professor at St. Louis University and a leading authority on the office. “One of Biden’s accomplishments has been carving out a very consequential, significant role for the vice presidency without being perceived as going to the extremes that people rightly or wrongly thought of the last administration.”
A genial ‘sheriff’
By many accounts of Mr. Biden’s roles at the White House, Mr. Obama views the genial elder statesman as a trusted adviser and friend who is heavily involved in decision-making and can be counted on to carry out important assignments, exploiting his political skill and relationships to help break through some of the gridlock on Capitol Hill.
For all of his fumbles, Mr. Biden also is irrepressibly energetic and incredibly fit for a 69-year-old. He has eagerly hit the campaign trail this summer, skipping just a few days after creating a firestorm over his comments to a predominantly black audience in Virginia a few weeks ago that Republicans opposing new Wall Street regulatory rules wanted to put them back “in chains.”
The president and his team didn’t seem too bothered by the uproar and were prepared to deploy Mr. Biden to Tampa, Fla., last week to provide counterspin at the GOP convention before bad weather forced Democrats to scrub the trip.
One of Mr. Biden’s very first missions was performing an oversight role as “sheriff” of the president’s $831 billion economic stimulus package, Mr. Obama’s attempt to counteract the economic crisis of 2008 and the recession that followed. Even though the infrastructure spending didn’t live up to its backers’ original claims and the administration has taken a drubbing for the Solyndra loan guarantee and other failed “green energy” programs, Mr. Biden received high marks for ferreting out waste and abuse in the mammoth program.
Mr. Biden also played a key role in getting the stimulus bill passed. At one point, then-White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel gave Mr. Biden a list of six Republicans senators to call, and the vice president met with them and dutifully called each one repeatedly. In the end, he persuaded three of them to vote yes, the difference needed to pass the measure.
Mr. Biden was given a similar pressing-the-flesh role in the passage of the health care bill in 2010 and, reflecting his expertise as former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is at the table for major foreign-policy issues. Even though Mr. Biden’s opinions do not always carry the day, Mr. Obama is said to value his vice president’s deep knowledge of the issues and his personal relationships with presidents and prime ministers around the globe.
He and Mr. Obama didn’t agree on the 2011 surge of U.S. troops in Afghanistan — Mr. Biden was against it — and the president authorized the Navy SEAL raid that killed Osama bin Laden even though the vice president thought it was too risky.