There’s no “I” in “team,” but there is definitely one in “Biden.”
With President Obama off on vacation, his second in two weeks, unofficial Acting President Joe Biden has stepped into the vacuum, claiming credit Thursday for the successes of the administration’s $787 billion stimulus package and fielding questions on health care reform — something his boss hasn’t done in nearly two weeks.
The vice president, borrowing Mr. Obama’s teleprompter for a speech before a friendly audience at the Brookings Institution, said “I” more than a dozen times as he pointed repeatedly to progress on the economy and to his lofty role in the process.
“Every week — with notable exceptions — I hold a Cabinet meeting. And most of the Cabinet secretaries attend,” he told the audience in Washington.
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“I made it clear that our focus had to be, in the first 100 days, accountability, transparency and responsiveness. I wanted each of those Cabinet secretaries to set up systems where they would have a high degree of confidence that as they implemented what they were in charge of, it would be done effectively and efficiently.”
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Mr. Biden said he had also talked to “every single governor except one, who’s now a former governor.” The crowd laughed, getting the reference to former Alaska Republican Gov. Sarah Palin. “By the way, it wasn’t by design. She was going to be on a couple of times and couldn’t for other reasons,” he said defensively.
In a presidential-like declaration, Mr. Biden said the buck stops with him. “I take responsibility for mistakes that were made,” he said at one point.
Mr. Obama, his poll numbers plummeting after a long August recess, has all but dropped out of sight, except for his appearances at the services for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. In Martha’s Vineyard last week, he kept reporters far away as he played golf on Monday, and Tuesday, and Thursday and Friday.
Since his prerecorded radio address on Aug. 22, Mr. Obama hasn’t said a word about health care, which has quickly climbed to the top of the list of concerns for Americans. Instead, he choppered off to Camp David on Wednesday, and was heard from on Thursday just once when he proclaimed September “National Wilderness Month.”
While members of Congress and the president vacation, Mr. Biden has emerged from his disclosed location (Wilmington, Del.) and embarked on a flurry of activity.
He has held conference calls with governors, hit Philadelphia and Chicago for fundraisers to help freshmen Democrats, held a “Middle Class Task Force” planning meeting, spoken at the White House Conference on Gang Violence Prevention and Crime Control and even took in a Little League World Series baseball game.
Meanwhile, Mr. Obama has hosted a private White House dinner to celebrate Ramadan, a Muslim religious holiday (during which adherents are supposed to fast), played golf at Arlington’s Army Navy Country Club (no press allowed), hit the beach on Martha’s Vineyard (closed to press) and had dinner with his wife at the Sweet Life Cafe.
So with his boss out of town, Mr. Biden stepped up Thursday to deliver a speech heavy with superlatives about the administration’s economic stimulus plan. “Today there’s a growing consensus: The Recovery Act is, in fact, working.”
Declaring that 95 percent of all “working families” have received tax relief (check your mailbox), the vice president also noted that more than 54 million seniors and veterans “received a one-time check of $250.” Mr. Biden also asserted that the program “saved or created 150,000 jobs in the first 100 days,” and reiterated the administration’s pledge to save or create another 600,000 in the second hundred days.
But that’s where facts and fiction, like two Amtrak trains on the same track, collided. On Friday, the Labor Department is expected to announce another 200,000 jobs lost in August. Unemployment is expected to surge to 9.6 percent for August, according to Peter Morici, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Business, who predicts the rate will top 10 percent by year’s end.
Since Mr. Obama and Mr. Biden took office, the economy has shed 3 million jobs. “The recession has wiped out all the jobs created in the private sector over the last decade,” Mr. Morici wrote. And while the stimulus package is expected to add about 3 million jobs by the end of 2011, “most of those jobs will be temporary and 3 million will not be enough to replace the more than 7 million that will be lost before the recession ends.”
But Mr. Biden pooh-poohed such negativity, saying the recovery program is just getting under way.
“If you look at the Recovery Act as a two-year marathon, we’re at the nine-mile mark. We’re just approaching the nine-mile mark. Two hundred days in, the Recovery Act is doing more, faster and more efficiently and more effectively than most people expected,” he said.
Although the vice president, who as a 36-year member of the Senate went home to Delaware on Amtrak nearly every weekend, mentioned rail improvements five times, he spoke of health care just once, on the next-to-last page of a 10-page speech.
Perhaps for good reason: Before the session, Strobe Talbott, head of the liberal think tank, warned those in the audience that Mr. Biden “has agreed to take a few questions on the economy, and I stress, that is the topic for today.”
But Mr. Talbott himself posed a health care question, which quickly turned the acting president back into the vice president.
“I do foreign policy. I don’t do health care,” Mr. Biden said to laughter.
After a short answer, he declared: “I am now about to go out of my brief. With regard to the question of what the health care system is going to look like that we’re going to get, stay tuned for Wednesday,” when Mr. Obama will deliver a speech to a joint session of Congress.
“One thing I’ve learned: Don’t step on your boss’s lines,” Mr. Biden said. “That’s as much as I should say, and the president will tell you a lot more on Wednesday.”
• Joseph Curl can be reached at jcurl@washington times.com.