Late night comics have had a field day with Vice-President Joe Biden, making fun of his penchant for verbosity. In the early weeks of the Obama presidency, Biden occasionally proved to be exactly what some feared he would be—accident-prone. But it seems Biden is a fast learner, as his stock around the Obama people appears to be rising daily. The man that this blog once characterized as providing gravitas to a young up-and-comer’s candidacy is doing just that. In the final moments of the debates over healthcare reform and the mission in Afghanistan, expect Biden to be the last man in the room with Obama when decision time comes.
According to latest issue of Newsweek, the vice-president is playing a dual role as devil’s advocate and troubleshooter for the White House, thanks to his tendency to tell it like it is even if it is uncomfortable to hear. This is “No-spin Joe” at his best, counterbalancing the impression left by presidential press secretary Robert Gibbs of a White House that may be too reliant on slick spin operations. Singling out Fox News, for instance, may score points with the left, but it also makes the White House press operation appear over-sensitive to criticism and all too eager to manage the media. Biden, on the other hand, was more candid than usual a few days ago when discussing unemployment and its effect on families, paraphrasing the old cliché that “when your neighbour loses his job, it’s a recession. But when you lose your job, it is a depression.” Not terribly elegant and certainly not on message, but this has much greater resonance with voters who find little comfort in statistics proclaiming the end of the recession while jobs are disappearing. The working class roots and the simplicity of the former Delaware senator contrast nicely with a White House that may feature some of the brightest minds to serve in government in recent years, but is prone to smugness. Good common sense coupled with a team spirit that discourages silos and backbiting are essential to an effective White House operation. Biden understands this.
How important is this to the Obama administration? In a government inspired by the Lincolnesque notion of a team of rivals, Biden provides the glue that keeps the government focused and is often the key actor to reduce the tension between opposing views. Watching him with Hillary Clinton is a study in friendship, loyalty and trust. If Obama and Clinton appear to be functioning well as a team, Biden deserves the credit. When it comes to the Senate, the vice-president may be closer to doing for Obama what LBJ did for JFK. And on healthcare, he could eventually be pivotal in getting meaningful reform while keeping the Democrats united. On Afghanistan, he seems to be on the side of caution, leaving him at odds with Petraeus and McChrystal. Along with Hillary, Biden may be the best safeguard the Obama administration has against sliding into its own Vietnam.
Pundits and government insiders have increasingly come to believe that Obama, while eloquent and inspiring, has yet to display the kind of firm leadership that will get significant results. They point to the debate on healthcare and Israel’s refusal to stop new construction projects in the West Bank as evidence of this. Obviously, if healthcare reform is achieved and a breakthrough occurs in contentious foreign policy areas, Obama’s critics will revise tier assessment. But a successful (or, for that matter, failed) presidency is not a one-person endeavour. It is often the product of a team and the work of key players on the team. In August of 2008, Obama claimed he chose Biden on the basis of who could best fill in should tragedy hit. Biden, who has shown no desire to be a second Dick Cheney, accepted on the conditions he would have access to the president and would be in the room when final decisions were made. Obama was right to grant Biden as much.