Biden to take bigger role as Obama faces stronger GOP

McClatchy-Tribune News ServiceJanuary 1, 2011 

WASHINGTON — Vice President Joe Biden is a career politician who has spent virtually his entire adult life in Washington politics — seemingly the antithesis of Barack Obama's hope-and-change message.

Yet with a new political order in Washington, the success of Obama's presidency hinges more and more on the negotiating skills and political instincts of his No. 2.

Facing a revived Republican Party, the White House is expected to increasingly deploy Biden as a presidential surrogate to find compromises and coax reluctant lawmakers into crossing party lines. Even Biden's penchant for veering off message is being re-evaluated inside the White House as a bridge to ordinary voters who appreciate blunt talk.

A model for Biden's role in the next session of Congress was the recent passage of the New START nuclear arms treaty with Russia. Biden, who built a reputation as a foreign policy expert during his 36 years in the Senate, prevailed in an internal White House debate over whether to press for ratification in the lame-duck session.

Some White House advisers had worried that the votes weren't in hand and that a defeat would weaken the president at home and abroad.

But Biden argued that ratifying the treaty would only get tougher in 2011, when the Democratic majority in the Senate would shrink by five votes. He then made about 40 calls to Republican senators, helping win the required two-thirds vote that gave the White House a major foreign policy victory at the close of the year.

David Axelrod, a senior advisor to Obama, said Biden proved to be "an all-star player."

Not so long ago, White House aides seemed to want Biden benched. They cringed at his repeated gaffes, which haven't stopped. In June, Biden called a Wisconsin custard shop manager a "smartass" after the man refused to take payment and said he'd prefer a tax cut instead.

Sometimes the vice president's rhetoric goes beyond the president's position — making him a sort of human trial balloon.

In an appearance on ABC's "Good Morning America" on Dec. 24, for instance, Biden said there was "an inevitability" that the country ultimately would accept gay marriage. Obama had told a news conference just two days earlier that his views on gay marriage were "evolving," but did not predict where the debate would end up.

"Rhetorically, Biden is constantly getting ahead of his supply lines," said Republican strategist Kevin Madden.

Inside the White House, aides have developed a special Biden rule. Rather than squirm over the latest Biden gaffe, the administration treats it as plainspoken candor that may appeal to a portion of the electorate that is unmoved by Obama's disciplined, explanatory rhetoric.

"The rest of the White House is coming around to the idea that sometimes what the vice president says that's off-message is just a really blunt and colorful way of expressing a truth, and they should embrace that," said an administration official who requested anonymity to speak more candidly about the matter.

"It's a big administration, and we can have more than one voice and more than one style," the official added.

Since taking office, Obama has handed his vice president at least three high-profile assignments: the Iraq war, the economic stimulus and the New START treaty. With each one, Biden has found a measure of success.

Iraq recently formed a new government after nine months of negotiations. Economists agree that the stimulus helped avert an even deeper recession, even if some of the money was misspent. And New START is now ratified.

Heading into 2011, lawmakers in both parties say they would like to see Biden take a more prominent role as the White House's main link to Congress. That job belonged to former Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel for most of Obama's term. But in October, Emanuel left to run for mayor of Chicago, leaving a vacuum.

Even some Democrats complain that under Emanuel's watch, the White House often didn't return calls or follow up on requests from senators. With his deep ties to the Senate, Biden isn't apt to make that mistake, they said.

"The White House outreach to the Congress, and particularly the Senate, really needs to grow," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. "And Joe could be very useful in explaining how it could grow. That's an area that distinctly needs improvement, to be candid with you."

A Republican Senate aide acknowledged that GOP leaders had plenty of disagreement with Biden. "But there's a recognition that (Biden), probably more than anyone in the White House inner circle, knows how Congress works," said the aide, who was not authorized to speak publicly.

Predicting Biden's future isn't easy, especially given his propensity to speak off the cuff. Political careers can be derailed by an incautious comment.

In December, Biden told NBC's "Meet the Press" that the U.S. would be "totally out" of Afghanistan in 2014 "come hell or high water."

That's not the official U.S. policy. The United States, Afghanistan and NATO have agreed that Afghan security forces will take the lead in combat operations by the end of 2014. But the U.S. plans to keep a military presence in Afghanistan after that date.

Deviating from the message is no small offense in Obama's White House. And the vice president's verbal slip-ups have been the focus of internal White House meetings, according to the administration official. An outgrowth of these talks is a change in approach.

A test case arose in March when Obama signed the health care overhaul. Not realizing his voice would be picked up by microphones, Biden was caught using an obscenity as he exclaimed to the president, "This is a big ... deal."

In the ensuing kerfuffle, Team Obama opted to celebrate the gaffe, not hide it. Press secretary Robert Gibbs put out a simple Tweet. "And yes, Mr. Vice President, you're right ... "

Later, the Democratic National Committee made a T-shirt (now selling for $25) that reads: "Health Reform is a BFD."

Biden recognizes he needs to watch himself. His staff has said that he tries to remember that he speaks for the executive branch and no longer has a senator's license to say whatever's on his mind.

Whether the White House's new, unmuzzled political envoy builds on his success during the lame-duck session depends to a large extent on Republicans.

"The opportunities have to be there," a Biden aide said. "It's not for sure that Republicans will see it in their interests to take more responsibility for governing. But to the extent they do, Biden's role can be to help get things done."

(Nicholas reports for the Tribune Washington Bureau.)

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