Biden is Obama's point man on almost everything

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 9, 2011 

WASHINGTON — Suddenly, Vice President Joe Biden is everywhere.

Leading talks with Egypt's new vice president, Omar Suleiman, to help shape the transition to democracy.

Meeting with prominent deficit and tax policy experts as President Barack Obama seeks bipartisan agreements on both fronts.

Zipping through Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq on a whirlwind war-policy tour.

And that's just since January.

From the start of his presidency, Obama looked for Biden to play a substantive role. That role has grown more visible, and probably more important, since Democrats lost control of the House of Representatives in November, forcing Obama to work more cooperatively with Republicans, something Biden's done for a lifetime.

"What's changed is who's up there on the Hill," said Ron Klain, who stepped down last month as Biden's chief of staff. "The vice president has good relationships with Republicans, and he'll try to use those relationships to the administration's advantage."

White House aides and former Senate colleagues say the rise of the Republicans in Congress coincided with an evolution in the Biden-Obama relationship. They didn't know each other all that well before their election, and forged a partnership while combating the worst economic downturn in 70 years.

"When your relationship is forged in crisis like that, you find out a lot about the other guy," said top Obama adviser David Axelrod, who left the White House last month to plot the 2012 re-election campaign. Over the past two years, he said, Obama learned "what a faithful adviser and advocate Biden could be."

Obama and Biden see each other nearly every day when they're in town, often for three or four hours. Biden typically attends the president's morning briefing, as well as economic huddles and meetings of the Cabinet and national-security teams. In Oval Office sessions, Biden typically sits in the wing chair next to the president. They share weekly lunches. They've also spent some time bonding over girls' basketball, with Obama's younger daughter and one of Biden's granddaughters playing for the same team.

Obama hopes to focus his administration's attention this year on economic issues, and Biden, 68, after a 36-year year Senate career and long friendships on both sides of the aisle, is poised to play a prominent role in negotiations on Capitol Hill.

For the moment however, the uprising in Egypt, a key U.S. partner, has demanded immediate attention and all hands on deck.

Biden's known Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Suleiman for years. He met with both as recently as June.

It was Biden's office Tuesday that put out perhaps the most detailed public account of U.S. expectations for Egypt's transition process. The readout of a phone call between Biden and Suleiman said the U.S. expects Egypt "immediately" to end arrests, detentions, harassment and beatings of activists and journalists, and to rescind a decades-old emergency law to allow free assembly and expression with a "clear policy of no reprisals." The men also talked about how to work with opposition figures in forming a new government.

If Biden's Obama's point man on Egypt's uprising however, he got off to a bumpy start. Two days after the protests broke out, he told PBS' Jim Lehrer that Mubarak "has been an ally of ours in a number of things" and "I would not refer to him as a dictator," angering Egyptian activists.

Biden friends and advisers say he's aware that being vice president is different from being a senator who can say anything he wants, and he must restrain himself accordingly.

Still, in a recent Yahoo interview, Biden admitted that he's a fan of The Onion's series of satirical Biden news stories, including one with a doctored image of a shirtless, tattooed Biden in cutoffs hosing down a TransAm in the White House driveway.

"Hilarious," he said.

His penchant for self-deprecation belies a serious side.

On his iPad, aides said, Biden's been reading George Friedman's "The Next 100 Years," about U.S. dominance; Sebastian Junger's "War," about a platoon in Afghanistan; and Malcolm Gladwell's "Outliers" about common characteristics behind highly successful people.

Biden and his wife, Jill, also recently took in "The King's Speech," the Oscar-nominated film about England's King George VI working to overcome a stutter — a problem that afflicted Biden in his youth.

He tries to get back to Delaware at least twice a month, sometimes by Amtrak, sometimes by plane, to stay grounded and close to family and friends. He recently even appeared in Wilmington to serve for jury duty, though he was relieved the same day.

Many of Biden's former Senate colleagues saw the lame-duck congressional session that followed last November's elections as a transition for the vice president, a sign that Obama empowered him to negotiate and see what he could accomplish.

Biden was key to the $858-billion tax cut extension deal that also extended unemployment benefits. He also gave Senate Republicans enough reassurance to pass a stalled nuclear-arms treaty with Russia.

"I think in a divided government, he's going to be more valuable," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. "When you had big Democratic majorities, you didn't really need to negotiate with anybody, and now you do. Joe is a product of the Congress and getting things done."

Despite Biden's center-left views, Graham said, "He never asks you to do things you can't. He knows there's a limit to what a politician from South Carolina can do, or a politician from Pennsylvania." In the nuclear and tax negotiations, Graham said, "Republicans knew you could trust Joe."

Former Sen. Ted Kaufman, Biden's longtime aide and friend who filled out the remainder of Biden's term when he became vice president, said Biden's approach to negotiating was planted by Biden's beloved mother, who died last year.

"His mother was the person who said to him, 'Joey you can always find something positive to say about someone,'" Kaufman said. "So what he's trying to do is find out . . . 'What is the one thing we can agree on? What's the second thing?'. . . and figure out where's the common ground."

Biden's early White House duties seemed more about carrying out set policy than shaping the deals. He was the point man on Iraq and a middle-class task force. He was the lead cheerleader for the implementation of the $862 billion stimulus even as it faced criticism from Republicans.

Behind the scenes, he often weighed in as a contrarian. He held a pessimistic view of the war in Afghanistan and pushed against a large troop escalation. He didn't prevail, but he influenced Obama's controversial decision to announce that troop withdrawals would begin in July.

Biden also schedules regular breakfasts with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Foreign policy analysts say the two have remained close even as Biden has been tasked with the sometimes overlapping role of diplomacy management.

Leslie Gelb, the president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, who with Biden in 2006 promoted a partitioned federal system for Iraq that didn't prevail, said that Clinton and Biden "have lived with it quite well together."

Besides his multiple trips to Iraq, Biden has visited 22 other countries and the Palestinian territories in his first two years on the job. He often meets with foreign leaders in Washington.

But Gelb said he'd prefer to see Biden shift his energies in the next two years away from foreign policy and toward the U.S. economy.

"The strength of one's domestic economy is now the main measure of international power," Gelb said. "I don't think we have much influence in the world when people think we're sinking economically."

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