WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama's been laying on the praise so thick for his vice president that even a guy as self-deprecating as Joe Biden might wonder if Obama's messing with him.
"We call him 'The Sheriff,'" Obama said recently, talking about how he's asked Biden to oversee implementation of the $787 billion economic stimulus. "Nobody messes with Joe," the president said in his first formal address to Congress.
After less than two months in office, Obama also has called on Biden, 66, to act as a foreign-policy emissary, run a middle-class task force, stand in on national network morning shows and round up support for the administration by tapping allies in organized labor and friends from both political parties on Capitol Hill.
Entrusted with far more than funerals and ribbon cuttings, Biden's responded with deference and gratitude, but hasn't quite curbed his penchant for stream-of-consciousness monologues and wisecracks that makes Obama uneasy.
Biden travels to Brussels next week to talk about Afghanistan and Pakistan with NATO allies and meet with European Union officials. Last month, he appeared at the Munich Security Conference, an annual event the former Foreign Relations Committee chairman had previously attended in 36 years as a senator from Delaware.
"I come to Europe on behalf of a new administration," Biden told this year's conference, "an administration that's determined to set a new tone not only in Washington but in America's relations around the world."
Neither as powerful behind the scenes as Dick Cheney nor as marginalized as Dan Quayle became, Biden seems to be charting a middle course along the lines of Walter Mondale or Al Gore.
That's partly a function of Obama starting the job with his own circle of trusted advisers and a vow not to follow the Bush-Cheney model. Biden is "more in sales than production," said Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in California.
In an interview this week, however, Mondale, a former Minnesota senator who as Jimmy Carter's vice president pioneered the modern vice presidency, said Biden has had his own hand in researching and shaping his role.
Mondale and Biden spoke several times during last year's campaign and met in Washington before the inauguration, and Biden also read Mondale's papers on the vice presidency.
The two discussed what Mondale had learned on the job, the concerns that Cheney had overstepped the boundaries of the office, and ways to rein in the job while keeping it relevant and useful.
"I think he's off to a very good start," Mondale said.
Biden also has been seeking the counsel of various Republican friends.
He invited Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., to a private meeting last Tuesday to talk about Afghanistan, where Obama has announced a policy review and authorized sending thousands more troops.
Graham supported Obama's Republican presidential election opponent, Sen. John McCain, but in January traveled with Biden to Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan before Biden left the Senate.
"We talk pretty continuously about how he sees Afghanistan developing, what's the next step to take, trying to keep me informed about their assessments," Graham said. "He shares things with me and asks for my input."
Graham said they've also bonded on a personal level, despite different backgrounds and ideological orientations. Graham is a conservative southerner, Biden a liberal Irish Catholic from Scranton, Pa. Both grew up working class and faced grief as young men. Graham raised his younger sister in his early 20s, after his parents died. Biden's first wife and a daughter died in a car accident. Biden also survived aneurysms and overcame stuttering.
"He's a very unpretentious guy in terms of personal relationships, a good and decent man," Graham said, laughing as he steered the conversation back to policy "who I often disagree with."
Biden's talked a little bit about adjusting to the new job, Graham said.
"He says he's never had a boss before. So, yeah, it's a transition from being a committee chairman, a senator with a lot of discretion . . . versus being the key support guy for the executive branch." At the same time, Graham said, "I think he's really enjoying it."
Joel Goldstein, a St. Louis University Law School professor and leading expert on vice presidents, said the early indications are that Obama will let Biden "play an important role" but that relationships between a president and vice president evolve. Ultimately, Biden's power will be shaped by how in-the-loop Obama keeps him and what signals Obama projects publicly.
Biden has weekly lunches with Obama and can attend the president's daily briefings, but Goldstein said that connections at the staff level also are important. Biden's chief of staff, Ron Klain, who did the same job for Gore, can attend White House senior staff meetings. Tony Blinken, the national security adviser to the vice president, also advises Obama and traveled with him last year to Iraq. Obama picked Thomas E. Donilon, a former Biden adviser, for deputy national security adviser.
Mondale, who moved the vice president's office into the West Wing and began the tradition of a weekly lunch with the president, envisioned the vice president's role as an across-the-board troubleshooter, steering away from the line assignments that boxed in past vice presidents or invited turf wars with cabinet members and presidential staff.
Biden embraces Mondale's view, but his task overseeing the stimulus implementation could become a trap.
"The president handled him an impossible job; that is, rooting out waste in the stimulus package," said political scientist Pitney. If the stimulus proves wasteful or failed, Pitney said, Biden "is the one who has the responsibility."
Pitney, who once worked for Cheney when he was in Congress, said Biden's old-school style also undercuts Obama's image of stepping back from special interests.
Speaking to AFL-CIO leaders Thursday in Florida, Biden thanked them for supporting his political career and recalled the adage that "you go home with them that brung you to the dance."
"Well, you all brought me to the dance a long time ago," he said. "And it's time we start dancing, man. It's time we start dancing."
"The picture of Joe Biden dancing with a hall full of union members is not something that most Americans want to think about," Pitney said. "Just imagine if Bush or Cheney had said that about the energy industry."
At times, the president, cautious, disciplined and private, seems wary of Biden's off-the-cuff words.
Biden publicly teased Supreme Court Chief John G. Roberts for scrambling the oath of office. Biden also remarked that if the administration did "everything right . . . there's still a 30 percent chance we're going to get it wrong." That prompted a question to the president at his first news conference.
"Let me try this out," Obama said. "I think what Joe may have been suggesting . . . is that, given the magnitude of the challenges that we have, any single thing that we do is going to be part of the solution, not all of the solution."
Onstage in Denver last month where Obama signed the economic stimulus bill, Biden asked Interior Secretary and former Colorado Sen. Ken Salazar in a televised event, "You're going to hitch a ride home with me, right?" then explained to the crowd: "He rode out on the big plane" (Obama's) but "he's going back on the little one" (Biden's) The quip was harmless, but not Obama's style, and the president, on camera, looked uncomfortable.
At other times, Biden's from-the-heart prose is an appealing tool for Obama, who wants to bridge partisan divisions to accomplish big things, such as overhauling health care.
Biden spoke in a moving Senate farewell speech in January about how his political friendships had transcended party lines. Having joined the Senate as a civil-rights advocate, he recounted how touched he was at the request by former segregationist Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina to have Biden deliver his eulogy in 2003.
"Personal relationships are the one thing that unlock the true potential of this place," Biden said in the January farewell speech. Every good major accomplishment in Washington, he said, "came not from the application of pressure by interest groups, but through the maturation of personal relationships. A personal relationship is what allows you to go after someone hammer and tong on one issue and still find common ground on the next."
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