Biden Finds a Role

Joe and Barack are still figuring out how to make their relationship work.

Vice President Joe Biden

Joe Biden used to joke about whether the vice president was less powerful than the chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee. Biden is naturally self-deprecating, but the joke contained a germ of truth: Biden had genuine ambivalence about what the job would be like. When Obama picked Biden, he told him he would have a key role, but the six-term senator wasn’t sure what that would mean in practice. During the campaign, the two didn’t have much time to talk about it. They were rarely together, campaigning in separate states most of the time, and Biden was necessarily in the background. Strategy for the campaign was handled by Obama and his long-serving team, and Biden was often kept out of the limelight.

Now that the Obama administration is (mostly) in place, the two men are enjoying an intense courtship after the marriage. Some days, Biden is with Obama for five hours in security and economic briefings and meeting foreign heads of state. As a result, Biden isn’t making jokes about his role anymore. He’s plenty busy, which he relishes. This week, he took his third substantive foreign trip to meet with NATO officials about the hot spot of Afghanistan, and Thursday he chaired a daylong meeting with state budget officials on the implementation of the stimulus bill.

When Obama announced that Biden was the top enforcer for how the stimulus bill would be spent and accounted for, it wasn’t exactly confidence-inducing. “Nobody messes with Joe,” Obama said in his congressional address. When you are the kind of person nobody messes with, it should be self-evident. Bush never had to say, “Nobody messes with Cheney” because, as one of Cheney’s aides once put it, everyone saw Cheney as “the guy in the loin cloth with the knife in his teeth.” (I’ll let you pause for a moment to recover from this image.) By contrast, Bush did have to testify to Harriet Miers’ toughness, which diminished her.

It may be paradoxical that the administration’s most expansive personality is being put in charge of restraint. But Biden’s role as the top stimulus cop is serious. It has to be. Before Dick Cheney, it was common for a vice president to have a pet issue that was sort of off to the side. Al Gore’s job was to reinvent government. Biden’s role as stimulus cop could be seen in that tradition—except that the bill and its success are crucial to the success of the Obama administration.

Politically, Obama is being attacked for spending too much. Voters don’t trust that government, even the government of a president they like, will spend money wisely, and Republicans are attacking Obama for being a spendthrift. Biden’s role—making sure the money spent is accounted for and spent wisely—is crucial to improving trust and beating back those critics. It also is necessary because Obama is going to be asking for more. As Biden told the state officials Thursday, “If we don’t get this right, folks, this is the end of the opportunity to convince the Congress that anything should go to the states.”

That Biden has been given this portfolio could mean the president has just signed him up to be the chief grief catcher: When the inevitable waste is discovered, Biden will take the rap for it. This was the dynamic during the early Bush days when White House officials tried to blame Cheney’s staff for the poor rollout of the administration’s energy plan.

But it can also be seen from another perspective. One state official, struck by how much pressure Biden is putting on everyone receiving federal money, told me that maybe the administration would be only too happy to find an example of wrongdoing—because it would then be able to show that it’s being fiscally responsible. As the president said Thursday at the meeting of state officials, “I know Joe emphasized this to you—if we see money being misspent, we’re going to put a stop to it, and we will call it out, and we will publicize it.”

As a personal matter, Biden is still learning, after more than 30 years in the Senate, how to work for someone else, which often means watching what he says aloud. He is, as one administration adviser put it, at once the administration’s biggest adult and biggest child. He was called on to deliver the administration’s first major foreign-policy speech at a security conference in Munich, Germany, in February, but he also caused a message detour when he told congressional leaders that Obama could do everything right—and there was still a 30 percent chance of failure. When Obama addressed the comment in a press conference, he appeared to diminish Biden, which didn’t help either man. And then there are Bidenisms that are simply incomprehensible, as when he didn’t know the number of the government’s Web site for the task force he leads.

Most of Biden’s gaffes, however, tend to illustrate Kinsley’s law of politics: He says things that are true but that politicians are not supposed to say. Administration aides say the president admires this candor, and its public downside will perhaps ease once Biden gets comfortable with his place in the relationship, something Biden also likes to joke about. As he entered the swearing-in ceremony for Gil Kerlikowske, the new drug czar, Biden told the standing audience, “Please sit down, I’m only the vice president.”