As the Ground Shifts, Biden Plays a Bigger Role
Share with others:
WASHINGTON -- It was the end of a long and testy gripe session with House Democrats on Wednesday, and Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. had had enough.
For two hours, Mr. Biden had been going back and forth with furious members of his own party over President Obama's deal with Republicans on tax cuts. In a basement room at the Capitol, Mr. Biden was trying to convince Democrats that the deal was the best one they were going to get.
Then Representative Anthony Weiner of New York got up and asserted that Mr. Obama was acting like a "negotiator in chief" instead of a "leader" who gets things done.
Mr. Biden erupted. "There's no goddamned way I'm going to stand here and talk about the president like that," the vice president said, according to two people in the room.
In the annals of bickering among Democrats, the exchange between Mr. Biden and Mr. Weiner was mild. But it highlights the distance that Mr. Biden and Mr. Obama have traveled since they ran against each other in the 2008 Democratic primaries, a campaign season that Mr. Biden kicked off by saying Mr. Obama was "the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy."
Now, at the halfway point of a first term in which Mr. Obama has mostly relied on the counsel of a tightly closed inner circle, Mr. Biden is taking a more prominent and influential role. With the departure of Rahm Emanuel as chief of staff and Mr. Obama's need to negotiate with Congressional Republicans if he is to advance his agenda, the president is increasingly using Mr. Biden as a multipurpose emissary while continuing to seek his counsel behind the scenes.
Mr. Biden not only played an important role in negotiating the tax deal with Republicans and trying to sell it to Democrats, but also was one of the people in the West Wing who urged Mr. Obama to try to find a compromise on the issue in the first place, aides said.
The president is at a crucial point, with a restive party that is trying to figure out what its role and relationship with the White House will be leading up to the 2012 elections.
Among Democrats on Capitol Hill, Mr. Biden's role in the back-channel compromise with Republicans on tax cuts has engendered some resentment, along with questions about whether he will encourage further accommodation with Republicans or serve as a liberal counterweight to those in the White House who are advocating a move to the center.
Republicans are still assessing how powerful a player he will be as the White House adapts to a divided government. But in both parties, he is seen if nothing else as someone well positioned to shuttle between Congress and the West Wing.
"I guarantee you, Joe's walking back to the White House with a head full of information," said Senator Christopher J. Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat and close friend of Mr. Biden. The president, Mr. Dodd said, needs Mr. Biden's wide network because he "just doesn't have the personal relationships that Joe has."
Or, as Mr. Weiner put it in an interview, "Biden brings everything that Rahm Emanuel brings, but the major difference is everyone likes Joe Biden."
While Mr. Biden has credibility with the Democratic left, his long record in the Senate has enough moments in which he proved willing to work with or give ground to Republicans that they view him as less dogmatic than many other administration officials.
Mr. Biden alienated some of the left when he led the Senate Judiciary Committee's hearings for Clarence Thomas's nomination to the Supreme Court in 1991. While he voted against confirmation, Mr. Biden made decisions during the hearings, including not allowing testimony about pornography rentals, that many critics believed helped Justice Thomas weather the confirmation process.
Beyond his behind-the-scenes role in negotiating the tax deal with Republicans -- a path that Mr. Biden and Mr. Obama decided on in a recent conversation at the White House, aides say -- the vice president has also been trying to win Republican votes in the Senate for ratification of the so-called New Start nuclear arms treaty with Russia.
That background for compromise is now being put to use at the White House, from Mr. Biden's diplomatic mission to try to soothe the angry House Democrats to his secret shuttling between his boss and the Republican Senate leader, Mitch McConnell, to iron out the tax deal.
Mr. Biden took the lead in nudging Iraq's leaders into forming a new coalition government. He has been given the task of navigating growing tensions in Lebanon. And while Mr. Obama rejected Mr. Biden's recommendation of a narrowly focused counterterrorism strategy for Afghanistan in favor of a more expansive counterinsurgency approach, the halting pace of progress in Afghanistan has left some administration officials wondering if the president might not eventually come around to Mr. Biden's way of thinking.
There are still times when Mr. Biden has been left out of Mr. Obama's decision-making, most notably in March, after his fence-mending trip was ruined by an Israeli announcement of new housing units for Jews in East Jerusalem. Mr. Biden condemned the move as undermining the peace process.
But while Air Force Two was flying back to Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, after a talk with Mr. Obama, called Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and went much further than Mr. Biden had, leaving the appearance that Mr. Obama did not think the vice president had been forceful enough.
Once the Republicans take over the House and increase their numbers in the Senate in January, Mr. Biden's role will widen, White House officials said, as Mr. Obama tries to capitalize on the relationships his gregarious vice president built over the course of 36 years in the Senate.
"If he's going to try to get anything done in a partisan divide, and a divided Senate, Biden is a tremendous asset because he knows the players, the institution, and he has credibility," said John Podesta, the chief executive of the Center for American Progress, who led Mr. Obama's transition team after the 2008 election.
Mr. Podesta said Mr. Biden could succeed where Mr. Obama's White House advisers could not because there was a perception that the vice president, while close to the president, was not too close.
"One of the values that Biden brings is that he is sort of an outsider," Mr. Podesta said, adding that the view of the vice president as a player distinct from the senior West Wing staff is "an asset that the president can utilize."
When Mr. Obama took the oath of office, Mr. Biden was not part of the president's famously tight inner circle, which largely consisted of Mr. Emanuel; Robert Gibbs, the press secretary; and Valerie Jarrett and David Axelrod, both senior advisers.
"All relationships build over time," said Ron Klain, Mr. Biden's chief of staff. "The fact is, in the campaign, they spent 99 percent of their time apart."
Mr. Klain added: "Since they came to the White House, they have spent a huge amount of time together -- a lot of that under tough circumstances and tense situations. That's helped strengthen the relationship between the two of them and built a great deal of mutual trust, confidence and shared perspective."
Beyond the daily briefings and West Wing meetings, Mr. Biden and Mr. Obama bonded over basketball, watching Mr. Obama's daughter Malia and Mr. Biden's granddaughter Maisy play together in middle school gymnasiums and recreation centers in the Washington area.
They weathered Mr. Biden's objections to the Afghanistan troop increase. While the president ended up siding with military commanders over Mr. Biden in ordering 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, Mr. Biden did not emerge from the debate weakened.
But even as he has been bonding with his boss, Mr. Biden has been maintaining his old ties on Capitol Hill -- the ties the White House now hopes to use in the next two years. Mr. Biden still goes to the Senate gym to work out so he can keep in touch with his former colleagues, aides say.
Two weeks ago, Mr. Biden was making phone calls from his ceremonial office in the Senate after working out at the gym when Senator Johnny Isakson, Republican of Georgia, spotted him through the glass door and went in to chat. Mr. Biden used the opportunity to defend of the New Start treaty, enumerating the reasons he believed Republicans should vote for it in the lame-duck session.
He was executing his latest assignment from his boss. On Nov. 18, Mr. Biden convened a meeting to enlist support for the treaty from foreign policy luminaries in the Roosevelt Room of the White House. Mr. Obama stopped by, and James A. Baker III, the former secretary of state, gestured toward him.
"Wait a minute, Mr. President," Mr. Baker said, according to a White House aide who was in the room. "We need to know who our point of contact is on this. Who do we call?"
Mr. Obama looked at Mr. Baker. And then he pointed to Mr. Biden.
First Published December 11, 2010 11:51 pm