Before becoming vice president, Joe Biden declared his intention to “restore the balance” between his office and that of the president. In his view, Dick Cheney had essentially created a separate power base, nearly independent of the Oval Office. Biden’s vice presidency was going to restrain those impulses. He would integrate his role and staff more smoothly and fully with the White House, more in the style of Walter Mondale during Jimmy Carter’s presidency and, to a degree, Al Gore in the Clinton years.
But Biden has hardly taken a back seat. Instead, he has become President Obama’s workhorse on issues from war to budgets to economic recovery. The New Deal Democrat from coal-country Scranton has even become a liberal standard-bearer on same-sex marriage, nudging the president to publicly shift positions. While Gore was given unusually significant responsibilities on very specific areas such as the environment and government efficiency, Biden, much like Cheney before him, has had plenty of running room on an array of key administration policies — a sort of de facto assistant president.
Unlike the grim Cheney often shunted to undisclosed locations, however, Biden has been a visible sidekick to Obama — enough to keep speculation alive about his presidential aspirations for 2016.
In nearly four years as vice president, Biden has been the chief monitor of the economic recovery efforts, coordinating federal projects with mayors and governors. As Obama’s emissary to the Republican congressional leadership during the 2011 debt-ceiling negotiations, he was nicknamed the “McConnell whisperer” by aides, according to Bob Woodward’s new book. And he has overseen the U.S. military and reconstruction agendas in Iraq and Afghanistan, while encouraging Obama to hold fast to the troop-withdrawal timelines Biden has advocated since taking office — a point he emphasized repeatedly in his debate with Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) on Thursday night.
While Biden showed distracting, Gore-like flashes of irritability toward Ryan, he filled in blanks that Obama had left unspoken in his own debate with Mitt Romney, and he brought the discussion back to the Democrats’ standard defense of the middle class. In so doing, he provided a tonic his party needed after the president’s flat performance.
Although Obama and Biden were not close in the four years they overlapped in the Senate, according to Obama strategists David Axelrod and David Plouffe, their candidate was impressed with Biden in the 2008 Democratic primaries. After he delivered uncommonly pithy answers in debates, other contenders onstage would begin their responses with variations of “Joe is right.” And in a South Carolina debate, when asked whether he could control his wagging tongue, Biden’s straight-faced, one-word answer — “Yes” — brought the house down.
While he may have caused the Obama team some anxiety in the general-election campaign with his freewheeling style, the running mates meshed quickly. Early on, Obama publicly called Biden the best vice president to date and told him he wanted him on the ticket again in 2012.