Biden's Burden: VP Adjusting To White House Role

Vice President Joe Biden has a history of verbal gaffes. i i

Vice President Joe Biden says President Obama wanted someone "fearless in the sense that I'd tell him whatever he didn't want to hear. And I have not in any way restrained myself." But that hasn't always worked out for the best. Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
Vice President Joe Biden has a history of verbal gaffes.

Vice President Joe Biden says President Obama wanted someone "fearless in the sense that I'd tell him whatever he didn't want to hear. And I have not in any way restrained myself." But that hasn't always worked out for the best.

Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
Joe Biden and Barack Obama grabbed a bite at Ray's Hell Burger in Arlington, Va., on Tuesday. i i

Biden and Obama grabbed a bite at Ray's Hell Burger in Arlington, Va., on Tuesday. Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images
Joe Biden and Barack Obama grabbed a bite at Ray's Hell Burger in Arlington, Va., on Tuesday.

Biden and Obama grabbed a bite at Ray's Hell Burger in Arlington, Va., on Tuesday.

Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

An Outspoken Ex-VP

Vice President Joe Biden has a wide range of responsibilities as an all-around adviser in the White House. Just this week, he attended the president's meetings with the leaders of Pakistan and Afghanistan and will travel to New Jersey to lead a meeting on the stimulus bill.

But there have been a few bumps as this garrulous politician tries to fit in to President Obama's highly disciplined administration. They're an odd couple — the cool, careful president and his verbose, often impolitic vice president. But as Obama recently told CBS' 60 Minutes, that's what makes the relationship work.

"You know, Joe's not afraid to tell me what he thinks, and that's exactly what I need and exactly what I want," Obama said.

In an interview Wednesday in his West Wing office, Biden put it this way: "He wanted somebody with an independent voice who was, his phrase was, was fearless in the sense that I'd tell him whatever he didn't want to hear. And I have not in any way restrained myself."

'He's Not A Loose Cannon; Sometimes He's A Whole Flotilla'

Saying exactly what he thinks doesn't always work out so well for Biden. Last week on the Today show, for example, he stepped all over the administration's carefully crafted talking points about the swine flu outbreak when he was asked what advice he'd give to a family member who was thinking about traveling.

"I would tell members of my family, and I have — I wouldn't go anywhere in confined places now," Biden said. "It's not that it's going to Mexico, it's you're in confined aircraft. When one person sneezes, it goes all the way through the aircraft. That's me. I would not be at this point, if they had another way of transportation, suggesting they ride the subway."

That was the opposite of the White House message: that the flu was a cause for concern, not panic, and that no travel restrictions for healthy people were necessary.

Biden's latest verbal misstep went right into the 30-year catalogue of his past gaffes — and the media had a field day. Newsweek's Howard Fineman pronounced, "He's not a loose cannon; sometimes he's a whole flotilla."

The White House message machine immediately went into cleanup mode. The vice president's office issued a clarification, and Press Secretary Robert Gibbs tried to undo whatever damage Biden may have caused.

Transitioning From A Senate Position

For Biden, one of the biggest adjustments from the Senate to the White House has been understanding that he no longer speaks just for himself — he speaks for the president. On Wednesday, in his first interview since the flu flap, the vice president was chagrined.

"It could've been said better," Biden acknowledged. "The irony is, I had my ticket to get on a train, and ... my son and my two grandchildren were getting on a plane."

In fact, he did get right back on Amtrak the next day for his habitual trip home to Deleware. But in the hothouse atmosphere of Washington, D.C., the antennae were up. Would the vice president be quarantined? Sent to an undisclosed location? Would the president show any displeasure with his No. 2 as he had in the past?

The answer came quickly. The day after the Today show kerfuffle, Obama seemed to go out of his way to make clear that the vice president was still in his good graces, calling him an "extraordinary member of my team."

David Axelrod, the president's top political adviser, said the Obama team knew what it was getting with Biden.

"Joe Biden is a guy who speaks his mind," Axelrod said. "Barack Obama knew that when he chose him for vice president. It's one of the reasons he wanted him, because he knew he'd be thoroughly candid. Now sometimes that's a trait that gives you a little heartburn."

Gaffes Outweighed By Experience

Even though it's clear Biden's lack of verbal discipline sometimes irks the president, White House officials say that on balance, the drawbacks are far outweighed by the vice president's wisdom and experience.

"Not only is he a master in terms of foreign policy, but he's got an enormously honed instinct for how everyday people live and a great sense of advocacy for them," Axelrod said. "So he's been a great, great resource in all the major discussions that have gone on in this White House."

Tasked with implementing the Recovery Act and the middle-class task force, Biden's ability to connect with working-class voters is particularly helpful, White House aides say. And he is always busy reaching out to his former colleagues in the Senate, whether he is lobbying for votes on the stimulus bill, encouraging the defection of a longtime Republican senator or paving the way for the upcoming Supreme Court nomination.

Biden often does diplomatic advance work abroad before the president travels, and just this week he delivered the White House message to Israel that it must embrace a two-state solution with the Palestinians.

An 'Effective' Dynamic With Obama

There is always a fascination about the relationship between a president and his vice president. Is the VP pulling strings behind the scenes? Or is he being pushed aside? Are there competing agendas?

Biden's chief of staff, Ron Klain, describes the dynamic this way:

"It is an effective professional partnership. ...I think people are less concerned about what kind of buddy-buddy relationship exists between the president and the vice president and more concerned about whether they're working together to tackle the hardest problems our country has," Klain said. "The two of them do enjoy working together. They do have their weekly lunch together, and you often see them smiling and sharing a joke."

This week, they shunned the fancy White House dining room for a burger joint in Arlington, Va. Biden said it was the president's idea.

"I was actually in a meeting and ... my staff passed me a note that said, 'President's hungry,' " Biden said with a laugh. "So I go down and he says, 'Let's go get a burger. I heard from staff that the best burger place is just across the river.' We rode in a limo; talked to each other and actually got 10 minutes or so to talk about the business we had in mind at lunch, although it was not quite as commodious and easy as when we eat alone. But it was good."

The relationship may not be buddy-buddy, but so far it seems to be working.

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