Biden Wants to Change the VP's Role -- but Will He Succeed?

As President Barack Obama signed his first piece of legislation in a ceremony in the East Room on Thursday, Vice President Joe Biden hung out to the side of the stage, with no formal speaking role at the event.

After it was over, a reporter asked the famously loquacious vice president how he was adjusting to his new support role. More fun, less pressure?

"Actually, it is!" Biden said. "I can do a lot of speaking abroad. I just keep quiet here."

Keeping quiet is just one of the many challenges that Biden faces in his new job as he tries to craft a role for himself that draws on his three decades of experience in the Senate and, he expects, puts him in a key seat at the table when President Obama makes his decisions.

White House officials say that Biden will serve as the "adviser in chief," without a specific portfolio or constituency.

Despite that broader stated mission, Biden's first big assignment seemed to have a specific focus: On Thursday, Obama announced that Biden will chair a new White House task force on the middle class.

In a similar vein, former Vice President Al Gore created a niche for himself in the Clinton administration by focusing on environment and technology issues and heading up a task force on government reform. Former Vice President Dick Cheney played a muscular role in shaping the president's foreign policy and energy policy and created a powerful position for himself in the Bush administration.

Biden, however, has said he wants to forge a new model that signals a clean break from his predecessor, Cheney. He has defined the role of the vice president as the person who gives the president "the best, sagest, most accurate, most insightful advice and recommendations."

"I don't see myself as the deputy president, I see myself as the president's confidant. Hopefully, I can help shape policy with him. ... Hopefully, I'm the last person in the room with every important decision he makes," Biden said in a recent television interview. "The agreement he and I have is that I would be available for every single major decision that he makes, in the room. I'd have all the paper, all the material, all the meetings."

But will it really pan out that way?

"It does pose quite a major challenge because he understandably wants to find his own model for being vice president and he wants to be this close confidant and alter ego and the closest adviser of the president," said Michael O'Hanlon, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

"But historically, vice presidents have had a very hard time doing that," O'Hanlon added, "and the two in modern times that have been most successful -- Gore and Cheney -- at least in terms of maximizing their own personal influence, have done so in ways that Biden may not have available to him," because of appointments that Obama has made at the Cabinet level and in the West Wing.

In fact, over the first 10 days of the Obama administration, Biden was most visible at swearings-in for Cabinet officials and senior White House staff and as part of a larger team surrounding Obama at announcements and policy meetings.

Domestic Policy Middle Class Task Force

White House officials say Biden will be consulted on a wide range of issues and bring his years of experience and political and policy judgments to the table, while taking on specific tasks that President Obama asks him to pursue.

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