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

What role will the experienced senator, statesman play in Obama administration?

January 30, 2009, 3:16 PM

Feb. 2, 2009— -- 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.

When announcing that Biden will head up the new task force on the middle class, Obama cited Biden's upbringing and work ethic as supporting evidence for his first big assignment.

"There is no one who brings to bear the same combination of personal experience and substantive expertise. Joe's come a long way and has achieved a great deal, but he's never forgotten his roots as a working-class kid from Scranton, Pa.," Obama said. "He's lived the American dream, and lived and worked to make that dream a reality for others."

The task force will give Biden a visible role on an issue of critical importance to the administration. It will focus on economic policies to benefit the middle class, bringing together the administration's economic advisers and key Cabinet members to focus on three key areas: job creation, job training and work-life balance.

"With this task force, we have a single, highly visible group with one single goal: to raise the living standards of the people who are the backbone in this country -- the middle class," Biden said. "Because when they, in fact, their standard is raised, the poor do better. ... And by the way, the wealthy do better as well. Everyone does better."

Biden will not have specific authority to change policy, but rather will coordinate consensus among the task force members and take that to the president. He will chair monthly meetings that will take place around the country in order to spotlight problem areas as well as success stories. The first meeting will take place in Philadelphia on Feb. 27 and will focus on environmentally friendly jobs.

Interestingly, Biden himself said in December that he did not want to have a specific assignment on one big issue, as Gore did with a task force on reforming the federal government in the first Clinton term.

"I don't want to be the guy that goes out and has a specific assignment to -- an important assignment to reinvent government, which Al Gore did a great job of, of, you know, dealing with some specific discrete item," Biden said on ABC News' "This Week with George Stephanopoulos." "I said I want a commitment from you that on every important decision you'll make, every critical decision, economic and political as well as foreign policy, I'll get to be in the room."

But White House officials note that by putting the vice president in charge of this first key Obama task force, it elevates the issues of the middle class above a Cabinet level discussion and puts it directly into the White House.

"It shows the trust he has in the vice president," an official said.

Biden's years in the Senate are clearly an asset he brings to the West Wing, but he will not be running to the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue several times a week.

Biden aides say that the vice president does not see himself as an overseer of his party's caucus, even with his influence and decades of experience in the legislative branch. Biden will go to Capitol Hill when he is invited, but he has no intention of serving as the White House's chief liaison.

"They call him. He's their man in the Senate, for both parties," a White House official said.

Biden had a strong reputation for working across the aisle with Republicans and has counted some of the most conservative members of the Senate as friends, exemplified by his speaking at the funeral service for South Carolina Republican Strom Thurmond.

Unlike Cheney, Biden will not sit in on the Democratic caucus' weekly luncheons because he does not see that as part of his role.

"He believes in the independence of the legislative branch," a White House official said. "He believes it was inappropriate for Cheney to impose himself like the father figure and tell them all how to vote and what to do."

Foreign Policy Heavyweights

As vice president, Biden is not likely to fly into war zones on fact-finding missions as he did in his Senate days. But he has indicated he intends to play a key role in foreign policy issues as Obama's top counselor.

Yet Biden's efforts could be complicated with the appointments of several heavyweights in top foreign policy positions, starting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Clinton will lead the administration's diplomatic efforts and will be backed up on hot-button issues by two newly appointed envoys -- Richard Holbrooke, special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan and George Mitchell, special representative to the Middle East.

Holbrooke and Mitchell bring extensive foreign policy experience to their new positions and will hold significant authority as the primary point person on those regions. Biden's challenge will be to craft a unique role for himself from his position in the West Wing, drawing on his own experience in those regions.

"I do think it complicates Biden's job, I don't think it makes it impossible but the idea that Biden would follow to some extent the Gore model of having a few specific issues of expertise is complicated by the appointments of Holbrooke and Mitchell," O'Hanlon said.

A White House official dismissed the notion that having such strong figures at the table on foreign policy would push Biden out.

"If the world were at peace, if after the election suddenly all of our international problems had been solved or reduced to minor irritants, we would have too much, too many qualified people in important positions. Would that were the case," a White House official said. "There's plenty to go around."

This week, Biden embarks on his first foreign trip as vice president when he travels to Germany to speak at the 45th Munich Conference on Security Policy, an annual gathering of government officials and foreign policy and defense policy experts.

Traditionally, the secretary of defense attends this conference, but instead Biden will lead a high-powered contingent from the Obama administration that includes the national security advisor, retired Gen. Jim Jones, and Holbrooke.

White House officials said this does not in any way diminish Biden's role on the trip but instead shows the U.S. wants to bring firepower to the conference and highlight a renewed commitment to working with European allies.

As for Biden's larger, more general role on foreign policy, he told ABC News' George Stephanopoulos that he was meeting separately with the Obama foreign policy team to come up with a "baseline" on the situation on the ground in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

O'Hanlon noted that Biden also could craft a unique role on East Asia issues, particularly China, or focus on energy and climate change, given that there is no heavy hitter yet assigned to these issues.

In the vice presidential candidate debate last fall, Biden was unequivocal in his assessment of the job that the current vice president was doing.

"Vice President Cheney's been the most dangerous vice president we've had, probably, in American history," Biden said.

Biden used Cheney as a frequent target on the campaign trail and declared that Bush's vice president had a "recklessly" expansive view of the powers of his office. He pledged to do things differently, which Cheney mocked as Biden weakening his own influence.

"If he wants to diminish the office of vice president, that's obviously his call," Cheney said in a television interview last December. "And apparently, from the way they're talking about it, he does not expect him to have as consequential a role as I've had during my time."

One thing Biden has in common with Cheney is that he is approaching the office with a lack of personal political ambition. If Obama were to win re-election in 2012, it is unlikely that Biden, at age 73, would run for president again in 2016.

"Lacking a personal political ambition to go further is one big factor in whether you have the confidence of the president. If the president is always wondering if you are trying to advance your candidacy for four or eight years from now, it undermines your relationship," said Barton Gellman, author of "Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency." "Biden has the same advantage that Cheney had in that he has no personal political agenda. But Cheney showed that that is not at all the same thing as not having a policy agenda."

Both came into the position with decades of Washington experience behind them: Cheney's primarily on the White House end as a former chief of staff to President Gerald Ford and defense secretary under President George H.W. Bush.

During the early stages of the Bush presidency, Cheney was able to flex his muscle on foreign policy because he had no serious rival in the Cabinet, except for perhaps his close friend Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Biden comes into the position with those foreign policy heavyweights working on the same issues that he has spent considerable time focusing on in the Senate.

"Even if Biden were inclined to try and even if the president were to let him try, he's not likely to roll right over Clinton or Jim Jones or Bob Gates, because they know a lot and have been around," Gellman said.

What remains to be seen is how Biden will exert his authority in order to achieve a level of influence and power.

"Cheney had a will to power and knew exactly what he wanted and was intent on driving it through. Biden has lots of opinions and it's yet to be seen how strongly he feels about making his preferred policy choices happen," Gellman said.

White House officials say that Biden's influence will come in his role as adviser and expect that Biden will be there for all of the big decisions. These officials note that in the transition after Election Day, Obama sought out Biden's opinion on all key matters, including the selection of Cabinet members and key administration officials.

One risk for Biden if he chooses this approach, as an adviser with no specific policy portfolio, is that he could potentially be shut out when it is time to make decision on those issues. He will not have the time to devote himself to specific issues in a way that the members of the Cabinet or foreign policy envoys will be able to.

While trying to be an adviser on everything, he could wind up being a key influence on nothing.

One thing that seems certain is that Biden will not share his predecessor's penchant for secrecy, nor will he relish any depiction of a Darth Vader-esque second-in-command.

In his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention in Denver last August, Biden pledged a new way of doing business in the vice president's office.

"Let me make this pledge to you right here and now," he said. "For every American who is trying to do the right thing, for all those people in government who are honoring their pledge to uphold the law and respect our Constitution, no longer will the eight most dreaded words in the English language be: 'The vice president's office is on the phone.'"

ABC News' Ann Compton contributed to this report.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events