Nobody Messes with 'Sheriff Joe' Biden

VP's wide policy portfolio makes him a key player in Obama's decisions.

June 23, 2009 -- Early in the Obama administration, Vice President Joe Biden described his role as "the president's confidant" and said he would be someone who would help shape policy and be in the room for every major decision.

Democrats and even most Republicans agree that so far, Biden has kept that pledge and has made a relatively smooth transition from his senior position in the Senate to a supporting role at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.

The vice president's portfolio is expansive and diverse and his fingerprints are on domestic and foreign policy issues.

Biden is the enforcer, deemed "Sheriff Joe" by the president, overseeing the billions in stimulus funding given out by the federal government to local and state governments.

That has not gone without a hitch as Biden has often been on the receiving end of conservative revolt over the stimulus program led by Republican Governor's Mark Sanford of South Carolina and Sarah Palin of Alaska, among others.

But his years building relationships in Washington while not forgetting his working class background have, for the most part, paid off.

He is still the average Joe, leading the White House effort to boost the middle class. Biden is also well known around the world, and will travel to Georgia and Ukraine in July, his fifth foreign trip in just six months, a milestone his office believes he reached before any predecessor.

"Joe Biden as vice president has been involved in all the major issues confronted by this administration and has the confidence of the president," said Democratic strategist Tad Devine.

At a meeting of the middle class task force in Ohio today, Biden will announce the creation of a White House Council focused on auto workers and communities affected by the struggling industry. Obama will sign the executive order, but it is Biden who will be the public face for the administration's message.

Two key moments stick out when examining the impact that Biden has had in the early days of the Obama administration -- Sen. Arlen Specter's decision to switch to the Democratic Party and the selection of Sonia Sotomayor for the Supreme Court.

By all accounts, Biden played a key role in the decision of Sen. Arlen Specter to change his party affiliation to Democrat this spring.

The vice president had been heavily lobbying Specter and his fellow moderate Republicans, Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine, to get on board the president's stimulus legislation. In the end the trio were the only Republicans to break rank and support the bill and they came under fire from conservatives for their vote.

Biden's Role as Vice President

Between the time the Recovery Act passed on Feb 13 and Specter's announcement on April 28, the vice president had over a dozen conversations with him about making the switch, aides said.

"The relationship that [Biden] had with Senator Specter was one of the keys to Senator Specter's decision to leave the Republican Party and join the Democratic caucus," Devine said. "There's a lot of trust that was built up between the two of them over the course of decades."

Devine said that it is relationships like this, forged by Biden in his three decades on Capitol Hill, that Obama, with just four years in Washington, now benefits from.

"The Specter decision to join the Democratic Party is the most poignant example of that," he said.

Biden played a key role in the president's decision making process from the time that Justice David Souter announced his retirement, according to White House and Capitol Hill officials. The vice president met with Obama's final four picks for the vacancy and like his boss, was leaning toward Sotomayor.

Administration officials say it was a no-brainer for Biden to be involved in this process. He is a veteran of six Supreme Court confirmation hearings as the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and has more experience on this issue than perhaps any active politician in Washington.

Biden's counsel, Cynthia Hogan, leads the team that will guide Sotomayor through the confirmation process, and Ron Klain, Biden's chief of staff and former chief counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee, also plays an integral role.

Biden enjoys wide access to his boss. They share a weekly private lunch and he is included in the president's meetings with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.

"When he needs to see him, he sees him," an administration official said.

They haven't always seen eye-to-eye on tactical decisions, but administration officials say the president and vice president have not had major disagreements on key policy issues.

Biden's Candor and Advice

But some political strategists say that it is exactly that quality that not only makes Biden Biden but also makes him a strong partner.

"The valor of that candor to the president... vastly outweighs any occasional problem caused by him being too candid or blunt or impolitic with his remarks," an administration official said.

Sometimes that penchant for speaking his mind is exactly what gets Biden into trouble, like when he seemed to ratchet up the panic during the swine flu outbreak, just as Obama was urging calm.

"I would tell members of my family -- and I have -- I wouldn't go anywhere in confined places now. It's not that it's going to Mexico in a confined aircraft where one person sneezes, that goes all the way through the aircraft," Biden said on April 30.

The White House had to quickly backtrack and clarify the vice president's remarks.

"I understand what he said, and I'm telling you what he meant to say," press secretary Robert Gibbs said. "Obviously, if anybody was unduly alarmed for whatever reason, we would apologize for that. And I hope that my remarks and the remarks of people at the CDC and Secretary Napolitano have appropriately cleared up what he meant to say."

White House officials admit that the vice president's statement was "less than ideal" and "caused heartburn" but do not think it made a noticeable dent in Biden's image and standing.

"If the worst thing you can say about Biden is that he's a politician and he's out there telling the truth? I'm okay with that," said one administration official.

The late night comedy caricature of Biden as long-winded has not died down since he has moved into the West Wing. A recent Saturday Night Live skit showed an overeager Biden moving into the Oval Office while Obama traveled through Europe, even moving his personal pictures on to the desk. Even the president joked last weekend at a Washington dinner that Biden "[doesn't] know when to stop talking."

Aides say the vice president finds the impressions and jokes funny, noting that every politician that has been around Washington for awhile has some stereotype attached to them, and do not seem concerned that the stereotypes run the risk of overshadowing Biden's work.

2016 and Beyond

So is Biden testing out that historic Oval Office desk with an eye toward the post-Obama future?

With a 30-year Senate career and potentially two terms as vice president under his belt, Democratic strategists say it would be crazy to leave his name off the list of potential presidential candidates in 2016.

Asked if he would rule out thinking about being president, Biden seemed to leave the door open for another run.

"No, I won't. I won't rule that out. No," said Biden, who mounted campaigns for the White House in 1988 and in 2008 before being tapped as Obama's running mate.

A Biden aide indicated that all options are on the table for the vice president, who would be 74 years old on inauguration day in 2017.

"He's focused on the job he's doing now. And so are we. We do not wake up every morning thinking, 'What can we do today to get the vice president elected seven years from now?'" said Biden spokesman Jay Carney. "It's not something we're thinking about. But there's no reason to rule anything in or out for 2016. "

But that doesn't mean Biden isn't clear on the stakes.

"He's fully aware that there is no such thing as a successful vice president in an unsuccessful administration," a White House official said.

But even if he chooses to not make a third attempt at the presidency, that is not likely to be the last America will hear of Joe Biden.

A White House official said it's unlikely the Delaware Blue Hen will fully retire from public life. "This does not mean categorically that there is no political future for Joe Biden," they said.