Biden to Chair White House Task Force on Middle Class

"I'll be the guy honchoing that policy," Biden tells Stephanopoulos.

December 20, 2008, 1:44 PM

Dec. 21, 2008 — -- In an exclusive interview airing on "This Week" Sunday, Vice President-elect Joe Biden told ABC's George Stephanopoulos that he is going to chair a "middle-class task force" that will determine how the Obama administration's policies are affecting America's economic midsection.

"What it's going to do, it's going to include other Cabinet members, including Labor, HHS, OMB, Education," Biden told Stephanopoulos in his first interview since winning the 2008 election.

"My focus is going to be, I'm going to chair this group and it is designed to do the one thing we use as a yardstick of economic success of our administration, is the middle class growing? Is the middle class getting better? Is the middle class no longer being left behind? And we'll look at everything from college affordability to after-school programs. The things that affect people's daily lives. I will be the guy honchoing that policy," he said.

In a wide-ranging interview on "This Week with George Stephanopoulos," Biden gave his most extensive explanation to date on his role in the transition, and what specifically President-elect Barack Obama wants him to do after the inauguration.

Biden said he got a commitment from Obama that he'll be "in the room" on every major economic political, and foreign policy decision.

"When Barack Obama, Sen. Barack Obama then talked to me about being his vice president I said we have to – let's talk and we spent three-and-a-half hours talking and one of the things I asked was, I said I don't want to be picked unless you're picking me for my judgment," he said.

"I don't want to be the guy that goes out and has a specific assignment – an important assignment to reinvent government, which Al Gore did a great job of. Dealing with some specific discrete item. I said I want a commitment from you that in 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."

During the interview, Stephanopoulos asked Biden if he had to convince Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., to accept the secretary of state nomination.

"Well, I don't know whether I played a key role or not but I have had a longstanding relationship with Sen. Clinton. She's one of my close friends and when this came forward I did talk to her, she sought me out, I sought her out as well to assure her that this was real," Biden told Stephanopoulos.

"There was a lot swirling around before she actually got asked and so she is an old friend, I talked with her all the time. I have continued. There hasn't been a time since she's been in office I haven't – not many days go by I don't talk to her. So it wasn't so much convincing but they wanted to know my perspective and I gave my perspective," he said.

On his role in the Obama administration, Biden said, "I think we should restore the balance here."

He said, "The role of the vice president of the United States as I see it is to give the president of the United States the best, sagest, most accurate, most insightful advice and recommendations he or she can make to a president to help them make some of the very, very important decisions that have to be made."

Biden: Cheney's Policy Has Created More Terrorists

One person Biden will not be modeling his vice presidency on is his predecessor, Vice President Dick Cheney. "I don't agree with the vice president," Biden said. "I think the recommendations, the advice that he has given to President Bush -- and maybe advice the president already had decided on before he got it -- I'm not making that judgment -- has been not healthy for our foreign policy, not healthy for our national security, and it has not been consistent with our Constitution, in my view."

"His notion of a unitary executive, meaning that, in time of war, essentially all power, you know, goes to the executive, I think is dead wrong. I think it was mistaken," Biden said.

Biden said that unlike Cheney, he and Obama believe the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, should close.

"I have been getting what they call that presidential briefing you get every morning from the intelligence community since the day we have been -- since the day we were elected, not sworn in. I have learned nothing thus far that would change my view," he said.

"Nothing thus far that would change my fundamental view that Guantanamo should close, No. 1, that, No. 2, the way in which we have conducted our policy, in terms of both surveillance as well as the detainees, has hurt our reputation around the world," Biden told Stephanopoulos.

Quoting from a previous national security report put out by the intelligence community, the vice president-elect said, "we have created, not dissuaded, more terrorists as a consequence of this policy. Nothing I've learned thus far has changed my fundamental view on the constitutional as well as the practical positions we should take relative to the issues of torture and others."

When asked if he thought high-ranking Bush Administration officials should be prosecuted for the prison abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib, Biden didn't rule it out.

"The questions of whether or not a criminal act has been committed or a very, very, very bad judgment has been engaged in is -- is something the Justice Department decides. Barack Obama and I are -- President-elect Obama and I are not sitting thinking about the past. We're focusing on the future," he said.

Biden argued it's up to the Justice Department, under Attorney General-designate Eric Holder, to determine whether the case should be reviewed.

"I'm not ruling it in and not ruling it out. I just think we should look forward. I think we should be looking forward, not backwards," Biden said.

Biden refuted a New York Times report that said U.S. military commanders argued at Biden's national security meeting this week that they could not meet the 16-month U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq deadline called for by Obama.

"I'm not going to get into detail, but the answer is, nothing was that stark at all. There is -- there isn't any -- there isn't any conclusion reached or presentation made that suggests that we cannot rationalize the -- the status of forces agreement terms and the objectives of the Obama-Biden administration," Biden said,

"He is committed within the context of what he said at the time," Biden said of Obama. "He said he would at the time confer with the military leaders on the ground. We will be out of Iraq in -- in the same -- in the -- in the way in which Barack Obama described his position during the campaign. That will happen."

Biden: We Could Inherit $1 Trillion Deficit

Biden said the Obama administration could inherit a $1 trillion national deficit.

"We're going to inherit a deficit that's probably going to exceed a trillion dollars to begin with if we don't do anything, nothing at all," the vice president-elect told Stephanopoulos.

"If nothing happens between now and the time we take office on January the 20th, we're going to inherit the largest deficit in the history of the country," Biden told Stephanopoulos in his first interview since becoming vice president-elect.

Biden argued the Obama transition team is discussing a "big" and "bold" second stimulus package in the range of $600-$700 billion.

"The economy is in much worse shape than we thought it was in," Biden said. "Every single person I've spoken to agrees with every major economist. There is going to be real significant investment, whether it's $600 billion or more, or $700 billion, the clear notion is, it's a number no one thought about a year ago."

Biden said the Obama administration can't afford to worry initially about the ballooning national deficit.

"As President-elect Obama said, we can't worry about the deficit in the short run. We can't worry about it right now," Biden said. "There is no short run other than keeping the economy from absolutely tanking. That's the only short run."

The vice president-elect said the Obama team is focused on cutting spending, creating jobs and infrastructure spending including the development of energy and information technology.

"We want to spend a fair amount of money investing in a new smart grid," Biden said.

"The ability to transmit across high-tension wires in the minds of most people in the public, or underground in these wires, wind and solar energy. You can't do that now. That would create tens of thousands of new jobs, high-paying jobs. It needs to be done and it will have a long-range payoff not just for next year and the following year, keeping the economy from nose-diving, begin to turn the nose of that aircraft up, but it will also change our energy picture. It will deal with global warming," he said.

The future vice president said the struggling economy will be the top priority for the Obama Administration next year.

"The whole idea here is the single most important thing we have to do as a new administration, to have -- to be able to have impact on all of the other things we want to do, from foreign policy to domestic policy, is we've got to begin to stem this bleeding here and begin to stop the loss of jobs in the creation of jobs," he said.

When asked what will happen if the automakers do not meet the strict conditions set out this week by the Bush administration for their bridge loan to the auto industry, Biden said, "We're going to do everything we can to help meet those conditions. Look, every stakeholder has to get in this deal. It's clear there's going to have to be some real sacrifices made."

But, Biden said, "Labor isn't the reason why the automobile companies are in the trouble they're in. Labor is going to have to make some additional sacrifices, and they know it and they understand it."

He said, "It's been very bad decisions made about the type of automobiles, the way to market automobiles, the way to allocate costs that has been the overwhelming reason why the industry is in trouble. But labor, in order to save their own jobs, in order to save the prospect of an industry, is going to have to make some more sacrifices."

Obama Administration Committed to Gay Rights?

Stephanopoulos asked Biden about the controversy surrounding Obama's selection of conservative Pastor Rick Warren to deliver the invocation at the inauguration.

Biden said of Obama's decision, "He also has made a judgment -- I think correctly -- that in order to heal the wounds of this country and move this country forward so we get out of this -- this -- this mindset overstated of red and blue and the like -- that he was going to reach out."

"Look, he's giving an invocation. He's not making policy. He's not part of the administration," Biden said.

When pressed on the gay and lesbian rights community's demand that the Obama administration develop an action plan on revoking the military's "Don't ask, Don't tell" policy within the first 100 days in office, Biden said, "I'm not making a commitment for the administration based on any timetable. But the commitments we made during the campaign to deal with these issues of equity and fairness we will deliver on in our administration."

"Look, we are faced with the first, most critical urgent problem. And the immediate, the day we're sworn in, the thing that we have to worry about is the further collapse of this economy," Biden said.

Asked about the Blagojevich scandal, Biden expressed shock.

"I've been around for 36 years. I have not seen, at least in terms of allegations, anything as bold as what's being suggested here," he said.

During the interview, Biden said he didn't know if his son, Beau, 38, the attorney general of Delaware, will run for his Senate seat in 2010.

The future vice president said his wife, Jill Biden, a community college professor, intends to continue teaching when the family moves to the Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C.

The Bidens will be bringing with them yet another puppy, in addition to the German Shepherd puppy his family got this month from a dog breeder.

"We're going to have more than one puppy," Biden told Stephanopoulos.

The vice president-elect said his family intends to get another puppy from the pound so that his new yet-to-be-named puppy will have companionship.

"I've had German Shepherds since I was a kid and I've actually trained them and shown them in the past," Biden said. "So I wanted a German Shepherd and we're going to get a pound dog, which my wife wants, who is hopefully a Golden [Retriever]."

One decision the future vice president won't be making is the new puppy's name.

"My granddaughters are going to make that clear on Christmas morning," Biden said.

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