A group of Rutgers University students was walking down a corridor in the Russell Senate Office Building when a distinguished, gray-haired man with a broad smile emerged from his office. It was Joe Biden, then a senator from Delaware. He stopped to say hello and, to the students' surprise, launched into an impromptu 15-minute discourse on Washington politics and what was happening in the Senate that day. "The kids were totally captivated and enormously flattered," recalled an observer. "He's a very effusive guy."
This is the Joe Biden whom many in Washington have come to know over the past three decades—gregarious, loquacious, and brimming with energy. And that's the Joe Biden who is settling into his new job as Barack Obama's understudy. It has been a relatively easy transition for the 66-year-old Washington insider, his aides and friends say. And even though the vice presidency is often derided as little more than playing second fiddle, Biden seems content with his evolving role. He believes he is making a contribution, especially as a confidant to the president and a superlobbyist on Capitol Hill.
Biden doesn't want to be pigeonholed with a "boutique portfolio" of small issues that few others care about, his aides say. Nor does he want to be a yes man. Just as important, Biden isn't trying to promote himself as a future president, as so many of his predecessors have done, according to advisers and friends. Aides say that Biden hasn't ruled out running for president again (he has done it twice and fallen flat both times), but he is totally focused on the immediate goal of helping Obama as much as he can.
Official duties. The Constitution specifies only three tasks for the vice president: breaking a tie vote in the Senate, receiving the results of the Electoral College as president of the Senate, and being first in the line of succession. Many of Biden's predecessors have chafed under those limits; John Nance Garner, who gave up the House speaker's chair to be Franklin Roosevelt's first vice president, memorably said the job wasn't worth a "pitcher of warm spit."
President Jimmy Carter helped to redefine the position in the late 1970s when he gave Vice President Walter Mondale the key roles of presidential adviser and administration advocate. In the 1990s, Bill Clinton made Al Gore an important insider, and of course George W. Bush gave Dick Cheney enormous authority, especially on national security.
Biden says Cheney went too far and became an independent power center at the White House, keeping many of his activities secret from other policymakers and creating a Machiavellian decision-making process. So the former Delaware senator is being as collegial as he can and making sure everyone knows that President Obama calls the shots.
Biden's role so far is fourfold: confidant to the president on a wide range of policy issues, especially foreign affairs; public surrogate to sell the administration's agenda; congressional lobbyist; and advocate for the middle class, a mission especially prized by this son of a car salesman who says he has never lost touch with his roots. Ron Klain, the vice president's chief of staff, says Biden is an "across-the-board adviser," someone "who's there to ask the hard questions, to challenge groupthink, speak his mind—and that's probably the most important role he plays in this administration."
So far, he seems to have the boss's trust. Obama told the New York Times March 17 that Biden is like a basketball player "who does a bunch of things that don't show up in the stat sheet. He gets that extra rebound, takes the charge, makes that extra pass."
And true to his desires, Biden isn't a yes man. A senior administration official says Biden is "unbelievably candid.... His antenna goes up when alternative views are not brought up," and he will sometimes raise contrarian points just to give them an airing.
Biden appears to have as much access to Obama as he wants, sometimes strolling into the Oval Office unannounced to chat with his boss. They have a private lunch once a week and talk frequently by phone, and Biden participates in Obama's daily briefings on national security and the economy.
But Biden can get himself into trouble with his public statements, which sometimes come across as blather. During the campaign, for example, he called Obama "the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy." These remarks were criticized as racially insensitive. Biden quickly said he meant no offense.