By ADAM GELLER, Associated Press
After Joe Biden tripped up his boss by voicing support for same-sex marriage while the president remained on the fence, speculation was rampant about whether the remarks were spontaneous or deliberate.
But to those who know Biden, there was no doubt. He was just speaking his mind.
"That's what you get," said John Marttila, a political strategist who worked alongside Biden in his first Senate campaign, and many others since. "You never have to worry, you never have to ask yourself the question, is this politician really telling me what he cares about, what's on his mind? Not with Joe."
Biden long has cast himself as a regular guy, who still relishes wading into a crowd or taking a microphone, searching for a way to connect with middle-class voters who remind him of his own Scranton, Pa. roots. He is the intensely devoted family man, prizing relationships strengthened by tragedy and turmoil that reconfigured a life of sometimes extraordinary luck.
But this is also the Joe Biden who is known for strong opinions grounded in experience and study, as well as the self-regard that makes him a wild card.
Biden took on the vice presidency after a 36-year Senate career he hoped would lead to the Oval Office. Instead, his assignment over the last 3 1/2 years has been to figure out a role in a White House where he is a junior partner despite his seniority, a well-known member of the establishment grafted to a team that promised to change politics as we know it. His job, which comes with few clearly defined responsibilities, has been to provide value to Obama, while staying true to himself.
It has not always gone smoothly, largely because of Biden's well-known tendency to speak out loud and at length. But he has settled into the vice presidency while holding tight to the touchstones of his identity.
"There's no delusions of grandeur. He's not president. ... Before Joe went into that situation, he had to resolve that in himself," said his sister, Valerie Biden Owens, a political confidant since she managed his first campaign for a county seat in Delaware.
Biden has emerged as a very different vice president from predecessor Dick Cheney. He has worked hard to make his case on issues from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to the pursuit of health care reform, while accepting his place in a hierarchy that gives him the president's ear, but not his decision-making power.
To understand Biden as vice president, though, requires knowing the journey that shaped him and brought him to this point. It began in a wood-frame house on Scranton's North Washington Avenue, steps from the last stop on the streetcar line. In the Biden house, every Sunday started with Catholic Mass and ended with family, the younger ones listening in as the older men hashed out politics around the kitchen table.
As the administration's frequent ambassador to white, working-class voters, Biden has waxed so often about growing up in 1950s Scranton, the stories have taken on the gloss of fable. In a June speech, he joked that Obama had latched on to the theme, in a way that "makes me sound like I climbed out of a coal mine in Scranton with a lunch bucket."
In fact, Biden, who turns 70 in November, grew up in a solid, middle-class neighborhood. Even so, his parent's decision to move in with his grandfather when Biden was 5 was a step backward. Biden's father had done well as a manager for a company servicing merchant marine ships. Then he lost his savings in a pair of business ventures, including one with a partner who ran off with the money. Scranton offered refuge.
Biden's father found work cleaning boilers and selling pennants, before eventually managing a car dealership.
"My dad, Joseph Robinette Biden Sr., was a man of few words. What I learned from him, I learned from watching," Biden wrote in his 2007 autobiography. "He'd been knocked down hard as a young man, lost something he knew he could never get back. But he never stopped trying ... Get up! That was his phrase, and it has echoed throughout my life."
Biden and his friends spent their days in Catholic school, returning home to waiting mothers before heading out into the neighborhood's ball fields and woods.