With the recent revelation that Vice President-elect Joe Biden will not be welcomed in the Senate Democrats' weekly caucus, the question becomes: What role will Biden carve out in Obama's "cabinet of rivals"?
There is little disagreement among scholars that the past two vice presidents, Al Gore and Dick Cheney, greatly enhanced the power and influence of the office. Gore was one of President Clinton's closest confidants—at least prior to the Monica Lewinsky scandal—and played a key role in the passage of the NAFTA trade pact and his reinventing-government initiative. He was one of the first elected officials to warn of the consequences of global climate change, and he took an active interest in the development of the "information superhighway."
Dick Cheney has unquestionably been the most powerful—and, one could argue, controversial—vice president in history. Love him or hate him, there's no denying that Cheney's influence in Washington has gone unrivaled the past eight years; it's hard to think of one significant decision, foreign or domestic, that didn't have his fingerprints somewhere on it. Many believe it was his office that drove strategy for the war on terrorism and the invasion of Iraq, as well as the rough treatment of enemy combatants at Guantánamo and other U.S. facilities.
While much of Cheney's power comes by dint of his intellect and forceful personality, as well as his closeness to his boss, some of it has been a product of institutional changes he has made to the office, such as the habit of sitting in on the Senate Republicans' weekly meetings—a practice that has seemingly prioritized party unity over legislative independence.
Vice President-elect Biden has said repeatedly that he wants to restore the vice presidency to its "constitutional role, "a point of view that Harry Reid seems to have endorsed with his pre-emptive barring of Biden from Senate gatherings. If that's the case, then what type of veep will Biden be? Where will he derive his power? Will he have a sphere of influence—or any influence at all, for that matter?
Keep in mind that Biden was selected, in part, for his foreign policy expertise and credentials. And to that end, he served a valuable purpose on the campaign trail, putting to rest any lingering doubt that Obama wouldn't be ready come Day 1. But the new reality is that Biden has already been outflanked on foreign policy by Obama's cabinet of rivals; with Hillary Clinton at State, Robert Gates at Defense, James Jones as national security adviser, and Gen. David Petraeus heading Central Command, it's hard to see where Biden can make a difference. Sure, he can whisper in Obama's ear at their weekly luncheons, but, beyond that, he'll mostly be an outsider looking in.
And it's not as if the picture looks much different on the other big issue looming over the administration's first year: the economy. Obama has amassed an equally impressive group to steward the nation through this recession. Aside from Robert Gates, no cabinet official will be more ready come Day 1 than Tim Geithner, who has been knee deep in this bailout mess since the beginning. And with Larry Summers as an economic adviser, it's like having two treasury secretaries. Throw in Paul Volcker as the chairman of the Economic Advisory Recovery Board, and it becomes clear that there won't be much daylight for Biden on this issue, either.
That's not to say that Biden won't have anything to do. He's highly intelligent, skilled, and ambitious; it's really a matter of finding a role that suits his style and temperament.
Biden can look to recent history for suggestions. There's the "veep as pit bull" model, popularized by Spiro Agnew four decades ago. Perhaps Biden will take it upon himself to do the administration's rough stuff when needed. It certainly fits his personality, and he seemed effective at it during the campaign. But truth be told, with the Republicans in such disarray, there may not be much need to play the heavy, at least during the first year; except for an occasional filibuster here and there, the Republicans will have few chances to gum up the works. Plus, being the bad cop might strike a discordant note with Obama's "post-partisan" rhetoric and style. However, there's no denying that Biden has a little bit of Agnew in him.