WASHINGTON — One day he is committing a string of verbal miscues, saying there is no “silver bullet” but that he is “shooting for Tuesday” in completing an ambitious gun control proposal. The next day, he’s the power behind the presidency.
Vice President Joe Biden — who is the other person taking the oath of office this weekend — has over the last four years refined one of the best shticks in politics, in which one of his biggest problems (his mouth) has become one of his greatest assets (his ability to connect).
He is also, according to historians, political observers, and his own advisers, becoming one of the most influential vice presidents in history.
“Sometimes he can get a little, I don’t know, goofy,” said Larry Rasky, a longtime Biden confidant and campaign strategist. “For everybody who knows him, that’s Joe. That’s who he is. . . . But when it comes time to step up his game and be a leader and a statesman, he has always done it.”
And over the past few weeks, it seems, everything is turning up Biden. In the final hours before the country was going to go over the so-called fiscal cliff, Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell called Biden, saying, “Is there anybody down there that can make a deal?”
Just after the school shooting massacre in Newtown, Conn., it was Biden who President Obama asked to head up a review of what should be done in response – and it is Biden’s recommendations that are now guiding the start of Obama’s second term.
In many ways, Biden is the antithesis of the cool, collected, cerebral Obama. He is instead the glad-handing pol who is not afraid to let loose in public. Standing in the ornate old Senate chamber to swear in new members several weeks ago, Biden told the husband of an incoming US senator, “Spread your legs. You’re gonna be frisked.”
He isn’t above a wink and a toothy grin to a pretty girl, and he is the rare politician who runs toward — rather than away from — a crying baby. When an elderly woman approached, he shouted out, “Mom!” (It turns out one of the women was the mother of Senator Robert P. Casey; she lives in Biden’s native Scranton, Pa., and Biden started calling her mom because she makes him sandwiches for lunch when he comes to town, according to Biden’s son).
“As they say in Southern Delaware,” he said to more than one incoming senator, “you done good, boy.”
* * *
Both publicly and privately, Biden was initially reluctant about being Obama’s vice president. He agreed to be vetted for the position, but made clear at the time that didn’t mean he would agree to take the job, which would require him to leave his perch as US senator and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
In a hotel room in Minneapolis, Obama and Biden began working out some of the terms. One of them was that Biden wanted to be intimately involved in all major decisions the president made.
“The vice presidency is not something you ever aspire to . . . it’s not something he ever sought by any sense,” said Biden’s son, Beau, who is the attorney general of Delaware. “But when you’re asked to serve by your president, that’s what you do.”
The relationship between Biden and Obama did not always appear natural. Biden is 19 years older. He’s been in Washington 40 years — five times longer than Obama.
“To some extent I think Biden’s spontaneity is turning out to be something of an advantage in the sense that he’s old school in the best way,” said Joel K. Goldstein, a professor in St. Louis and an authority on the vice presidency. “You have a sense that he’s not scripted and what you see is what you get.”
Obama entered office talking about bipartisanship and trying to bring the country together. While the message may have resonated in pockets around the country, few in Washington have been willing to offer any olive branches.
But Biden has been able, to a degree, to fill the void, in part because of his long history and his ability to cut deals. Both Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms — two ardent conservative Republicans from South Carolina and North Carolina, respectively — requested in their wills that Biden give a eulogy at their funerals.
But while Obama and Biden have a private lunch nearly every week, and have developed a unique bond, it’s not been without some problems in public.
Last year, Biden appeared on “Meet the Press” and said he would favor legalizing gay marriage. He was stepping out further than Obama had – and shortly before Obama took the same position. By then, the president seemed to be following the vice president’s lead.
Biden also drew criticism when he told a largely black audience that Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney wanted to “put ya’ll back in chains” with his financial policies.
“He probably got out a little over his skis, but out of generosity of spirit,” Obama told ABC after Biden’s comments on gay marriage. “Would I have preferred to have done this in my own way on my own terms without, I think, there being a lot of notice to everybody? Of course. But all’s well that ends well.”
* * *
Biden will be sworn in on Sunday morning by Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor, when he puts his hand on a five-inch thick Bible that has been in the family since 1893, and was used the six times Biden was sworn in as US senator and the first time he was sworn in as vice president.
Through much of the nation’s history, the vice president played an inconsequential role. But starting with Walter Mondale, they have grown in stature. The only one who rivals Biden’s influence, according to several historians, is former vice president Dick Cheney.
“Biden is certainly one of the very most powerful vice presidents we’ve ever had,” Goldstein said. “Time and again, Obama seems to involve him as a troubleshooter on the most consequential matters that are facing the administration.”
Still, they have diverged on some policies. Biden disagreed with Obama over the 2009 troop surge in Afghanistan, for example. Biden also has said he advised Obama against authorizing the raid that ended up killed Osama bin Laden.
* * *
On Thursday, a group of top donors was invited to a reception at the White House. Obama stood in a small room in the East Wing, a line of people behind him as donors waited to pose for a photo and spend about a minute with the president.
Biden held court in a larger reception room nearby, engaged in a conversation about gun control, state politics, and other topics. To at least one participant, the Biden appearance showed two things: He is far chattier than the president; and he’s paying close attention to a group of donors that he might conceivably one day need.
Biden’s political future as a potential presidential candidate at one level seems far fetched — he would be, on Inauguration Day 2017, 74 years old, by five years the oldest new president ever. But it is nonetheless a frequent topic of conversation, which Biden himself has occasionally stoked.
When the 70-year-old Biden emerged from his polling location in Delaware on Election Day he was asked if it was the last time he would be voting for himself, he said, “Oh, I don’t think so.”
In the meantime, Biden’s verbal gaffes are now portrayed by some as endearing. He asked a man in a wheelchair to stand up and be recognized. He whispered an expletive to Obama without realizing the microphone was on. He said the Obama administration was focused on a “three-letter word: jobs. J-O-B-S. Jobs.”
“Everybody says ‘I want elected officials to say what they think,’ ” said Ted Kaufman, a longtime Biden aide who was appointed to his US Senate seat when Biden became vice president. “You know why he’s so popular now? They got a politician who says what he thinks. And they like it.”Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.