Biden’s Vice-Presidency

by Brien Jackson

Mark Leibovich’s profile of Joe Biden manages to be both interesting and uninteresting at the same time, in no small part because the Vice-President didn’t actually sit to be interviewed himself. But what I continue to find to be the most interesting aspect of Biden, and one of the most interesting things about the entire administration, is the way he envisions his role in governing, as we see in this graf from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton:

Before he took the job, Mr. Biden sought assurances that his would not be just a ceremonial position and that he would have substantive assignments. Mr. Obama envisioned his vice president as having a role distinct from the last two — Dick Cheney, who was his own power center in the White House, and Al Gore, who took on signature issues and assignments like the environment and government reform that he hoped would help his anticipated run for president.

Mr. Obama wanted his No. 2 to be a kind of über-adviser and interdisciplinary trouble-shooter. “Joe and I agreed that I wasn’t going to be handing him one narrow portfolio,” Mr. Obama said.

Early indications are that the partnership has evolved as they had imagined. “I think he’s playing the role as ‘adviser in chief’ that he has foreseen,” Mrs. Clinton said of Mr. Biden, adding that he was “involved in the whole agenda of the president.”

For a while, especially during the early primaries, there seemed to be a large feeling that Obama would somehow change government itself in substantive ways. Whether or not that is true, or whether there are any major structural changes (I doubt it), one thing they may very well change, for the better, is the role of the Vice-President. Dick Cheney aside, since the Vice-President took on a larger role under Carter/Mondale, the nature of the office has been quite ambiguous. Carter valued Mondale as an adviser, George H.W. Bush and Dan Quayle were little more than symbolic sops who had no real relationship with the President they served under. Al Gore was given a particular portfolio, which was both helpful to those issues and harmful, in the sense that it created ambiguity about who controlled what turf internally. And, of course, there was Cheney. Biden has outlined a different version of the office, one in which he serves in a sort of “wise old sage” function, dispensing advice to the President across a wide range of issues, and where he has latitude to be involved in the decision making process without necessarily taking on any formal governing role. This is a very good model, I think, for the Vice-President going forward, one where, given the right person in office, they can have a lot of influence in the administration without creating new turf wars, and a way in which a smart, experienced person can be useful to the President without taking on an improper amount of authority. It also has the added benefit, again given the right person, of injecting an “independent” voice into discussions, as the Vice-President can speak their mind comfortably moreso than staffers or advisers, since the President can’t fire them. They can decline to ask them to be on the re-election ticket, but that would create political problems itself, and so the Vice-President can feel more open to voicing an unpopular opinion or to challenge strongly held opinions of the President. And when you have a President who doesn’t mind having their opinions and assumptions challenged, as Barack Obama appears not to, that creates a very good check on group think, and an extra layer to the cognitive process of decision making in the White House we haven’t seen in some time in this country. Hopefully future Vice-Presidents, and Presidents, take note of this.