In the last three administrations, the sitting vice president has been declared to be the most influential up to that point in history. Even John Nance Garner, who served as Franklin Roosevelt’s first vice president – and who was the one to describe the office as "not worth a bucket of warm spit" – was considered influential in his time.
Joe Biden, however, has broken out of the pack. He has not only been given a significant portfolio of important work, but has actually stepped in where President Obama has been unable to close the deal with Congressional Republicans. And contrary to Dick Cheney, Biden’s contributions have been to the good of the country.
Al Gore was given the vice presidential chore of reinventing government – described by Bill Clinton as making “the entire federal government less expensive and more efficient.” All thought Gore did a fine job. And he kicked Ross Perot’s you-know-what in a debate over the merits of the North American Free Trade Agreement. But Gore was one of many team-players who deserves credit for the success of the Clinton Administration, Bill Clinton being foremost among them.
Dick Cheney’s influence over the young and inexperienced George W. Bush is remarkable. But it lasted only through his first term. Then Dubya wised up to the fact that Cheney had sold him a bill of goods on Iraq, from not being greeted as liberators to non-existent weapons of mass destruction. Cheney saw his influence ebb during Bush’s second term as he was kept at arms-length to avoid starting some new war somewhere. By the Administration’s end, Dick was furious when he lobbied for but could not get a pardon for the shenanigans of his chief of staff, Scooter Libby.
When Senator Obama chose Biden to be his running mate, it was said that he did so, not to win the electoral votes of Delaware, but to help Obama govern. Obama’s judgment was right on.
During the 2011 debt ceiling stand-off, the White House staff nick-named Biden the “McConnell whisperer” for his ability to accurately predict what deal the Senate Minority Leader would ultimately accept. And again during the 2012 fiscal cliff stand-off – after Obama and Speak Boehner and then Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and McConnell had failed to reach a deal – McConnell himself took to the Senate floor to publicly plead for a new “dance partner,” meaning Biden. Joe then closed the deal.
In the meantime, Obama tapped Biden to recommend gun safety measures in the wake of the Sandy Hook school shooting.
So if anything, Biden enters the president’s second term on an upswing with his power increasing.
But the chronological contrast with Cheney does not stop there.
The “surge” in Afghanistan was the most substantive area in which Obama didn’t take Biden’s advice. The vice president recommended that we pursue a counter-terrorism strategy with an increasingly lighter footprint on the ground. Obama went for the counter-insurgency option pressed by the top military brass, and has since come to regret it. Obama is now moving toward the Biden strategy in Afghanistan, and elsewhere.
Obama made the call on the Osama Bin Laden raid – apparently different from what Biden was suggesting – so the vice president does not always get it right. But Biden was the long-time head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and the president has come to trust and rely on his judgment.
So whereas Cheney chose himself as vice present and then sought to run rough-shod over the president with decreasing effectiveness over time, Biden has proven that he has the right stuff. He can negotiate with Congress, close deals, legislate, wisely conduct foreign policy – and, of course, crack a good joke.
The press makes fun of Biden’s loose lips. But when he said that passage of the Affordable Care Act was a “big f---ing deal,” it was a big f---ing deal. When he rolled his eyes at Paul Ryan debate performance, so did the voters. And when he suggested that a gun owner can better protect his or her homestead with a shot gun rather than with an automatic rifle, he was right again – displaying impressive knowledge of the subject matter and expressing it with his usual gusto.
After two terms, the country could not wait for Cheney to exit office, stage right. My sense is that the country may want Biden to stick around for another term.