The Washington press pounces on any apparent split between the president and vice president. Political comedians celebrate when Vice President Joe Biden wanders off message.
So predictably Biden’s recent comments, voicing personal support for same sex marriage, set off a feeding frenzy that only slowed once President Barack Obama acknowledged that his thinking had evolved to that position even before Biden’s statement.
Lost in the ensuing discussion is a recognition of the contributions Biden has made to the development of the vice presidency, the operation of our government, and the quality of our political discourse.
Mondale reimagined the office
The vice presidency became a robust office during the service of Walter F. Mondale (1977-81). Mondale reimagined the office as a general adviser and presidential troubleshooter; President Jimmy Carter gave Mondale the resources to succeed in those roles. Subsequent administrations of both parties, with some variation, have followed that model, thereby providing presidents with advice of a seasoned political generalist and help in discharging duties which needed high-level attention.
Ultimately, the success of the model depends on the relationship between the president and vice president and the vice president’s ability to contribute meaningfully.
There was reason to wonder whether Biden would succeed in this inherently difficult role. Whereas Obama is highly disciplined, Biden is more spontaneous. The vice presidency demands self-restraint, and an instinctive veep working for a controlled president is not the preferred combination. Moreover, Biden is 19 years older than Obama, a generational gap which defies usual patterns. Finally, the perceptions of an imperial Dick Cheney vice presidency, though exaggerated, created calls for a more limited position.
Yet Biden’s vice presidency has been consequential for the office, productive for government, and good for American politics.
A principal counselor
Biden has emerged as one of Obama’s principal counselors. Whereas many presidents have suffered from the tendency of advisers to tell the chief executive what they think he wants to hear, Biden has assumed responsibility to make sure that Obama hears a range of perspectives. His views have not always prevailed, but his ideas have clearly influenced policy.
Biden has also assumed an impressive portfolio of responsibilities, thereby helping the administration address the various crises it has confronted. He was in charge of the disengagement from Iraq and the implementation of the economic recovery act. He has undertaken major diplomatic assignments and has played an important role in crucial bilateral relations, with China and Russia among others. He helped secure Senate ratification of the START treaty and negotiate compromises on the 2010 tax and 2011 budget packages. He has been a leading spokesman for programs designed to benefit the middle class and women, among other assignments.
Biden has enhanced the vice presidency and the administration by the resources he has brought to his work. In contrast to the caricature of him as a gaffe machine, Biden is an able operative whether dealing with American politicians or foreign leaders. He has a rare ability to understand the political factors which influence the behavior of public officials, both domestic and foreign. His interpersonal skills have made him well-liked by partisans with whom he has dealt on both sides of the aisle. And while he attacks Republican policies, he generally avoids questioning his opponent’s motives. Candor may take him off message, as it did regarding same-sex marriage, but transparency in politicians surely has a place.
These qualities, in addition to the knowledge from 40 years in national public life, have allowed Biden to strengthen the vice presidency, helped the administration meet challenges, and contributed to a more civil discourse. Some may not like his politics, but these services and characteristics command appreciation.
Joel Goldstein is the Vincent C. Immel Professor of Law at Saint Louis University School of Law; he has written extensively about the vice presidency. This article first appeared in the Midwest Voices section of The Kansas City Star.