Capstone, Stepping Stone or Tombstone for Biden?

29 03 2009

Mark Leibovich gets into the psyche of U.S. Vice President Joe Biden in a commendable piece in the New York Times.  The President apparently wants this to be the VPs capstone to his political career; Biden joked he just hoped it wasn’t the tombstone; and a few think it just might be the stepping stone he needs to fulfill his still-cherished Presidential ambition.  Leibovich also relates how the relationship between the Obama and Biden is developing.

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.”

When both men are in town, Mr. Biden regularly makes the 17-step walk from his West Wing office to the president’s. They speak by phone (communicating rarely if ever by e-mail), and Mr. Obama will spontaneously call and ask the vice president to join him in meetings.

Mr. Biden attends Mr. Obama’s morning briefings on national security and the economy. He has full access to the president’s schedule and is free to attend anything.

Biden is becoming Obama’s shadow.  Although this is positive overall, and it’s a good thing he has access and gets cold-called into meetings at will, it also says something about the inherently rather irregular and random constitutional nature of the American vice presidency.  The fact that Biden is really not managing a specific file nor directing a department or agency of the Government means he is actually available to jump into a meeting when necessary.  He’s akin to any other White House staffer in that way.  Although I’m pretty sure anyone drops what they’re doing when the President asks you to come on over – one of Obama’s Secretary’s, the ones who are actually implementing policy through their departments and/or agencies,  would have to take time away from implementing policy decisions to come in to advice about future ones.  Obviously this happens, but it’s much more structured around scheduled meetings – Cabinet and others.  Any Vice President, much like any First Lady, must decide what they want to make out of their office and try to achieve that without the benefit of the either of the necessary policy levers: Budget (provided by Congress) or Regulation (the State’s power to make and enforce laws).

Their relationship will likely continue to improve in the short term; however over time  (especially in a second Obama term) Biden may tire of constantly having his sage advice solicited,  and accepted, but not actually getting to implement those excellent ideas.  For an action-oriented guy like Biden this could get very irritable over time.  One doubts whether, given his vast experience (the reason he was selected), he will feel others (who are by implication less experienced) are implementing his ideas as capably as he would himself.  He may start to consider the stepping stone option if he feels he still has work to do.

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