After Cheney, Biden Well On His Way To 'Restoring' Vice Presidency

July 28, 2009|By Jules Witcover

Six months ago, embarking on the vice presidency, Joe Biden listed among his top priorities "restoring" the office to its proper constitutional role in the wake of the eight-year tenure of predecessor Dick Cheney.

It's early to attempt a reliable assessment of his achievement of that goal. But at the half-year mark, he has from all appearances made a good start, if only because nobody is suggesting, as often was the case with Mr. Cheney, that Mr. Biden is really running the country.

Nor has there has been talk of the vice president stealthily at work from an "undisclosed location," whispering conspiratorially into the ear of the president. That was a common image cooked up by Mr. Cheney's critics with, as we eventually found out, some validity.

For openers, there have been no contentions from the vice president's office, buttressed by the Obama administration's Justice Department, that the president as commander-in-chief has unlimited executive powers in wartime. Mr. Biden has not been saying President Barack Obama can do as he chooses without recourse to congressional approval.

But beyond the perhaps exaggerated caricature of Mr. Cheney as George W. Bush's puppet-master, there has been little resemblance in the Biden vice presidency to the autocratic characterization of the office that marked the Cheney years.

In personal style, the contrast is obvious. In place of Mr. Cheney's secretive, dour, sometimes scowling manner, Mr. Biden has been a relatively open and cheery veep. He still is vulnerable to the occasional quip that has fed the rap against him as a man who speaks before thinking.

But that reputation cloaks a serious workhorse who has been given critical and sensitive assignments at home and abroad. They include undertakings of sensitive diplomacy that seldom if ever were entrusted by Mr. Bush to Mr. Cheney.

An example is Mr. Biden's latest mission to Ukraine and Georgia to address and encourage those former Soviet Union states in their pursuit of an independent course from a threatening Russia. His familiarity with their leaders has been an important chip Mr. Obama has not hesitated to play even as he has the strong-willed Hillary Clinton running his State Department.

At home, one of Mr. Obama's first personnel decisions was to place Mr. Biden in charge of a special task force on middle-class America. He is charged to oversee administration efforts to meet the needs of a key constituency that was a major target of the Obama-Biden campaign and critical to its success at the polls. Mr. Biden has been comfortably riding that particular political horse ever since.

In the central domestic issues of the first six months of the new administration - economic recovery and health-care reform - Mr. Biden has been in the forefront of both sales efforts. His resume as well as his personality make him a logical missionary to middle-class, blue-collar Americans.

From what can be gleaned from outside the tent, the Obama-Biden relationship is far from the perception of the Bush-Cheney duo of a brash but uninformed top man with a seasoned and emotionless Rasputin lurking at his side.

Mr. Obama, by contrast, already combines a cool demeanor and intellect at the top, and Mr. Biden so far has fallen in behind as a ready and willing subordinate, though with uncommon public presence in a job that too often had been shadowy.

Mr. Biden, after 36 years in the Senate and chairman of two of its most important committees, Judiciary and Foreign Relations, has eased comfortably into the role of second banana. He said before he agreed to be Mr. Obama's running mate that all he asked was to be in the room when all key decisions were made, and to have a voice. From all appearances, that has happened.

It is, to be sure, still early in the new administration to conclude that the Obama-Biden honeymoon will last. Mr. Biden in the past has been criticized as a loose cannon who lacks self-discipline, not unnoticed at times by Mr. Obama. But after six months as vice president, Joe Biden seems to be making headway toward reestablishing the office as a constructive, not dominant, part of the nation's leadership team.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former longtime writer for The Baltimore Sun. His e-mail is juleswitcover@earthlink.net.

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