The Rose Garden: Biden’s Ambitions May Define His Role

Posted February 20, 2009 at 6:26pm

Vice President Joseph Biden is already busy carving out a starring role for himself in the administration. He’s staffed up with serious people, putting Ron Klain, who was chief of staff to Vice President Al Gore, in charge of the VP’s office while adding well-known economist Jared Bernstein to provide advice and respected former Time reporter Jay Carney to do communications.

[IMGCAP(1)]He helped run the traps on prospective presidential nominees with his former colleagues in the Senate and was intimately involved in lobbying them on the stimulus. The former Foreign Relations chairman has also already been dispatched overseas for a substantive meeting with foreign leaders in Munich.

But the answer to one question will help determine what type of vice president Biden is and how effective he will be: Is he running for president in 2016?

Carney did not rule it out, but he emphasized Biden is not thinking about future elections.

“The Vice President is focused on working with the president on the critical issues facing Americans today, fixing the economy, keeping the nation safe and revitalizing our relations around the world,” Carney said in an e-mailed response. “The Obama-Biden Administration has been in office for exactly one month. The Vice President isn’t thinking about 2010, 2012 or 2014 — let alone 2016.”

While it may not be on his mind now, it has occupied significant real estate there before. Biden first considered running for president in 1984, ran in 1988, considered it again in 2004 and ran again in 2008.

Biden will, by any measure — except perhaps those used on Okinawa and in yogurt-eating areas of the Caucasus — be fairly old in 2016. He would be 73 while running and 74 on Inauguration Day 2017. But this is not so shocking.

The public would be used to having him around and aware of whether his age has affected his ability to run the country. And he would be only a bit older than President Ronald Reagan when Reagan was inaugurated for a second term in 1985. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) turned 72 while running for president last year, and former Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) was 73 during his failed campaign in 1996. Neither is thought to have lost because they were viewed as too creaky to do the job.

The traditional paradigm is that a vice president in the mold of Dick Cheney, with no ambitions of his own, can work simply as the president’s trusted consigliere and amass enormous power within the White House. Vice presidents with the presidential bug, as most have had, may not be as helpful and influential as they seek to map their own future. Cheney’s power is generally held to have eclipsed that of his more personally ambitious predecessors.

But there were clear drawbacks to Cheney’s absconsion from the bonds of politics. Seeking to strengthen the presidency, he became in the public’s mind a kind of Dr. Evil, pulling the levers of power from his secret, undisclosed location. Cheney’s mystery and perceived sway made President George W. Bush — left to his own tongue-tied devices to handle the administration’s PR — sometimes seem by extension to be Mr. Bigglesworth, the hairless kitty perennially perched on Dr. Evil’s lap.

It is an article of faith among many that Cheney was the de facto president, never mind the private and public insistence by White House officials that Bush was running the show. It is arguable that Bush was weakened by the perception of him in some quarters as a tool of his vice president.

While Biden seems unlikely to overshadow his well-spoken boss, if he chooses not to run in 2016 he could still become a different type of political liability for Barack Obama. A Biden who for the first time in his political life didn’t care about public perceptions might be even more gaffe-prone than a Biden who did. And while Cheney understood and flexed the levers of power in the bureaucracy, Biden has unparalleled acumen when it comes to the Senate and a knowledge of world affairs that could invite freelancing — if not checked by the need to maintain political propriety.

While a lack of political ambition can give a vice president power and trust, it also carries grave risks, said Joel Goldstein, a vice presidential scholar and professor at St. Louis University Law School. It can lead to a lack of accountability necessary in a democracy and a detachment from the political impact of the administration’s actions. These are just the type of complaints that dogged Cheney.

“Cheney didn’t have to be out there talking and listening to people,” Goldstein said. But he noted that Biden, even if he swears off the presidency, may be able to avoid these pitfalls because his nature is more gregarious than Cheney’s.

“If you have an unambitious vice president who likes being out and about and talking to people, then he could be accountable,” Goldstein said.

Goldstein said that if Biden is indeed running in 2016, his initial priority will be to see that the administration is an unequivocal hit and that Obama is re-elected in 2012. For that reason at least, he will be very much with the program.

“I am committed to do everything possible to make this administration a success,” former Vice President Walter Mondale told President Jimmy Carter in a private memo written five weeks before they took office. “I fully realize that my personal and political success is totally tied to yours and the achievements of your administration.”

It is in the second term when vice presidents like Gore and George H.W. Bush really got focused on getting themselves elected president.

Whatever his plans, much of Biden’s influence will also depend on how his personal relationship with Obama develops, Goldstein said. Compared to many Washington “friendships,” the two are still relatively new to each other. If Biden is seen as close to Obama, his views will hold great weight within the White House walls and beyond them, regardless of whether he is running for president.