07.31.11

Biden’s Stealth Role

Rarely heard or seen during the debt fight, the vice president transitions from backseat player to deal maker to help the White House bridge divides with his former colleagues in Congress.

In the dark days of terrorism after Sept. 11, then-Vice President Dick Cheney was banished to an undisclosed location for national-security reasons. As the Obama administration faced its own national calamity, this one economic, it sentenced Joe Biden to the same, quiet fate.

For the first half of Obama’s term, Biden may best be remembered as the vice president prone to putting his foot in his mouth. But for three long months, Biden took a more stealth, deliberative approach to broker a deal on raising the nation’s debt limit with his old colleagues in Congress, where he spent 36 years as a senator.

Biden hasn’t been heard from publicly in 61 days, since he last spoke with Italian President Giorgio Napolitano on a visit to Rome. But on the day that a final deal with Republicans finally came together, White House officials said that Biden had been the key player in the administration’s dealings with Congress, especially late in the negotiations when talks descended repeatedly into partisan warfare that seemed to eliminate any hope for an agreement.

“Throughout this he’s really been a sharp, deliberate and intensely strategic dealmaker,” says one official, speaking on the usual rules of anonymity. When asked if Biden was playing the good cop to Obama’s bad cop, or vice versa, the official replied, “The vice president is one of the few people in the building who can be both.”

The reason for Biden as the quiet Monty Hall-style broker was in some ways obvious: Such a seasoned legislator, the veep is much more comfortable as a legislative dealmaker rather than an executive bully. His Rolodex, and extent of his relations, are also much deeper than anyone else’s in the White House, which is mainly filled with a mix of Obama’s friends, colleagues from academia, and former Clinton administration officials.

But it’s also highly uncharacteristic for the man tapped early by Obama to be the administration’s chief spokesman and cheerleader, boosting support for the Recovery Act as well as drawdowns from Iraq and Afghanistan—all issues Obama made central to his 2008 campaign.

Early in the spring, the administration’s strategy was to work out a deal with Republicans in private, away from cameras, to keep politics and sound bite sniping to a minimum. That was especially important as both parties’ third rails—cuts to Social Security and tax increases—were part of the discussion.

Biden led those talks, making considerable ground with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, House Speaker John Boehner, and even Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a series of meetings at the White House and on Capitol Hill. At one point they had reached a loose framework consisting mainly of cuts but also some closing of tax loopholes and corporate incentives.

Those talks broke down primarily because of difficulty Boehner seemed to have selling a deal that included any increased revenue to his caucus, specifically the Tea Party wing that initially opposed the very premise of raising the debt ceiling. “The issue had really always been what John Boehner could get by his members,” said another official.

When asked if Biden was playing the good cop to Obama’s bad cop, or vice versa, the official replied, “The vice president is one of the few people in the building who can be both.”

To that end, Joe Biden had been the administration’s top leaner, putting hard pressure on members he could influence, and avoiding those who find him—and his boss—toxic. White House aides privately tell anecdotes about Biden calling specific senators or members of Congress to apply pressure. And none more than Sen. Mitch McConnell, a longtime friend of Biden, who has received calls more frequently from Biden than Obama.

When the final deal came together on Sunday evening, Obama addressed reporters in the White House briefing room. For moments of great consequence in the administration, Biden usually appears with Obama, standing behind the president’s shoulder while he speaks. But this time Obama emerged alone. Biden, keeping with his low profile, hung back to watch the statement in his office.