How is Joe Biden just like Dick Cheney? No, that’s not a joke designed to annoy Democrats. That’s a question prompted by the latest round of vice-presidential polls, showing Obama’s veep suffering a steep decline since last year’s elections.
The answer: Neither Biden nor Cheney appear to care about their poll numbers.
For two politicians who spent decades in Washington before taking the office of the vice president, that sentiment might just be genuine. Both veeps have deep and stubborn convictions about their policy judgment (although both arrived at diametrically opposed positions on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan).
“Where we’re not like Dick Cheney is that we don’t say we don’t care what the American people think. That is absolutely not Joe Biden’s opinion.”
Both have good reason to rationalize their bad numbers. In Biden’s case, his approval ratings are even lower than Cheney’s in his first year—a first year skewed by the rallying effect after the 9/11 attacks. However, compared to Cheney’s final years, Biden is currently cruising in the exosphere of popularity.
Still, for a veep whose profile has risen over the year, and who has watched the debate on the Afghan mission shift substantially in his direction, the numbers hardly reflect his own performance.
Biden’s approval numbers have fallen from 59 percent last November to 42 percent now, according to Gallup. At the same time, his disapproval numbers have risen from 29 to 40. That means his net numbers have gone from plus 30 to just 2. Compared to his last Democratic predecessor, Biden is lagging 10 points behind Al Gore’s first year average.
• Lee Siegel: Cheney Blood Lust While Obama’s numbers have also declined this year, Biden is 13 points behind his boss. According to Gallup, that is a new development for recent veeps. Both Gore and Cheney mirrored their respective presidents in their first year, with poll numbers that were almost identical.
Part of Biden’s problem lies, according to White House officials, in the chronic condition of vice-presidentitis—a disease made worse by a president who is a historical figure and popular phenomenon.
“What happens to vice presidents is that they are not nationally known when they are picked, which is true with Biden,” said one senior White House aide. “Then they get a lot of high-profile attention, and as soon as their candidate wins, and their numbers spike after the election and the inauguration. Then they disappear because you have a new president in office who always gains most of the attention.”
But part of Biden’s problem also lies in the tasks he has been handed by the president.
Biden has consciously tried to avoid working like Cheney, reducing the size of his national security staff along with the reach of the veep’s office. But his policy portfolio is still far bigger than Gore’s. Instead of global warming and reinventing government, Biden is tasked with managing the stimulus spending program, as well as the situation in Iraq, while also adding his voice to the painstaking review of strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
That means selling a skeptical public on the virtues of a Recovery Act that has helped to lower unemployment to the painfully high level of almost 10 percent. Minimizing suffering is hardly a popular message and does little to boost your poll numbers.
Just this week Biden was announcing the reopening of a shuttered GM plant in his beloved Wilmington, Delaware: a classic case of good news in a bad situation, where the cheers are muted by the bleak state of the manufacturing sector.
That domestic achievement followed the success of Biden’s tour of Poland and the Czech Republic, where he won support for the administration’s new policy on missile defense—after reports of shock and concern when the new approach was rolled out. Even Biden’s successes tend to be the kind of cleanup jobs that rarely lift approval ratings.
That’s not to say that the veep’s office can easily ignore what Washington, and the voters, think about Biden. Where Biden’s staff differs from Cheney’s: They care about his public image, even if they shrug their shoulders at the poll numbers. That probably means waiting for a time when all those billions of dollars of recovery spending show up in something more than this week’s GDP figures—and start having a palpable effect on job markets across the country.
“We don’t spend a lot of time worrying about it, because what are you going to do about it?” the senior aide says. “Where we’re not like Dick Cheney is that we don’t say we don’t care what the American people think. That is absolutely not Joe Biden’s opinion. But the only way to have a sustainable effect on your approval rating is to be part of an administration that does well. There’s no such thing as a successful vice president in an unsuccessful administration.”
Richard Wolffe is Daily Beast columnist and an award-winning journalist, and senior strategist at Public Strategies. He covered the entire length of Barack Obama's presidential campaign for Newsweek magazine. His book, Renegade: The Making of a President, was published by Crown in June.