UPDATE: On Tuesday, President Obama had to publically rebuke his gaffe-prone vice president. When asked about Biden’s statement that “we misread how bad the economy was,” Obama said, “I would actually—rather than say misread, we had incomplete information. What we always knew was that a) this recession was gonna be deep, and b) it was gonna last for a while.” Obama also said Israel has “absolutely not” given Israel a green-light to attack Iran, as Biden had suggested. The Daily Beast’s Lloyd Grove reports on Biden’s latest slip-up.
“This has almost become predictable behavior,” Joe Biden said Sunday on ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos. “Some of it seems like almost attention-seeking behavior.”
The vice president wasn’t talking about himself; he was discussing North Korea and its penchant for shooting missiles willy-nilly into the ether. Yet one could be forgiven for imagining that the remark is also a possible diagnosis of the gaffe-prone Biden—who once again made headlines this past weekend in ways his boss, President Barack Obama, was unlikely to appreciate.
“The busiest person in Joe Biden’s office is the assistant for damage control—it’s a full-time post.”
Sitting for an interview at Camp Victory in Iraq, Biden suggested that it was OK with the United States if the Israelis—should they feel “existentially threatened”—took matters into their own hands and attacked Iran. After all, Israel is “a sovereign nation,” he said. Maybe the veep wasn’t carving out a new policy for the “Obama-Biden administration,” as he insisted on calling it, but he was certainly splashing DayGlo paint on the old one. (Never mind that Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was, at the same moment, warning on CBS’s Face the Nation that such an attack “would be very destabilizing.”)
But the remark that might really have set Obama’s teeth on edge—the political equivalent of fingernails on a blackboard—was his BFF’s confession that the new team in the White House had miscalculated on the economy.
“The truth is, we and everyone else misread the economy,” Biden confided to the television audience.
Probably even more upsetting to the Obama parts of the Obama-Biden organism was the veep’s manful admission that they now own the lousy numbers.
“The truth is there was a misreading of just how bad an economy we inherited,” Biden said, before adding graciously, “I’m not laying this on anybody. It’s now our responsibility.”
Maybe this wasn’t as bad as the Swine Flu Incident, when Biden went on the Today show in April and advised panicky citizens not to travel on airplanes or subways, but it was hardly helpful.
The Republicans, engaging in predictable behavior of their own, pounced on the veep’s disclosure as though it were a shiny new toy under the Christmas tree. House Minority Whip Eric Cantor gleefully trashed the administration’s $787 billion economic-recovery program, which has yet to prevent unemployment rates from rising to 9.5 percent and beyond.
“There wasn’t any misreading of the economy. In fact, the president and vice president had forecasted economic doom if we did not act quickly,” Cantor declared. “What they misread was the stimulus bill and got the prescription wrong.”
Obama, it turns out, has given Biden the radioactive responsibility of overseeing the government’s stimulus spending. If the billions of dollars don’t get deployed quickly enough to save jobs and the economy continues to head south, guess who’ll be blamed?
“The busiest person in Joe Biden’s office is the assistant for damage control—it’s a full-time post,” said political science professor Larry Sabato, director of University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.
“There hasn’t been a week since he was picked that the vice president hasn’t generated a controversy of some sort,” Sabato told me. “But nobody’s ever going to change Joe Biden.”
Nobody knows that better than Ron Klain, the veep’s chief of staff, who held the same position under Al Gore and was portrayed by Kevin Spacey in the HBO docudrama Recount.
Klain, a thoroughgoing pro, argues that every word his boss uttered on TV Sunday was well within the bounds of established White House talking points, and that the veep was briefed for the appearance by senior administration officials. And anyway, Klain added, he’s said it all before—a tried and true Washington locution in the face of accidental newsmaking.
“Nothing he said about Israel and Iran broke new ground,” Klain told me. “In prior interviews, he’s always said that Israel and Iran are sovereign nations—these are points he’s made again and again. People are choosing to pull things out.”
As for the White House’s alleged misreading of the economy, “he’s made that point before, which is that some of the projections in January clearly turned out to be off, and things are much worse than any forecaster projected in terms of job loss.”
Klain added that no less a personage than White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel effusively praised Biden’s performance at Monday morning’s senior staff meeting.
“He got a lot of positive feedback,” Klain said. “I think his approach was both truth-telling and being on message. They don’t have to be at odds with each other.”
That is a decidedly novel idea for Washington. A well-connected source suggested that the president’s senior staffers have more pressing matters to worry about than making the veep look good, and that, in any case, “the eye-rolling continues.”
If so, said Sabato, “they’d better do their eye-rolling in private. After all, it was the president who picked him.”
Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.