Down-to-earth Biden rising to challenge on Capitol Hill
The vice-president will become a more important player in the second term
When Joseph Biden was taking new senators through a practice run of their swearing-in ceremony this week, doubtless one of the most adrenalin-inducing experiences of their lives, the US vice-president could not help but crack a string of jokes.
“This guy looks like he still plays for South Carolina,” Biden (70), who served 36 years in the US Senate, said of Tim Scott (47), the newly appointed Republican senator for South Carolina, as he met the former football player and his family in the hallowed chamber this week. “Need any help on your pecs, man, give me a call,” said Biden.
This is vintage Biden – the down-to-earth blue-collar Joe who puts people at ease in even the most formal of settings, but who can never be relied upon to keep his foot out of his mouth.
More prominent role
After four years as US president Barack Obama’s deputy, a revitalised Biden is set to play an increasingly prominent role in the administration’s second term.“Biden is becoming a very important player not just because he knows the Senate and senators trust him, but because Obama has a very strong relationship with him,” says Norman Ornstein, a veteran political analyst who has known the vice-president for decades.
Biden’s long experience in the Senate – stretching back to the time when “bipartisan” was not a slanderous term – has made him Obama’s go-to guy when he needs someone to bang heads together on Capitol Hill.
During their first term, Biden was called in to help broker deals on the contentious healthcare reforms – which he had initially advised Obama against pushing – and extending the Bush-era tax cuts in 2010.
As the US teetered on the edge of the fiscal precipice last week, it was Biden who was dispatched to the Hill to work out a deal with Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate, after majority leader Harry Reid’s efforts came to nothing.
“The vice-president and I have worked together on solutions before, and I believe we can again,” McConnell said.
Analysts say this McConnell-Biden arrangement is likely to become the cornerstone of dealmaking over the next few years.
After the deal was passed by the House, Biden stood at Obama’s side in the White House close to midnight as the president said: “I want to thank the work that was done by my extraordinary vice-president, Joe Biden.”
During their first term, Biden’s main areas of responsibility in the White House were Iraq and the Recovery Act, both of which have come to an end.
In their second term, Biden can be expected to take on a leading – if somewhat behind-the-scenes – role pushing the president’s ambitious legislative agenda.
First up is gun control, one of the most politically sensitive issues around. Obama has appointed Biden head of a taskforce to look for ways to avoid recurrences of last month’s Sandy Hook school killings.
Biden, after six years of work, shepherded a gun control Bill through the Senate in 1994, and refused to yield to Republican pressure when an assault weapon ban was tacked on to it.
He has already started pushing for the president’s other top legislative priority – comprehensive immigration reform.
“In one sense, we have a long way to go, bringing 11 million Hispanics out of the shadows and into the light of day,” Biden told the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute this week.
“What’s different today is that the rest of the nation, the rest of America, recognises it’s time. It’s your time.”
The role Biden will play over the next year will be a chance for him to overcome perceptions that he is an “amiable buffoon”. Countering such perceptions will be important because Biden has not ruled out making another run for the presidency in 2016. Although he will be 74 by then, he is in good shape and works out regularly.
– Copyright The Financial Times Ltd 2013