By Steve Holland - Analysis
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - If President Barack Obama is the smooth-talking, professorial type, Vice President Joe Biden is his opposite — blunt and willing to break some china.
That is what Americans are seeing in their new vice president after a month in office, a veteran politician engaging in the kind of straight talk he has used for years and relishing his role as one of Obama’s top advisers.
He is helping deliver Obama’s foreign policy message, telling European leaders in Munich recently the new White House wants to “set a new tone” after the combative Bush years.
Just last week, while swearing in new CIA Director Leon Panetta, Biden took a slap at the Bush presidency, during which the CIA was accused of providing intelligence to justify the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
“We expect you to provide independent analysis, and not engage in group-think. And we expect you to tell us the facts as you know them, wherever they may lead — not what you think we want to hear,” he told CIA employees.
Biden, who had longed to be president himself and has held top positions during 36 years in the Senate, could not seem to be happier in the role he is playing now.
He has walk-in rights to any White House meeting, attending Obama’s daily national security and economic briefings each morning. They meet each week for lunch. Many days he spends upward of four hours at Obama’s side.
Domestically, Biden has been assigned to lead a task force to recommend ways to improve the plight of working families whose income has failed to keep pace with wealthier people.
He was also picked to supervise implementation of the $787 billion (541 billion pounds) economic stimulus bill, to make sure the money is sent out swiftly and spent wisely.
“What you’re seeing is him acting out the role that they agreed upon and what he said he wanted to do, which is be the president’s adviser in chief,” said a White House official.
Biden, 66, is famous for giving his opinion and being vice president has not stopped that.
In a recent CNBC interview, he was more vocally supportive of “buy American” trade protectionist provisions in the hotly debated economic stimulus bill than was the White House.
During the debate over the stimulus plan, Biden declared he had told Obama that there was a “30 percent chance we’re going to get it wrong,” prompting Obama to tell a subsequent news conference that, “You know, I don’t remember exactly what Joe was referring to, not surprisingly.”
“Breaking china isn’t the worst thing in the world that a vice president can do, but it’s already been obvious in a few small ways that he says things in not quite the way that the president would wish him to say them,” said presidential scholar Stephen Hess, a political science professor at George Washington University.
Republican Senator John McCain, who lost the presidential election to Obama, said his former Senate colleague is likely to be an important foreign policy adviser to Obama since he had served as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
“I think Joe is doing fine,” McCain said. “I think Joe is adjusting from the role as a senator, which is kind of free-wheeling, to that of the vice president, but I think he’s doing that pretty well.”
Chris Lehane, who was spokesman for Al Gore when he was vice president and a top aide when Gore ran for president in 2000, said Biden’s straight talk will be invaluable to Obama.
“I think that when Obama picked him he knew exactly what he was getting. He knew he might get a couple gaffes, but in return he was getting a guy who is loyal and will be at his side when the bullets are flying,” Lehane said.
Vice presidents sometimes have difficulty fitting in at a White House. The job has little stated function in the U.S. Constitution except one really big one — succeeding the president if he dies or becomes incapacitated.
Vice President Harry Truman was kept so far out of the loop by Franklin Roosevelt that, upon taking over as president when Roosevelt died in 1945, he was surprised to learn the United States was building an atomic bomb.
With vice presidents currently having a far more active role behind the scenes, they have to resist the typical politician’s temptation to grab their own headlines.
“The most powerful advice you can give a president is private,” said Carter Eskew, a long-time adviser to Gore.
“You can’t go out every day and say ‘here’s what I did for the president.’ That is the crux of the tension in the job. It’s an unnatural state for a vice president to be in.”
Editing by Patricia Zengerle