One day last month, Republican Senator Johnny Isakson got an accidental phone call from Vice President Joe Biden.
Biden had meant to ring Georgia’s other Republican senator, Saxby Chambliss, to wish him well after he announced his retirement. Yet Biden didn’t waste an opportunity to meet with a former Senate colleague. “He said ‘Aw hell, let’s have breakfast!’,” Isakson recalled in a recent interview.
The two men met at the U.S. Naval Observatory, the official residence of the vice president, and talked about the fiscal deal Biden had recently brokered with congressional Republicans and the automatic spending cuts slated to take effect this week.
“I don’t know what the administration would do if they didn’t have him when it comes to this sort of thing,” said Isakson. “He’s an honest broker.”
Such relationships are a rare bright spot in the otherwise dysfunctional dynamic between President Barack Obama’s White House and congressional Republicans, and they make Biden, 70, a pivotal deal-closer at a time of partisan division.
That was true at the start of Obama’s first term in 2009, when Biden persuaded reluctant Republicans to pass the $832 billion economic-recovery package and then volunteered to oversee disbursement of the funds. In 2010, he forged a tax-cut compromise with congressional Republicans. Last year, at the urging of Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, Biden helped stop automatic tax increases for most Americans.
Now, with the $1.2 trillion in spending reductions looming on March 1, the vice president’s low profile on the issue suggests that both sides expect the cuts to start. Still, just yesterday, Biden joined Obama in a White House meeting on immigration with Republican Senators Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John McCain of Arizona, in which Graham later said the budget cuts, or sequestration, were raised, though a way to avert them was hardly resolved.
“We’ll talk about that later, we’ll see what happens,” Graham told reporters. McCain declined to comment on whether the four discussed spending cuts.
The vice president is also likely to be drawn into talks as the White House and Republicans face the next two big budget clashes: the possible shutdown of the government next month and then on raising the government’s debt ceiling.
While some Republicans dismiss Biden as an embarrassment to his party who lacks substance, many acknowledge that they view him differently as he enters his second term.
“The public impression with Republicans is that he’s gaffe-prone and a little out-of-touch and a little smarmy, but the political reality is that he’s gotten stuff done,” said Tripp Baird, director of Senate relations at the Republican-leaning Heritage Action for America. “Can he pull the rabbit out of the hat on the sequester? I hope not; I hope Republicans don’t fall for the same bear-trap again where Obama plays bad cop and Biden plays good cop.”
The markets are unfazed by the prospect that a deal won’t be reached. The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index was up almost 5 percent this year as of yesterday.
Treasury 10-year notes have been little changed over the last month. The 10-year yield rose 2 basis points, or 0.02 percentage point, to 1.88 percent as of 5:01 p.m. New York time yesterday, according to Bloomberg Bond Trader prices.
Biden’s role as negotiator carries potential benefits and risks. The twice-failed presidential candidate hasn’t ruled out a third bid in 2016, when at age 73 he may square off in a Democratic primary with another old Senate friend, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. No matter his presidential ambitions, the results of his work are shaping the president’s legacy -- and his own.
“The more the vice president is visibly engaged and identified with an issue, the more likely he is to get some credit for success, but also some blame for failure or shortcomings, real or perceived,” said Joel Goldstein, a St. Louis University law professor who studies the vice presidency.
Goldstein said Biden’s series of “marquee portfolios,” which includes leading the White House push for new gun-safety measures, has set him apart from previous holders of the post.
“He still is the person they turn to to close the deal, to implement the plan, to come up with the set of recommendations, like on guns,” said Jared Bernstein, a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities who formerly served as Biden’s chief economic adviser.
Biden, who declined through his office to be interviewed for this story, has said he hasn’t decided whether to run in 2016 and won’t for a while.
“It’s something I think he will look at seriously,” said his son, Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden, 44, in an interview. “What he’s focused on right now -- like he was over the last four years -- is being the best vice president he can be.”
From the beginning of his stint as Obama’s No. 2, Biden has defined the job differently than most, refusing to confine himself to one subject or role.
“What he said from the beginning is, ‘I’m not going to have a portfolio; I’m going to take an issue, deal with it and then take on another issue’,” said former Delaware Senator Ted Kaufman, who served as Biden’s Senate chief of staff from 1973 to 1994 and headed his vice presidential transition team.
“The deal is that I’m the last person in the room, and I always get a chance to give you my view of what’s going on,” Kaufman quoted Biden as saying to Obama when they discussed how their working relationship would go. Biden’s commitment to Obama, in turn, was: “Once you decide what we’re going to do, that’s what we’re doing -- you’re the decider’.”
His partnership with Obama, which began in earnest in 2008 when they became running mates, hasn’t always been a smooth one.
He was accused of being racially patronizing during the 2008 Democratic primary when he referred to Obama as “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean.”
Yet Biden’s rhetorical flourishes can serve a purpose.
“If you want to protect yourself, get a double-barrel shotgun; you don’t need an AR-15” semi-assault weapon, he said during a Feb. 19 Facebook town hall, explaining that he tells his wife, Jill, that if she’s ever afraid for her safety at home, to go outside and fire “two blasts” from her shotgun.
The comment to a critic of the administration’s proposed bans on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines prompted a mocking advertisement by the National Rifle Association. Yet it also underlined Obama’s core message that he’s not aiming to take people’s guns away.
Biden’s plain-spokenness endears him to the Democratic base, and he’s had some hits along with the misses. In September 2012, he coined the phrase that encapsulated Obama’s case for re-election: “Osama bin Laden is dead and GM is alive!” he told an audience in Detroit.
“He just speaks to the values and interests of the middle class better, and with more of a passion, than probably anybody in government,” said Democratic Representative Robert C. “Bobby” Scott, a member of a House task force on guns that has consulted with Biden this year.
His frankness also boosts his image with the other party.
“That authenticity is invaluable, especially in these times,” says former Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine, one of three Republicans Biden lobbied to get the votes to pass the 2009 economic-recovery measure. “Given the inadequacy of the White House at this point to work with the Congress,” she said, it’s Biden who “can work these issues and bridge differences in a way that I think that the president hasn’t been able to.”
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia, a frequent Obama critic, said his debt-ceiling talks with the vice president in 2011 revealed Biden as “a man of his word” and a gifted consensus-builder.
“So much of Washington right now is devoid of any kind of human contact or relationship,” Cantor said in an interview. “Joe Biden is someone who understands political sensitivities, understands he and I come from different political places, but he is focused on trying to reach a result.”
That’s partially because when it comes to policy, Biden “knows it cold,” Beau Biden said. “He has a disciplined, encyclopedic knowledge of the issue -- all of which gets you to the point of being able to figure out where you can find some common ground.”
When Biden traveled to Richmond, Virginia, on Jan. 25 with Cabinet officials for a roundtable on gun violence, his meeting was scheduled to last an hour. It went on more than twice as long as he quizzed mental health and law enforcement experts on the lessons they learned from the 2007 shooting that killed 33 people at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, known as Virginia Tech, the deadliest gun massacre in U.S. history.
“The vice president is into the details on this issue,” Democratic Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia said with a shrug as he took a break to use the restroom around the two-hour mark.