Biden Watch

Joe Biden Sharpens Distinctions Between Himself and Hillary Clinton

The vice president portrays himself as pragmatic and bipartisan as he weighs a bid.

Vice President Joe Biden speaks during an event to honor former Vice President Walter Mondale at George Washington University on Oct. 20, 2015, in Washington.

Photographer: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Joe Biden continues to sharpen his rhetoric against possible presidential rival Hillary Clinton. 

Speaking Tuesday at a tribute dinner for former Vice President Walter Mondale, Biden called governing without a bipartisan approach “naïve” and said that “the other team is not the enemy,” a not-so-veiled reference to Clinton's characterization of Republicans as “enemies” during the first Democratic presidential debate. 

Biden, who is preparing to announce whether he will challenge Clinton for the Democratic nomination, also suggested that a close relationship between a vice president and president carries more weight and intimacy than any other in an administration, including the one Clinton held with Obama when she was his secretary of state.

“It really matters,” Biden said. “John Kerry is a great secretary of state. Hillary Clinton is a great secretary of state. But there are times when only a vice president,” depending on the relationship, “can speak for president of the United States.” Biden also said during the dinner that he spent five to seven hours with Obama most days when neither was traveling, up from his estimate earlier in the day that they spend four to seven hours a day together.

Biden’s evening remarks followed a moderated morning discussion with Mondale at George Washington University in which he tested similar lines, treading close to swipes at Clinton without taking her on directly. They further illustrated how, if Biden does decide to run, the contours of his stump speech are already coming into place. 

At the earlier event honoring Mondale Tuesday, Biden portrayed himself as the central player in President Barack Obama’s administration on everything from working with congressional Republicans to the killing of Osama bin Laden.

Biden sought to recast perceptions of his advice to Obama regarding the 2011 raid that killed bin Laden and suggested he was more intimately involved in decision-making than any other Cabinet official, including former secretary of state Clinton.

His account on Tuesday differed somewhat from his previous public recollections of the deliberations. In an account given to Democratic lawmakers in 2012 Biden said that only then-CIA Director Leon Panetta was in favor of going forward with the raid. Biden told the lawmakers that he told Obama to seek more verification. “My suggestion is, don't go,” he said at the time. “We have to do two more things to see if he's there.”

On Tuesday, Biden said he made a case for a third option that was neither for nor against going forward and was meant to give Obama space to decide. He said he didn't want to undermine the president by staking out a position that might contradict Obama's final position. Biden said he suggested using a drone to make another attempt to verify the target. “I think we should make one more pass” to see if it really is bin Laden, Biden said on Tuesday that he told Obama.  

“I didn’t want to take a position to ’go’ if that was not where he was going to go,” he said. Biden said that minutes later when he and Obama were alone he told Obama that he would say to “go” but that ultimately Obama should “follow his own instincts.”

“I never, on a difficult issue, never say what I think finally until I go up in the Oval with him alone,” Biden said.

In describing his own stance, Biden also indirectly questioned Clinton's suggestion in a 2014 memoir that she had always favored the raid while Biden needed convincing. Biden said Tuesday that only two top Obama advisers took firm positions, with Panetta in favor of the raid and then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates advising against it. 

White House press secretary Josh Earnest said he wasn't in the room when the decision was made and that he wouldn't comment on private conversations between Obama and Biden.

William Daley, who was White House chief of staff at the time at was at Tuesday's event, told the New York Times that Biden's account of the Situation Room discussion was correct. 

For the second time this week, Biden also sought to portray himself  as a pragmatist who’s capable of working with Republicans, drawing a subtle contrast with party front-runner Clinton. 

“I don’t think my chief enemy is the Republican Party,” Biden said during the moderated discussion, in which he and Mondale shared their experiences as vice president. By contrast, Clinton named “the Republicans” as one of her greatest enemies when asked at the Oct. 13 Democratic candidate debate. 

Like Mondale, Biden spent years before becoming vice president as a member of the Senate, where the rules make it nearly impossible to move legislation without compromise. He has served as Obama’s chief emissary to Congress, particularly in negotiations with the Republican leadership there.

During the moderated discussion with Mondale, Biden also said that "we’ve had two great secretaries of state,” under President Obama, Clinton and John Kerry, but that when the vice president speaks with a foreign leader, they know that “I am speaking for the president.”

Biden is expected to signal whether he intends to make a third try for the Democratic nomination by the end of the week, according to people close to him. He has stepped up contacts with union officials and other prospective backers in recent days.

Clinton, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, and the other Democratic candidates are scheduled to speak at Saturday’s Jefferson-Jackson dinner for the Iowa Democratic Party, which attracts thousands of Democratic activists in the first-caucus state. Biden’s staff has neither signaled nor ruled out an appearance at the dinner in Des Moines.

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