Washington Matters


Biden Emerging as Top Power Broker


With each passing month, Vice President Joe Biden is emerging as a more critically involved player in the Obama administration and its domestic and foreign policy agenda. We'll see his influence and impact increasingly in coming  weeks and months as the White House looks to put some checkmarks on a still largely blank score card.

While the vice president may gain more media attention for the occasional verbal gaffe or inartful comment, he is gradually filling a largely self-defined role outside of the media glare -- that of  adviser-in-chief on most domestic and foreign policy matters and the top advocate for the president in Congress.  

He's already helped the president on Capitol Hill, helping to talk Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania into switching parties and becoming a Democrat, for instance, and keeping other Democrats from breaking party ranks, most notably on the economic stimulus and financial market rescue package. The merits of each bill will continue to be robustly debated, but Biden's work in securing a positive outcome for the administration is not in dispute. A congressional rejection of either would have been a crushing blow to the new president. 

With Congress' packed schedule this fall, Biden won't be lacking opportunity to score accomplishment. As the health care debate comes front and center and as Obama moves toward a crucial decision on war strategy in Afghanistan, look for Biden to be central in the outcome of each, even if he is working from the less visible confines of the vice president's office.

On Afghanistan, Biden is the primary voice in the inner circle of White House advisers calling for fewer troops, not more, and a greater focus on eliminating al Qaeda than in turning back the Taliban in retake areas or securing lasting democratic reforms. If more troops are ultimately called, it may well be a smaller increase than some are calling for because of Biden's influence on Obama, Defense Secretary Robert gates and National Security Adviser Jim Jones.

On health care, Biden is working the halls in search of votes to secure passage of a reform bill by year end, even if it is not as large in scope as the president or progressives want. Biden's advice and seasoned congressional knowledge could affect what compromises Obama makes and where he draws the line. An especially important decision will be how much political capital to spend on to fight for a public insurance option.

Biden has long been friends in the Senate, for instance, with Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, one of a small band of GOP moderates whose vote may prove critical. Similarly, Biden has been inviting possibly wavering Democratic centrist senators to private dinners, including Evan Bayh of Indiana and Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas. He will soon dine with Ben Nelson of Nebraska and the more liberal John D. Rockefeller of West Virginia.

Also, and at Obama's request, Biden is the administration point man and chief defender for hundreds of billions in stimulus-related spending in the pipeline to states. Part of his weekly routine is calling governors and agency bureaucrats to move money more quickly and to highlight projects that are under way. 

Biden is and will be a different vice president than his predecessor, Dick Cheney. He will never have the power and portfolio that Cheney had under President Bush. Obama won't give it to him, and there's no sign that Biden even wants such an expansive and behind-the-scenes role.

Also unlike Cheney, Biden will always be known for being energetically gregarious and media friendly. His close aides say he often raises contrarian views in internal White House daily briefings if for no other reason than to stoke more robust debate among presidential advisers. He also has full and frequent access to Obama. Biden has abandoned Cheney's practice of getting a separate daily national security briefing and instead sits in with Obama.

Look for Biden to be especially involved in 2010 midterm elections, attending numerous public and private fundraisers and rallies for Chris Dodd in Connecticut and Specter in Pennsylvania and Lincoln in Arkansas. Also notable are Biden's trips and stimulus-related events in states where Obama either narrowly won or lost in 2008 but that may be critical in 2012, including Virginia, Ohio, North Carolina, Arkansas, Florida and Missouri. Add to that Biden' efforts to help secure his old Senate seat for his son, Beau Biden, the Democratic state attorney general of Delaware. He hasn't officially announced but is largely expected to run and win.




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