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Biden in the White House: Excerpt from 'The Stranger' by Chuck Todd

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By    |   Monday, 15 Dec 2014 08:34 PM

Excerpted from the book THE STRANGER by Chuck Todd

Like any good vice president, the assets Biden brought to the White House complemented Obama’s and made up for the president’s weaknesses. The irony is that Biden’s strengths have aided the White House in ways that are different from those Obama’s team anticipated. Biden was hired for his foreign policy experience, a serious hole in Obama’s resume, but his most valuable role has been in helping Obama navigate Washington’s rocky shoals and in defending Obama when the waters get rough.

Even without a single lane to focus on, Biden needed something to do on a daily basis. He’d done much of the legwork on the economic stimulus package that passed a month into their new term, working on three Republican senators—Snowe, Collins, and Specter—who ultimately supported the bill. And after the bill passed, Biden was put in charge of overseeing the hundreds of billions of dollars that the stimulus bill would spend on infrastructure projects around the country, ensuring that the funds got where they needed to go instead of swirling down the waste, fraud, and abuse hole.

On its face, putting Biden in charge of overseeing the money had been an extension of Obama’s commitment to transparency in government. Each stimulus project would be listed on a government website, Recovery.gov, giving the interested public a complete rundown of money spent and jobs created. But if money got misspent, Biden would suddenly find himself in the crosshairs—and with $787 billion to be spent, it was likely that something would go to waste.

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Biden spent the next year checking in constantly with governors, county officials, even small-town mayors, making sure the projects the stimulus bill funded were proceeding on time and that nothing was wasted. In the four years after the bill was passed, government inspectors general opened 1,942 investigations into complaints of wrongdoing; still, none resulted in major news headlines that could have further embarrassed the White House. Of course, as with any attempt at reform, the law of unintended consequences reared its ugly head on the stimulus front. So focused was the administration on making sure the money was spent on time, there actually were a lot of borderline projects. Many cities and counties paved roads that were, say, two to three years away from needing paving instead of trying to build a larger project, like a bridge. Why? Getting permits and zoning for a bridge can sometimes take years, longer than the two-year window during which the stimulus was designed to be spent. So if the administration wanted “shovel ready,” about the only thing many local leaders could come up with was paving. In the grand scheme of things, there was no graft, no boondoggles with the 2009 stimulus, and Biden got the internal credit for that, though that mattered little to the public since not making a mistake or not allowing a rip-off to take place isn’t exactly something the media will report on. But in hindsight, everyone from the president on down to local mayors looks back on this stimulus and wonders what might have been on the infrastructure front if they hadn’t boxed themselves in with that phrase “shovel ready.” So many larger, more impactful local projects could have been started or planned and become major economic engines had there been the political patience. But this is something that has changed in the New Washington in the age of Obama; there just is no appetite or reward for long-term plans or projects.

Biden played another important role for the president, as buffer for the Clintons. Being the old pol—and the likeable guy—that he is, he had a good relationship with both Clintons, certainly a better personal rapport than the president had. And so, among Biden’s unwritten duties was that of Clinton buffer.

There were few hazards Obama faced that the media loved to follow more than his relationship with Hillary Clinton. And while the affiliation was a better one than the media hoped, it was by no means as friendly as the White House liked to pretend. Clinton, in particular, knew that the appearance of a bad relationship would both anger the White House and harm her future prospects should she decide to run. Bottom line: it was in the political best interest of both Clinton and Obama to make sure their dealings stayed drama-free.

In particular, Hillary was leery of offering Obama advice about domestic matters, even though she wanted Obama’s agenda to succeed. The early word on Obama that was made clear to cabinet members is that he didn’t take too kindly to backseat driving and, more important, he was a “stay in your lane” kind of executive. He was very unlike Bill Clinton, who sought out advice—even bad advice—from as many folks as he could talk to. So, dealing with this kind of presidential style was a bit new to Hillary. She also didn’t want to simply keep her thoughts to herself, especially on domestic policy issues such as health care. If she had policy expertise on any issue, it was on health care, and her experience was in the 1990s. But instead of speaking with the president, she would pass messages through Biden, who came to hold what his advisors jokingly called the “Hillary portfolio.”

When they were both in town, Clinton and Biden would meet for breakfast at the Naval Observatory about once a week to discuss both domestic policy and any frustrations she had. One of the biggest frustrations she shared with Biden was the lack of progress the administration was making on judicial vacancies. Clinton had seen Bush appoint dozens of federal judges, but retirements meant that many seats were open again. The administration, she told Biden, needed to move quickly to fill the vacancies and shift the judiciary to the left. Clinton was actually channeling a frustration she was hearing from lawyer friends, criticism of Obama that would only grow in liberal legal circles. Finally, early in his second term the president decided to engage on the judicial front and started appointing dozens of new judges. But the confirmations were not easy to come by as Republicans did their best to rip a page from the Democratic playbook of the Bush era (and their own playbook of the late ‘90s in the Clinton era) and slow-walk the confirmations—filibustering when necessary. After a while, Harry Reid decided he, too, wanted to speed up the ideological shifting of the judiciary, and he changed the rules on appointments, meaning Democrats needed just 50 votes to confirm a new judge.

Increasingly, and especially after Emanuel left the White House, Biden took over a role similar to that with Hillary—as Washington therapist—in terms of members of Congress who grew frustrated with the White House. While Washington devolved into partisan inaction, with Obama and congressional leadership talking past each other, Biden began to believe that the two sides simply weren’t communicating on the same plane. Biden knew Obama gave a hell of a speech to a political crowd, but he thought the president didn’t know how to speak Washington’s language. And elected officials were the ones who listened most closely to what Obama said.

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So when a senator couldn’t get time with Obama, or when he wanted to plug a project the White House should support, he called Biden. The vice president thus became, in essence, the Washington complaint department. Biden would relay the concerns to Obama while simultaneously translating the president’s public declarations into congressional dialect. There was a point in the first term when one could argue that without Biden, the line of communication between the White House and Congress would have been almost entirely severed—and with it, much hope of getting things done.

Part of Biden’s appeal to his former colleagues was his ability to make friends. Through nearly four decades in the Senate, he had grown close to members on both sides of the aisle. And he kept making those friendships. When Senator Saxby Chambliss, a Georgia Republican who had never been an administration ally, announced in early 2013 that he would quit the Senate, Biden asked the White House switchboard to get Chambliss on the phone so he could wish him well. The switchboard accidentally called the other Georgia Republican senator, Chambliss’s junior colleague, Johnny Isakson; Biden and Isakson laughed about the mistake and chatted for a few minutes, and in typical fashion, by the end of the call Biden had invited Isakson over for breakfast. And yes, he eventually connected with Chambliss and broke bread with him, too. Such personal outreach might be seen as trivial, but these were the sorts of gestures that helped persuade the Georgians to support larger Obama-led bipartisan efforts. In fact, both ended up in the small group of about a dozen Republican senators who in 2013 would at least be open to working with the president on a few specific budget issues.

No relationship Biden forged proved more important to the White House than his connection with Mitch McConnell. The Delaware Democrat and the Kentucky Republican shared little ideological common ground, but both were brilliant transactional politicians who grasped the balance required by the need to govern on one hand and the need to win elections on the other.

With the rise of the Tea Party movement that aimed to purify the GOP, and that cost a number of moderate Republicans their seats, it was dangerous for Republicans to be seen working closely with President Obama, a figure of almost universal scorn among the ultraconservative base. It has seemed almost fanatical, the way this crowd hates the president; the rancor is perceived to be so bad at times that some Republicans have to act outraged if the president praises one of them. During the 2014 State of the Union address, the president gave a positive shout-out to Florida Republican Marco Rubio for his position on the expansion of the earned income tax credit. The day after the speech, Rubio had to go on conservative talk radio to explain why he and the president actually differ on why the expansion is necessary. Oddly perverse, yes, but welcome to the Tea Party politics of the Obama era.

While the White House believed it wouldn’t be able to reach a deal with House Republicans, given their deep loathing for the president and many members’ need to be seen as opposing everything he did, there was a path to get the House to hold a vote if a compromise deal could be struck in the Senate. McConnell held Obama in similarly low regard, but not because of Tea Party politics; it was more about the perceived lack of respect McConnell believed Obama demonstrated. He also didn’t believe Obama knew how to accept a deal. But Biden and current senators trusted each other, because each knew the other could deliver. And since working with Biden didn’t carry quite the same negative political cost for Republicans, that’s who McConnell negotiated with.

“McConnell is the best nose counter in the business, so if he says ‘I can do this,’ or ‘I can’t do that,’ he’s usually right,” said Bruce Reed, Biden’s chief of staff. This stood in stark contrast with the attitude of the House Republican Conference, which seemingly made a point of defying its leader, Speaker John Boehner, at every turn. Especially in 2011 and 2012, Boehner could rarely deliver a vote count with the same level of certainty as McConnell.

It was with McConnell that Biden negotiated deals on the Bush tax cuts in 2010, on raising the nation’s debt ceiling in 2011, and on a last-minute deal to avoid the so‑called fiscal cliff, albeit only for a brief three-month period, in late 2012.*

* Biden’s staff liked to joke that the vice president was the “McConnell whisperer.”

While Biden likes to say that he can’t help making new friends, with McConnell it wasn’t so simple. In fact, while the two former Senate colleagues respected and trusted each other, they would never be described as friendly. Biden still harbored animosity toward McConnell for a stunt the Republican had pulled two decades prior.

In the wake of his first presidential campaign, which he dropped in September 1987 (after a top operative for Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis revealed that Biden had plagiarized part of a speech by a British Labor Party politician), Biden had begun feeling pain in his neck and head. In February 1988, he suffered an aneurysm; he was rushed to Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, his situation so dire that a priest administered last rites. But he survived and returned to the Senate seven months later.

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When he returned, Biden heard that McConnell had been shopping around a bill with language similar to that of a measure Biden had already drafted. When Biden called McConnell to ask him to sign on to his legislation and merge the two efforts, McConnell was defiant and instead threatened to accuse the politically wounded Biden of plagiarizing his bill, a breach of protocol that made Biden fume. Though the two men would prove the most important negotiating partners of the Obama years, Biden never forgot the insult; he’d even tell West Wing staffers the story when they were huddling about how to deal with McConnell.

Biden never pretended to anyone that he and Mitch were pals, but they had an understanding. And Biden possessed the same political forgiveness gene that made Bill Clinton so oddly popular with some of the same congressional Republicans who tried to oust him from office. Biden was never one of those absolutists whose ethics prohibited cooperation with those who were less than perfect. You may have had to grit your teeth while you did so, but you took the other guy’s horse, and he took yours.

Biden’s successes in helping to end these various fiscal standoffs with Congress raises the question, why wasn’t he used more? The selective use of Biden as chief congressional lobbyist is something that will be debated in hindsight for some time after the Obama presidency. Biden may get publicly ridiculed a lot on late-night talk shows or with conservative media types, but his track record speaks for itself. And it could give Biden something to run on, should he ever get another shot at the presidency—something that seems unlikely while Hillary Clinton is around. But breaking the Washington dysfunction and being almost obsessive about cutting a deal in Congress are potentially two skills the public might actually respect after watching eight years of nearly complete gridlock.

Excerpted from the book THE STRANGER by Chuck Todd. Copyright © 2014 by Charles Todd. Reprinted with permission of Little, Brown and Company.

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Like any good vice president, the assets Biden brought to the White House complemented Obama’s and made up for the president’s weaknesses. The irony is that Biden’s strengths have aided the White House in ways that are different from those Obama’s team anticipated.
joe biden, white house, the stranger, chuck todd
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2014-34-15
Monday, 15 Dec 2014 08:34 PM
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