Joe Biden is laying plans to significantly shrink the role of the vice presidency in Barack Obama’s White House, according to an official familiar with his thinking.
It’s not just that Biden won’t sit in on Senate Democrats’ weekly caucus meetings – a privilege Republicans afforded outgoing Vice President Dick Cheney. He won’t have an office outside the House floor, as House Speaker Dennis Hastert gave Cheney early on.
Biden will not begin every day with his own intelligence briefing before sitting in on the president’s. He will not always be the last person Obama speaks to before making a decision.
He also will not, as a transition official calls it, operate a “shadow government” within an Obama administration.
One of the few ways he will resemble Cheney is in making clear his future ambitions, or lack thereof: Biden doesn’t expect to run for president after leaving the vice-presidency, according to a transition source who was not authorized to speak on the record.
“What he has said previously is that Vice President Cheney had an overly expansive view of the vice president, almost created like a shadow government inside the White House," said the transition official familiar with Biden's role. "Vice President-elect Biden has a very strong view that the vice president’s role is to be an advisor to the president and to be a member of the president’s team, and that’s how he’s going to be in the job.”
Cheney made clear he had no intention of succeeding President George W. Bush, which along with his expanded role contributed to his almost unparalleled freedom to act – pushing controversial positions on torture, energy policy and Iraq, knowing he’d be spared facing voters to explain his actions.
But Cheney also had Bush, who gave his more seasoned No. 2 broad sway – with a particular emphasis on foreign policy, where Cheney already had a well-established portfolio as a former defense secretary during the Gulf War.
Obama has shown no inclination to do the same for Biden.
In fact, Biden’s goal of restoring the office to its “traditional role” is something he and Obama agreed on before the Delaware senator was named to the Democratic ticket, the transition official said.
As part of that understanding, Biden is unlikely to have a specific docket of issues.
“He’s been very clear about that from the start that he was not going to take a portfolio in particular areas,” the transition official familiar with Biden’s role said. Biden would “be available widely and broadly to offer his advice on whatever hard questions the president was trying to decide.”
And even if the vice presidency will have less dominance in the executive office than it has over the past eight years, it’s a change those close to Biden say he supports.
“If Joe were unhappy or feeling left out of this thing, I could tell it just by looking at him,” said the vice president-elect’s close friend Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.), who added that he was the first person Biden called, after his wife, once Obama asked him to be on the ticket. “My sense is that Joe’s involved in everything and he hasn’t been pigeonholed.”
One area that seems to be shaping up as a Biden emphasis is labor policy. Thea Lee, assistant director of public policy at AFL-CIO, says she has gotten strong indications from “various sources” in the Obama transition that Biden will be a point-person for their concerns.
“We certainly have gotten that impression, unofficially,” Lee said.
Biden recent selection of Jared Bernstein, a strong labor advocate, as his chief economic adviser further heartened labor.
But even in the transition, Biden is already showing signs he’ll be different than Cheney.
As vice president-elect, Cheney famously worked multiple cell phones and drafted a list of possible Cabinet appointees – a move that allowed him to salt his allies throughout the Bush administration and expand his reach, particularly at the Pentagon, with Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz.
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So far, Biden has offered Obama advice and recommendations for appointees he’s made so far, but the president-elect’s cabinet is certainly not stocked with Biden allies.
As vice president, Cheney often took advantage of his standing invitation to attend any meeting in any policy area he wanted, with or without the president.
Biden, too, has an open invitation to attend any meeting. But it seems he will take a more selective approach.
“He’ll attend those meetings where he can be helpful in gathering information and in helping to formulate the advice he’ll be giving the president,” the transition official said.
As vice president, Cheney received his own intelligence briefing every day, then sat in on President Bush's. During the transition, Obama and Biden sometimes take their intelligence briefings together, and sometimes separately.
Cheney would gather a small legal team of staff from the Justice Department and Pentagon to find ways to expand the White House’s authority. He advocated the adoption of Bush administration policies, such as establishing guidelines for the use of torture and denying foreign terrorism suspects access to courts.
For Biden, his primary legal advice will come from the counsel he appoints in his office.
In short, Biden will be no Dick Cheney – who redefined the office of the vice presidency to gather unto himself unprecedented influence and reach. Instead, Biden will serve the role of trusted backup, but someone who won’t be mistaken for a co-president single-handedly crafting and promoting policy.
Cheney came to the vice presidency with decades of executive experience, in both the executive branch and the private sector, having served as White House chief of staff for President Gerald Ford, House minority whip, secretary of defense under President George H.W. Bush and chairman of the oil services company Halliburton before becoming Bush’s running mate. Biden, on the other hand, was a lawyer in Delaware and then a member of the New Castle County Council before spending 36 years in the U.S. Senate.
Cheney gave top-classified intelligence briefings that the president would typically give. He headed up a group that gave Bush a short list for Supreme Court nominees. Cheney joined the weekly luncheon of Bush’s economic team, and he seen as the force behind the Bush tax cuts. He was known to present the president with proposals that would more commonly be the purview of Cabinet members.
Biden recently shared the stage with homeland-security designee Janet Napolitano to be briefed on a report on weapons of mass destruction, a possible hint at how he will operate in office.
One of the more obvious changes in the future vice presidency can be found in Biden and Cheney’s contrasting personalities.
Cheney public persona is as a man of few words and stern gaze, whose trademark penchant for secrecy seemed perfectly embodied in his oft-visited “undisclosed location” after 9/11.
Biden by contrast is more pure politician, backslapping his way through union halls and firehouse chicken and dumpling dinners. “If Joe was going to be there and he was going to speak they knew they were going to be there for a while,” said Sam Lathem, president of the Delaware State AFL-CIO. “We always had his cell phone number. We could call him any time we want.”
Lathem never got Biden’s new cell phone number. And when Biden stayed out of the limelight for first few weeks after the election, it raised speculation that he might be a sidelines vice president. More recently Biden has re-emerged, and he is scheduled to give his first interview on December 21 with ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos.”
Those close to Biden say he will be a more town hall-style vice president than Cheney. He will do more television shows and press availabilities. He and his wife, Jill, will likely be out promoting their favorite causes, although they will likely still not be part of the Washington social scene.
And in a small shift, Biden has expressed interest in bringing back the Al Gore tradition of hosting an annual Halloween party for the press corps at the vice presidential residence. Those parties did not continue under Cheney.