The Salesman

Experienced, emotional, marked by personal tragedy and political setback, Joe Biden is in many ways the antithesis of the president he serves. But his stock has risen steadily in the West Wing, and with the Democrats poised to lose much of their leverage in the midterm elections, the vice president’s unique skills and attributes may prove ever more crucial to his administration’s success.
Crossing the Rubicon

In March, the vice president gave an informal speech at a fund-raiser at an opulent home in northwest Dallas, standing behind a podium in a large room decorated with modern art. He began by talking about Barack Obama.

“I didn’t know how good he was until I joined the outfit,” Biden said. “And then I realized why it was I did not win. So for those of you who endorsed me first, you all made a mistake.” It’s not unusual for Biden to give several speeches a day, so most of the things he has to say, he says more than once. This comment about the president, and variations upon it, is repeated often.

Biden’s unqualified respect was not always there. Like many of those who sought the Democratic nomination, Biden felt early on that the press was giving Obama a free pass, in part thanks to his race. But after more than a year and a half in office, any doubts about Obama’s talents have disappeared. Biden is not given to downplaying his own gifts, but he clearly regards Obama as something of a phenomenon.

In part, this transcends Obama’s personal qualities. “Look, I ran for president,” Biden told me, “because I honest-to-God believed that for the moment, given the cast of characters and the problems of the country, I thought I was clearly the best-equipped to lead the country … But here’s what I underestimated: I had two elements that I focused on, which made me decide to run. One was American foreign policy, and the other was the middle class and what’s happening to them economically. If Hillary were elected or I were elected, and assume I did as good a job as I could possibly get done, it would have taken me four years to do what [Obama] did in four weeks, in terms of changing the perception of the world about the United States of America. Literally. It was overnight. It wasn’t about him. It was about the American people … It said, these guys really do mean what they say. All that stuff about the Constitution, and all about equality, I guess it’s right.”

But Biden has been impressed by Obama the man as well. “He has a backbone like a ramrod,” the vice president told me. “He sits there, he gets handed the toughest damn decisions anyone has since Roosevelt, and he sits there and he wants an opposing view. He wants to hear all of it, and he’ll sit there and he’ll listen. He’ll ask really smart questions, and he’ll decide. And it’s like he goes up, he goes to bed, he doesn’t re-litigate it. I mean, the guy’s got some real strength. And the thing about him is—what I find impressive is—he really starts off almost everything from a moral and ideological construct, knowing exactly who he is … He knows what he thinks. When he talks about [the theologian and political theorist Reinhold] Niebuhr, it’s not because he’s trying to impress. He really does think about the social contract. I mean, the guy’s thought it through.

“He reminds me of [Bill] Clinton. I don’t think he’d like it, and maybe Clinton wouldn’t like it, but whenever you’re with Clinton … he was never afraid to say to you, ‘I don’t understand that. Explain that to me.’ Or ‘I didn’t know that.’ Because he knew you’d never walk out of the room thinking you were smarter than he was. Barack has the same internal confidence.”

That said, it’s clear that Biden feels he has the superior people skills—not that he puts it that way. He says the skill set he brings is “different,” but it’s a difference he values, and one that he sees as part of his contribution to the administration. Obama’s “personality is more reserved,” Biden said. “He has the ability to touch large audiences, but he is a little more buttoned-up. I’m a little more Irish. I’m more old-school. What used to be normal. [Bill] Clinton and I are more similar, whereas [Obama] and probably some of the newer candidates are more similar, in terms of the way they went through the system.” It is just a difference in style, Biden says, but it works. “I think we complement each other.”

There was some initial worry in the White House over Biden’s looseness in front of cameras and microphones. Most of his slips have proved minor—such as the one that earned a withering presidential look and nudge on Day One, when Biden, standing beside Obama behind a podium, poked fun at Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts for flubbing his recitation of the oath of office at the inauguration. But some have been more troubling. During the swine-flu epidemic of 2009, when the administration was treading a delicate line between stressing caution and triggering a panic, Biden told a Today show audience of millions, in a nutshell, to avoid air travel. “I would tell members of my family—and I have—I wouldn’t go anywhere in confined places now,” he said. “If you’re in a confined aircraft and one person sneezes, it goes all the way through the aircraft. That’s me.” The air-travel and tourism industries reeled. Visibly annoyed, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs found himself before the pressroom podium trying to explain what Biden had “meant to say.”

But while Biden’s batting average for such bloopers is unquestionably high, the administration has come to see it as a feature, not a bug. Gibbs explained to me, “It is true [Biden] has earned a reputation, and he definitely has a tendency to say whatever is on his mind when it is on his mind, and that has been much, much more of a plus for us than a detriment. Not just in public. The president wants to know what people really think, what their opinions are, and he has benefited a lot by listening to the questions the vice president asks in meetings. His experience and his candor are valuable things for us. When you look at the two of them side by side, they share none of the same background or experience. In some ways, they could not be more different. But they complement each other powerfully.”

Judged strictly by appearances, the black, youthful Obama is without question the least likely man ever to occupy the Oval Office. Biden, on the other hand, is close to what you might get if you digitally blended the portraits of the 43 white men who have been president. Where Obama is cerebral, Biden is emotional. Where the president is methodical, the vice president is steered more by his gut. And where Obama is famously disciplined both in public and in private, Biden is—well, you know.

On March 23, minutes before the national health-care-reform bill-signing, Biden famously greeted the president behind the podium by saying, “Mr. President, this is a big fucking deal.” Some alarmed White House aides showed the incriminating video to Gibbs. “The sound is not that good on my office computer,” Gibbs told me, “and one of the guys said hopefully, ‘I think he might have said “This is a big freaking deal.”’ I said, ‘Have you ever actually heard the vice president use that word?’ Later, when [Biden] talked to me about it, he said that he didn’t think he could be heard. I said, ‘You were standing in front of a podium in the White House with a microphone and the whole world watching!’” Still, in the end, Gibbs couldn’t deny that Biden had a point, tweeting, “And yes Mr. Vice President, you’re right … ” It was a big fucking deal.

If the White House is still worried about Biden’s verbal blunders, there’s little evidence of it. He is being encouraged to speak more in public, not less, and is regularly trotted out to the Sunday-morning TV interview shows, where his loose verbal style has long made him a favorite, and where he can mix it up with the administration’s critics while allowing the president to remain above the fray. There are some weeks when the vice president is more the public face of the administration than his boss.

And Biden has grown accustomed to the constant ridicule. He is a regular target for the late-night talk-show hosts—“Joe Biden is living proof that people can give up sensitive information without being tortured,” quipped David Letterman in May 2009. On Saturday Night Live, cast member Jason Sudeikis regularly portrays him as a cheerful, loud, fast-talking buffoon, wincingly tolerated by the more sober, judicious Obama. “It’s always been that way,” Biden said. “I think it’s the nature of the office When you come to be vice president, it is clear that all you are is an appendage of, you know, a part of—it’s not a bad thing, it’s just—by nature, it’s a diminishing office.”

I watched Biden on his visits to Warsaw, Bucharest, and Prague last fall, as he arrived with all of the pomp and circumstance of a head of state— the red carpets, the ceremonial bands, the squadrons of security—and I wondered how it felt for him to have landed so close to his life’s goal, and yet short of it.

“I crossed the Rubicon about not being president and being vice president when I decided to take this office,” he told me. “The only power you have is totally, completely, thoroughly reflective. There is no inherent power. And so it depends totally upon the relationship you have with the president.”

Biden is pleased with that relationship, and seems to be enjoying the perks of the office. The biggest change, he says, is his mode of travel, which has both its pleasures and its drawbacks. On the one hand, he has helicopters, jets, and fleets of armored SUVs at his fingertips, and he often brings members of his family along with him on state trips. He and his wife now live at the official Vice President’s Residence on the grounds of the U.S. Naval Observatory during the week, but travel back to Wilmington most weekends. During his first year in office, he insisted on taking the train home, which was troubling for his security detail.

“First time we get on, one of the conductors sees me and he goes, ‘Joey!’ and he grabs my cheek,” Biden said, grabbing a thick pinch of flesh to illustrate. “He’s an Italian kid from North Jersey. And, swear to God, Secret Service was going to take his arm off because he reached out for me and he grabbed my cheek. So it drives them crazy.”

Security concerns have since prevailed: Biden now usually makes the commute on a small jet. But when he’s home in Wilmington, he insists that his Secret Service detail maintain a very low profile. “It’s so easy to get bubble-ized,” he said. “I told them, ‘Guys, look, I’ll do whatever you tell me I’ve got to do in Washington and in other states, but in Delaware, no limos, no police escort, and I don’t want any goddamn ambulances following me.’”

One weekend, he and Jill decided they wanted to go see a movie, so they went to their usual multiplex near Route 202, the Regal Brandywine Town Center 16. The vice president and his wife got in line to buy tickets and, when they reached the window, learned that the movie they wanted to see was sold out. Disappointed, they turned to leave.

“And the Secret Service says, ‘What do you mean?,’” Biden said, chuckling. His escort felt an exception should be made for the second couple of the United States. “I said, ‘Look, no, no, no, no. Do not do this. They’re sold out, they’re sold out.’

“In Delaware,” Biden said, “there’s a semblance of reality. I still go to the drugstore. I still go to the hardware store. I still go to the haunts that I go to, and restaurants. Because after all these years, in Delaware, I’m Joe.”

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Mark Bowden is an Atlantic national correspondent. More

Mark BowdenMark Bowden is a national correspondent for The Atlantic, and a best-selling author. His book Black Hawk Down, a finalist for the National Book Award, was the basis of the film of the same name. His book Killing Pablo won the Overseas Press Club's 2001 Cornelius Ryan Award as the book of the year. Among his other books are Guests of the Ayatollah, an account of the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, which was listed by Newsweek as one of "The 50 Books for Our Times." His most recent books are The Best Game Ever, the story of the 1958 NFL championship game, and Worm, which tells the story of the Conficker computer worm, based on the article "The Enemy Within," published in this magazine.

Mark has received The Abraham Lincoln Literary Award and the International Thriller Writers' True Thriller Award for lifetime achievement, and served as a judge for the National Book Awards in 2005. He is a 1973 graduate of Loyola University Maryland, where he also taught from 2001-2010. A reporter and columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer for more than 30 years, Bowden is now an adjunct professor at The University of Delaware and lives in Oxford, Pennsylvania. He is married with five children and two granddaughters.

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