Joe Biden: The Most Influential Vice President in History?

From the fiscal cliff to gun control to Afghanistan, Scranton's favorite son has transformed himself from affable gaffer to West Wing powerhouse.

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Barack Obama just can't get enough out of Joe Biden these days. And anybody who's been following Biden's steady ascent in stature over the last several years -- from gaffe-happy presidential contender to one of the most powerful vice presidents in U.S. history -- couldn't be less surprised.

Perhaps the only surprise at all is that, in contrast to a year ago, it took Biden quite this long to become the president's point man on the latest round of fiscal talks. The exact reason for the delay is not clear. Perhaps it is that, only a week and a half ago, Obama had called on his vice president to lead a commission to expedite recommendations on a truly serious national issue, gun violence (as opposed to the present trumped-up issue, fiscal reform, which requires only the smidgeon of political courage necessary to depart from ideological rigidities). Maybe Obama wanted to keep his veep's powder dry for that.

Or maybe it is just that, in the awkward pattern of political dance partnerships that have emerged over the last couple of years, whenever Barack Obama and Speaker John Boehner fail to execute -- as they did after the "Plan B" debacle -- it's Biden and his old Senate colleague, Mitch McConnell, who step into the spotlight. The Biden-McConnell duo didn't cut it during last year's cliffhanger over the debt limit, of course. But in a sign of just how important a figure the vice president has become in Washington, Biden's absence until now has been one reason that Republicans doubted Obama's seriousness about cutting a deal, my colleague Chris Frates reported last week.

As the inevitable brinksmanship plays out, it's useful to step back and look at just how central a role Biden has played throughout Obama's presidency.

Over the past four years Biden has insinuated himself into the White House, while seeming hardly to try, in a way that no other vice president in memory has done. He and Obama, both consummate pragmatists though they tend to be liberal in outlook, have achieved something close to a mind meld across a whole range of issues, including foreign policy, the economy, and political strategy. Biden said it outright in his speech during the presidential campaign: "I literally get to be the last guy in the room with the president. That's our arrangement." That's no small thing in a town where power is often measured in minutes of presidential face time.

It wasn't long ago that Biden's predecessor, Dick Cheney, was seen as the gold -- some might say sulfurous -- standard in vice presidential power. Biden himself, ironically enough, once described Cheney as "probably the most dangerous vice president we've had" because of what many observers saw as Cheney's undue influence over George W. Bush.

But in terms of the sheer number of issues Biden has influenced in a short time, the current vice president is bidding to surpass even Cheney. Fiscal issues and guns are only a small sampling of this vice president's portfolio. Back in 2010 it was Biden's office that, in the main, orchestrated the handover to the Iraqis. It is Biden's view of Afghanistan that has, bit by bit, come to dominate thinking inside the 2014 withdrawal plan. On financial reform it was Biden who prodded an indecisive Obama to embrace, at long last, Paul Volcker's idea of barring banks from risky trading, according to Austan Goolsbee, formerly the head of Obama's Council of Economic Advisers. The VP also tilted the discussion in favor of a bailout of the Big Three auto companies, according to Jared Bernstein, Biden's former economic adviser. "I think he made a difference in president's thinking," Bernstein said. "He understood the importance of the auto companies to their communities, and throughout the country."

In an interview in the fall of 2010, Biden could hardly contain his enthusiasm for his partnership with Obama. The phrase "Barack and I ... " fell from his lips naturally, with no hint of diffidence. He told me then that to his continuing surprise Obama has continued to "turn over big chunks" of policy to him to handle, whether it's Iraq, middle-class issues, overseeing the recovery act. At an early meeting, "all of sudden Obama stopped. He said, 'Joe will do Iraq. Joe knows more about Iraq than anyone..... The [Economic] Recovery Act, he just handed it over" to Biden, according to a senior administration official who attended the meetings and would talk about internal discussions only on condition of anonymity.

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Michael Hirsh is chief correspondent for National Journal.

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