Barack Obama and the Case of the Missing Vice President-Elect

Since he was chosen to fill out the Democratic ticket back in August, Joe Biden has maintained that he doesn’t

Since he was chosen to fill out the Democratic ticket back in August, Joe Biden has maintained that he doesn’t want the expansive authority and high profile that Dick Cheney carved out for himself as vice president.

It certainly made for good campaign rhetoric – it never hurts to tell voters that you’re very different from a man with a 72 percent disapproval rating – and it’s not like he had much choice in the matter, anyway: With his celebrity appeal and active interest in policy details, Barack Obama was never going to be overshadowed by his vice president, inside or outside the White House.

Still, you’ve got to wonder if Biden really appreciated what he was getting himself into. Cheney’s bargain with George W. Bush was fairly simple: I’ll handle the messy and cumbersome policy minutiae from my undisclosed location; you deliver the speeches, pose for the photos and travel among the people. Both men got what they wanted out of the deal. But is Biden really happy with his deal? While he’s surrendering Cheney’s internal power, if the six weeks since the election are any clue, he seems on pace to be just as invisible as Cheney in public.

The tone was set on Election Night, just after the polls closed on the West Coast and Obama was declared the winner. Recent tradition, inaugurated by Bill Clinton and Al Gore in 1992, calls for both the president-elect and his running mate to address their supporters – and the nation. By including Gore in the festivities in ’92 (and again in ’96), Clinton made a statement about his commitment to making his vice president a crucial player in his administration, privately and publicly. Bush even included the dour Cheney in 2004, when both members of the Republican team declared victory the morning after the election. (In 2000, when Bush declared victory by himself from the Texas state legislature’s chamber, it was a unique circumstance, because of the 39-day recount drama.)

But when Obama stepped onto the stage before hundreds of thousands of supporters in Chicago last month, Biden was nowhere in sight. He was kept behind the curtains while Obama delivered his historic victory speech. Only after Obama was finished was Biden ushered into public view, silently joining his running mate on the platform. And that was it.

It would have been easy for Obama and his team to include Biden in the program. He could have served as the warm-up act, rallying the crowd and building some suspense before calling the man of the hour to the stage. Especially given the Clinton-Gore precedent, it is noteworthy that Obama chose not to do this. It’s equally noteworthy that no one seemed to notice.

And since then, Biden’s visibility has only diminished. Again, part of this is because, perhaps more than any president-elect in history, Obama commands such interest from the press and public. Merchants are scrambling to slap his likeness on any product they can think of – even dinner plates – and people are lining up to buy them. Supposedly objective newspapers are even getting in on the act by hitching their wagons to Obama’s star. Rest assured, this is not the kind of reaction that greeted the election of, say, George H. W. Bush. And in this atmosphere, it would be tough for Biden to get much attention even if he was holding three press conferences a day.

But this is not just a case of the press ignoring the un-sexy vice president-elect. The Obama team has, since the election, seemed remarkably hesitant to put Biden out there at all. Mainly, he’s showed up at press conferences unveiling various cabinet selections, where, typically, he steps to the podium after Obama to briefly tell the assembled press that each nominee will be very good at his or her job. Otherwise, he’s refused interview requests and made almost no public appearances. (He did get a new dog, though.)

On Sunday, at last, Biden emerged with an extended interview on ABC’s This Week, the first real chance for the vice president-elect to speak at length and in his own words since Election Day. Fittingly, host George Stephanopoulos told Biden near the beginning of the session that “you’ve been fairly invisible since the election.”

Biden, not surprisingly, painted a picture of intense behind-the-scenes engagement. He’s been present for every critical transition decision Obama has made, he said, and has also assumed two specific responsibilities: “honchoing” a “baseline study” of the situations in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and heading up a committee of cabinet members that will give Obama guidance on the needs of the middle class.

This, he insisted, is what he had in mind when teamed up with Obama four months ago.

“I said I don’t want to be picked unless you’re picking me for my judgment. … I said I want a commitment from you that in every important decision you’ll make, every critical decision, economic and political as well as foreign policy, I’ll get to be in the room,” Biden said, adding that Obama has lived up to that commitment.

Maybe Biden really is happy with this. No matter how muted he’s become, he’ll earn a place in history just by serving as vice president. And it’s entirely possible that his counsel will weigh heavily on Obama’s decision-making process as president. With access like that, there’s no quantifying the influence Biden could exercise on any number of critical issues.

Then again, it’s also possible that Obama will just listen to Biden politely, nod his head and then do whatever he was planning to do all along. And the specific tasks Biden has been assigned don’t really amount to much. As Stephanopoulos noted, the middle class commission he’ll be running won’t have any formal powers, and his “baseline” study essentially overlaps with the work of the National Security Advisor – who will be working in the West Wing and meeting with Obama daily. And, as we’ve seen these past six weeks, life in the Obama administration probably means that Biden’s days of pontificating on Sunday morning shows will be sharply curtailed.

The life of the vice president isn’t exactly a tough one. But for Joe Biden, it might prove a very frustrating one.

Barack Obama and the Case of the Missing Vice President-Elect