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Commentary: Caricatures of Biden as inept are off the mark

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 5, 2012 - Vice President Joe Biden is the most underappreciated public figure in the history of the nation’s second office. Whether one shares or opposes his political views, Biden has been among the most constructive and consequential vice presidents in our nation’s history. Yet he has not received recognition to match his contributions.

Biden’s predicament is a common vice-presidential plight. Despite the enormous transformation of the office especially beginning with the vice presidency of Walter F. Mondale, the office retains something of the Rodney Dangerfield of political institutions. It gets no, or at least insufficient, respect.

That’s true of many who hold it. George H.W. Bush, an enormously effective vice-presidential diplomat, was pilloried for allegedly putting his virility in a blind trust as Ronald Reagan’s vice president. Dan Quayle, an able legislative and political adviser and operative, is remembered for coaxing a 12 year old to add an “e” to “potato” during a classroom visit. Al Gore was lampooned for his mannequin-like poses behind Bill Clinton. Those caricatures didn’t contribute to public discourse and unfairly demeaned the contributions of serious public figures.

Widespread perceptions of Biden’s role bear no relation to reality. The predictions that President Barack Obama would drop Biden from the ticket have been persistent media fodder for years even though that speculation was this generation’s equivalent to the “Paul is dead” rumors of the 1960s. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/08/27/AR2010082704480.html A recent Washington Post-ABC poll showed Biden’s favorability and unfavorability ratings tied at 43 percent, a verdict that probably reflects the partisan divisions in the country. Speakers at the Republican convention mocked everything from Biden’s intelligence to his golf game.

I can’t speak to his golf game but I know something about his work as vice president. Biden has contributed to the operation of government and to our political system and to the well being of the nation in ways that even his political adversaries should concede.

Vice presidents can play a critical role as presidential adviser by using their unique perspective, as a nationally elected political leader without a departmental obligation, to help ensure that all policy options are presented to, and fully aired for, the president. A vice president has to be willing to tell the president things he may not want to hear and that others may decline to say. By all accounts, Biden has embraced this role. The most prominent example came during the discussions regarding Afghanistan policy. Biden pressed the military and other officials with questions about the proposed surge, which ultimately forced some modification in the administration’s approach.

Biden has also helped manage the disengagement from the war in Iraq and implemented the spending of the stimulus money. Very little waste was identified in that large, but well-managed program, something Republican controlled committees in the House of Representatives would have spotlighted if it existed.

Biden has exploited his foreign policy expertise and diplomatic skills on numerous missions abroad and meetings with foreign emissaries at home. Biden’s trips are not ceremonial jaunts to funerals and inaugurations. Obama has sent him to China, Russia, Europe, Iraq (eight times), Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Middle East and other international destinations whose strategic importance is self-evident.

Finally, Biden has functioned as a legislative closer, who has played a crucial role in finding legislative solutions to vexing problems. He helped secure ratification of the START treaty with Russia reducing nuclear arms. He identified and struck the compromises with Republican congressional leaders that produced the tax agreement in 2010 and the bipartisan agreement to raise the debt ceiling in 2011.

Biden’s utility as a legislative closer flows from his unique ability to understand politicians as well as the legislative process, his interpersonal skills and the credibility his reputation for integrity and decency have earned him on both sides of the aisle. In highly partisan times, Biden and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell struck important legislative compromises. Even the highly ideological Republican House Majority Leader, Eric Cantor, admitted being impressed with the way Biden ran meetings and, according to a Cantor aide, has “great respect” and “friendship” with Biden. And Republicans in the national security community appreciate Biden’s expertise and dedication. Bush national security adviser Stephen Hadley prefaced his response to Biden’s criticisms of the Bush administration’s actions regarding Iran by telling a Fox News audience, “I have a lot of respect for the vice president. I like him.”

Biden’s occasional gaffes contribute to his public relations problems. Yet those occasions when he was perceived to go off message have not hurt America. Often, he was simply telling the truth, as when he expressed his support for same sex marriage, a position that is now administration policy, or when he colorfully celebrated the significance of passage of the health care law. His recent reference to “chains” was a rare exception to his usual practice of civil discourse.

You don’t have to like Biden (although most who know him do) or his politics, but he has been one of our nation’s most consequential vice presidents. Those contributions merit bipartisan respect, even in this nasty political environment.