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Analysis: Joe Biden could be Obama's most important team member

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 18, 2008 - Since the election, President-elect Barack Obama has identified an imposing team of appointees to help him address a daunting list of challenges. One of the important resources he has, in managing that team and in responding to those challenges, is Vice President-elect Joe Biden.

Obama is responsible for putting Biden in that job, but the ability of the vice presidency to make a unique and significant contribution traces to the imagination and work of President Jimmy Carter and Vice President Walter F. Mondale three decades ago. Their approach provides a basis for making Biden's tenure a successful one.

Carter and Mondale transformed the vice presidency from a national laughingstock to a true governing asset. Reversing the history of the office wasn't easy but three principal factors shaped their success.

Carter was totally committed to making something of the vice presidency and, from the early days of the transition, he made it clear to all that Mondale would be a central figure in his administration and that he would not tolerate any effort to undercut Mondale.

Mondale conceived, and Carter agreed to, a new vision of the vice president as an across-the-board adviser and troubleshooter without any portfolio that would consume his time or give him a departmental bias. Carter gave Mondale the resources to succeed in that role.

Finally, Mondale was an experienced and able public figure who dedicated himself to shaping and implementing the policy of the administration.

Mondale added considerably in this new role. Since others knew Mondale had Carter's confidence, Mondale could effectively represent Carter on a range of matters that required high-level attention. As a trouble-shooter, Mondale met with legislative leaders and backbenchers to advance administration goals, took substantive international missions and received foreign leaders, resolved interdepartmental disputes, and worked privately and publicly to build support for Carter and his policies.

As an adviser, Mondale helped Carter integrate policy and politics and determine priorities. His advice was unique since he alone shared Carter's perspective as an elected politician without any departmental bias. Just as Mondale's role as a trusted adviser enabled him to troubleshoot, his work as a troubleshooter gave him insights and information that contributed to the value of his advice.

Much of Mondale's work was invisible to the public yet his papers and the accounts of Carter insiders make clear that it was substantive and valued.

On Jan. 20, 2009, Obama will inherit a staggering array of economic, domestic and global challenges which will require high-level political attention beyond the time available to any one human being. To his credit, he has enlisted talented figures to help him.

Yet Obama is likely to have an ambitious legislative agenda that will need bipartisan support. He will face international demands for high-level attention beyond what he and Secretary of State-designee Hillary Clinton can give. His team of talented and assertive associates may find themselves at odds over policy and turf. And he will need credible political spokespeople to explain and help mobilize support for his policies.

In short, there will be much to do, and creating a Mondale model vice presidency for Biden can help Obama address these challenges.

Biden brings talents well-suited to help address some of these problems. He understands Congress, especially the Senate, from his service as a legislative leader. He has strong relationships with members of both parties and his bipartisan credibility furnishes an important asset for the administration. He can help devise and implement legislative strategy.

Moreover, Biden's expertise in foreign policy can also help, both in internal deliberations and in meetings, at home and abroad, with foreign dignitaries. His substantive knowledge and success in dealing with difficult congressional colleagues suggests that he, like Mondale, may be an effective diplomat. Obama and Clinton will find that their efforts to restore America's global position can be enhanced by using Biden on significant missions.

Biden's success in working with prickly figures in Congress suggests he may be able to help mediate the conflicts that may arise within the Obama administration and reach resolutions that cross departments.

Finally, Biden has been an able spokesman who has long been effective in a variety of formats. Yes, Biden committed gaffes during the campaign, but his favorability ratings remained high and Americans overwhelmingly viewed him as qualified to be president. He also won widespread praise for his performance in the vice president debate.

Obama and Biden have inherited the vision Carter and Mondale created and the expectations of a more robust vice presidency that subsequent administrations nurtured. Whether they replicate the success of the Mondale model will depend on their mutual commitment to that vision and their ability to execute it. If they do, the administration and the country will benefit.

Joel Goldstein is a professor of law at Saint Louis University School of Law and a recognized expert on the vice presidency.