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Joe Biden and the Modern Vice Presidency

03/08/2011 02:29 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Vice President Joe Biden's important roles in the administration's budget negotiations in the Congress and its response to the fast-moving events in Egypt and the Middle East are only the latest examples of the central position he is occupying in the Obama White House. Drawing on his extensive experience in the Senate and in the Middle East and his personal knowledge of many of the key players in both, he is ideally suited to help chart the administration's way through incredibly delicate situations. He had the stature as well as the confidence of President Obama to pick up the phone and call his newly empowered Egyptian counterpart at key moments to take his temperature and to ensure that the American position was clearly understood in the Egyptian government. It wasn't always this way with vice presidents.

For most of American history the office, a constitutional afterthought, languished in obscurity, irrelevance and derision. It invariably frustrated those who held it. John Adams, the first vice president, called it "the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived." His successors agreed; John Nance Garner said (in the cleaned-up version) it "wasn't worth a bucket of warm spit" and Nelson Rockefeller derided it as "stand-by equipment." From Adams to Rockefeller vice presidents were largely shut out of White House decision-making and spent much of their time attending funerals and serving as the butt of bad jokes.

Yet today, two years into his vice presidency, few in the United States or abroad doubt that Joe Biden is the second most influential figure in the government. He sits in virtually every important decision-making meeting, he doesn't do funerals, and the jokes have all but disappeared. What happened?

Three decades ago I witnessed the transformation of the vice presidency when President Jimmy Carter and Vice President Walter Mondale converted the office into one designed to maximize its inherent potential to serve the president's goals. They agreed that Mondale should be an across-the-board advisor and trouble-shooter for the president. To make that new concept work, Carter gave him a West Wing office and unlimited access to himself and to information. He told his cabinet and staff to respond to a request from Mondale as if it came from the president, and he made it clear he would not tolerate anyone undercutting his vice president. Thus was born the modern vice presidency, completing its 200-year transition from the legislative branch to the executive. Every subsequent vice presidency has used the same basic model, making appropriate allowances for the president's needs and the vice president's skills and experiences.

Biden brought significant assets to the office. He had a shared if limited prior relationship with Obama in the Senate and in the 2008 primaries where Obama could appreciate first-hand Biden's personal style and his grasp of issues, particularly in foreign policy. Biden is nearly a generation older than the president and thus has the self-assurance to challenge assumptions, including the president's, as he reportedly did in a review of Afghanistan policy. Candor is right up there with loyalty in the qualities a president needs, and younger and less confident advisors often hedge their advice to a president who in person can be intimidating. It's clear Obama values Biden's willingness to challenge others around the table to vigorously defend their positions, something only the president or an empowered vice president can do.

He brought 36 years of experience in the Senate where personal relationships count for a lot. Republicans as well as Democrats like him, know that his word is good and that he speaks for the president, so when he parachutes into critical situations like the recent tax cut extension and ratification of the New Start treaty and the current budget impasse, he is uniquely positioned to succeed.

Importantly, Biden gives every indication of being beyond personal ambition and solely dedicated instead to the president's agenda. Biden's predecessor, Dick Cheney, was beyond electoral ambition but not beyond personal ambition; he established a quasi-independent power center in the vice president's office that had an ideological agenda often at odds with the president's. There has not been a hint of self-promotion or free-lancing on Biden's part. He clearly understands that a vice president's influence does not depend on his visibility; just the opposite. It's no easy thing for a senator of 36 years who prizes his independence and prominence to give it all up for an office, however important, that is totally dependent on one person's discretion to delegate -- or withhold -- power. The trade-off, of course, has been the opportunity to affect policy and events in a way he never could otherwise.

Biden got off to a bit of a rocky start two years ago, but the verbal gaffes of that period have largely disappeared and the penchant for senatorial volubility has been restrained. Although they have very different life stories and personalities, he and the president have obviously developed a good personal chemistry and thus a good working relationship. It's a relationship that depends entirely on mutual trust and in the end both principals are the beneficiaries. But the country is the real beneficiary because it has a vice president whose office and abilities are being maximized for the public good, and because he will have the experience, information and skills to assume the presidency if, God forbid, he has to. Those are the two main criteria for a successful vice president in the modern era, and Biden meets them both. Thirty years ago I thought Mondale did too, but with Obama's help Biden has taken the office several levels beyond. If they keep it up, Joe Biden is on track to become the most consequential vice president in American history.

Richard Moe, president emeritus of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, was chief of staff to Vice President Mondale and a member of President Carter's senior staff from 1977 to 1981.

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