WASHINGTON, Momentarily -- Thrown repeatedly off message by a series of poorly timed or ill-considered comments by the government's second-ranking official, the Obama White House is giving serious thought to putting Vice President Joe Biden on a perpetual seven-second sound delay.
According to two senior administration sources who requested anonymity, the White House is weighing the benefits of implanting a computer chip just above the vice president's jawbone, where it would receive electronic impulses from Biden's brain and temporarily reroute them to a monitoring station within the West Wing for real-time review. Non-controversial statements would be relayed back to Biden's mouth for delivery, while others would simply be blanked out, even as the vice president appeared to continue speaking.
"It might look a little awkward," one of the administration sources admitted, "but it sure beats the alternative."
A final decision is expected within days, these sources confirmed, and will be made by President Obama himself. The president, known for his own message discipline, is reported to be quite frustrated with Biden's penchant for saying whatever comes to his mind, whether or not it squares with the administration's daily line.
The latest gaffe occurred last week, when Biden momentarily undercut his boss's "concern, not panic" message about swine flu. Asked during an appearance on NBC's "Today" show whether he'd advise his own relatives to change their travel plans, Biden admitted that he had already done just that.
"I would tell members of my family, and I have, I wouldn't go anywhere in confined places now," Biden said.
The vice president went on to assert that the problem had less to do with "going to Mexico" than it did with particular means of transportation, and he singled out commercial airplanes and subways as especially worrisome incubators of disease. The White House was forced into instant damage-control mode, explaining what Biden had really "meant" to say.
It wasn't the first time.
The concern that it won't be the last time is what has prompted the White House to look for more effective remedies for Biden's shoot-from-the-hip approach. Thus this latest attempt: a silicon "silencer."
"Look, we know the guy is trying to rein himself him," said one senior official. "But he just can't do it. All it takes is one of these things, and we lose three days of coverage."
And from the other senior official, more in sorrow than in anger, "He's not wired that way. So we might have to do some rewiring."
By all accounts, the vice president still enjoys the president's strong support. His enthusiastic, regular-guy persona offers a helpful contrast to the president's cool, occasionally even distant, demeanor. More important, the president has come to rely on Biden's expertise in the ways of Capitol Hill, especially his ability to "read" his former colleagues in the Senate. (Arlen Specter's recent switch from Republican to Democrat, for instance, was largely credited to Biden's long relationship with the Pennsylvanian, and to many long conversations between the two men while riding Amtrak trains to and from Washington.)
Still, the White House draws a clear distinction between candid advice offered to the president in private, and Biden going public with whatever random thought happens to pass through his head at any given moment. Clamping down on the latter remains a major focus of the administration, and if the seven-second delay doesn't do the trick, there are said to be even more radical alternatives in the works.
"We've been all through the Constitution," says a top Obama adviser, "and there isn't a thing in there prohibiting robots."
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Rick Horowitz is a syndicated columnist. You can write to him at email@example.com.