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Biden Dances the Tough Dances

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joe biden twn clemons washington note.jpgOn Wednesday morning, 8:00 am, Vice President Joe Biden met with his successor as Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, John Kerry.

Their meeting is closed to press - but I imagine that besides their low carb meals, they'll work through their angles on how to get the important START Treaty ratified and then may discuss America's slogs in Iraq and Afghanistan. If they get to Iran, which I hope they do, that will lead to the Israel-Palestine standoff and how weak America's hand there is right now.

On the down side regrettably, what they won't discuss at this breakfast is Cuba - although it is there that the US can score the quickest, most solid gains at lowest costs, showing that it is able to dump anachronistic foreign policy and modernize. Cuba has always interested me as it has political echo effects far beyond Cuba itself.

tl_veep_debate1.jpgWith occasional blind spots aside, Biden's policy breadth is impressive compared to virtually anyone else on the Obama team. Only Bob Gates comes close to Biden's versatility - and even there, Biden wins hands down.

Joe "Bite Me" Biden, as some in General Stanley McChrystal's Afghanistan command team referred to him, has emerged as a consequential player in many of Obama's toughest portfolios -- not because Biden has stuck his nose in the game but because Obama wants Biden's decades-forged, informed takes on America's strategic choices given the constraints that face US power today. The military's disrespect of Biden is actually evidence of the fact that he is pushing them in ways that few others are; it's a sign of Biden's power.

Joe Biden's job is to fill the holes in the Presidential team's capabilities. Later in the day, he's meeting with Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci. Kosovo, arguably, is a 'relative' success story that used to be a serious global, hemorrhaging ulcer.

There aren't a lot of Presidents and Vice Presidents in US history who have a granular knowledge of the power players inside Kosovo, in Georgia, in Iraq (even today), Russia, Afghanistan, or any one of scores of other countries most Americans have hardly heard of. Biden really knows these terrains, personally and in detail, and this brings tremendous capacity to Obama's decision-making process and to the principals meetings.

I have watched Biden build behind the scenes the relationships that have mattered in keeping Iraq from blowing up again - not only getting a good fix on the nuances and power aspirations of political contenders in many fragmented factions of Iraq's parties and political system but also working out the kinks in relations between the rival US diplomatic and defense chiefs working in Iraq. And Biden has also built what is probably the single best working relationship between the US government and a UN operation in his regular communications with UN Special Representative to Iraq Ad Melkert.

Remember Melkert? He was on the World Bank ethics committee that ultimately brought down Paul Wolfowitz as well as a one-time likely Dutch Prime Minister until Dutch politics went through massive upheaval a decade ago. Melkert now has the largest growing budget in the United Nations as he and his team have to fill the void in governance and political engagement that is being left in the wake of America's drawdown in Iraq.

Biden puts Melkert on his dance card frequently - usually by secure video conferencing and calls. It's pretty interesting that this high stakes portfolio sits with the Biden team rather than at State or DoD - and yet we hear virtually no chest-beating or self-aggrandizement from Biden about his Iraq attentions.

This morning, Biden breakfasted with British Prime Minister David Cameron and UK Ambassador to the US Nigel Sheinwald. The 'special relationship' has now been called by some in the White House the 'truly special' relationship.

Over the last week alone, Biden has had reported small meetings with former Senator Chuck Hagel (who co-chairs the President's Intelligence Advisory Board and is one of Biden's closest friends), Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Defense Bob Gates, Teamsters General President James Hoffa, and Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass (who is now strongly advocating that the US get out of Afghanistan).

Biden has participated in numerous other group sessions with labor leaders and interest groups advocating for jobs and infrastructure policies that they feel are being under-invested in by the Obama administration. He has convened meetings of his Middle Class task force.

Biden's dance card is full - but it's packed with stuff that is vital to the administration even if most of the Cabinet knows zilch about Kosovo, or labor groups, or infrastructure, or wants to hear the tough realities about America's slipping position in Afghanistan, its sprawling and ineffective intelligence industrial complex, or wants to put in the time beyond ego strokes in the press in patiently nudging and working the political personalities in Iraq so that that fragile political order doesn't erupt in civil war.

Joe Biden is doing these things - and in my book - all jokes aside about his gaffes and loquaciousness is the person on Obama's team who has surpassed expectations far more than any other Cabinet Member.

-- Steve Clemons publishes the popular political blog, The Washington Note. Clemons can be followed on Twitter @SCClemons

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