10/01/2010 07:14 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Obama's Sidekick Joe Biden: Understanding The Vice President

Upon embarking on the vice presidency, Joe Biden declared his intention to "restore the balance" of the office, a clear reference to his Republican predecessor, Dick Cheney, oft-accused of exercising unprecedented influence and power as a president-in-waiting.

Democratic critics had castigated Cheney for advocating the broadest presidential powers for George W. Bush in wartime, and for asserting some of them himself on national defense and intelligence. Notable was his support of extreme terrorist interrogation methods deemed to be torture in international law.

Cheney was perceived as being so powerful in the Bush administration that early on, when he suffered another of a series of mild heart attacks, a sick joke circulated around Washington: If Cheney were to die, Bush would become president.

Biden on the other hand came into the vice presidency with considerable public doubts about his intellectual heft and seriousness, based on his loquaciousness and penchant for verbal gaffes. So it came as a surprise in some quarters when President Obama gave him such a broad and substantive portfolio, and such public exposure as his first lieutenant in actual governance.

On the domestic front, Biden has been the administration's principal overseer and cheerleader for the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the stimulus package that has become the prime Republican target in the midterm congressional elections. In foreign policy, he has Obama's specific mandate to monitor the wind-down of the American troop involvement in Iraq and to baby-sit its tortuous journey to political stability. And his voice for a refocusing on al Qaeda in Afghanistan, with a start to troop withdrawal a year from now, was influential in that ultimate decision.

Whereas Cheney for much of his vice presidency was so seldom seen publicly that his presence "at an undisclosed location" became a running gag, Biden has been more visibly engaged in the workaday business of the administration than any previous vice president. He is frequently at the president's side for major announcements and even some news conferences.

Biden as Obama's sidekick has been particularly notable given his notoriety for speaking out of turn, which always risks criticism, embarrassment or dismissal of him as a loose cannon. The peril was pointedly illustrated when, during Obama's signing of his historic health-care reform legislation, a microphone picked up Biden telling him the passage was a big deal, with expletive undeleted.

A prime difference between Biden and his predecessor has been that Cheney as vice president developed and cemented a reputation for secrecy, calculation and even deception, and had his own staff often acting independently of the White House. Biden, known for openness and candor almost to a fault, has a staff that is well-integrated with Obama's.

In coping with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he has been what Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution has called a "house skeptic" who in the lengthy 2009 White House deliberations over the way forward in Afghanistan gave Obama "a comfort level" in which to explore his options. They included a troop surge that Biden did not favor but with a timetable for an exit strategy for which he successfully lobbied, sharing Obama's central view that the prime objective was to quash al Qaeda, not get bogged down in nation-building there.

Biden, asked later whether he thought the generals had bought into this approach or had just abided by it, said that "maybe a couple abided, but I think they bought into it." He quoted Obama as saying to them: "Look, guys, tell me now. If what I'm proposing cannot work, don't tell me later...Because if it can't work, then we'll have to go to another plan." Obama then went around the room, Biden said, "and they all said, 'Yes, sir. This can work.'"

Obama himself, queried later what he thought of critics who might conclude from the outcome of those long deliberations that Biden had "lost," replied: "I don't think anyone who was party to the very, very exhaustive discussions we had would say that. Joe was enormously helpful in guiding those discussions. The decision that ultimately emerged was a synthesis of some of the advice that he gave me, along with the advice that Secretary [Robert] Gates and Generals [David] Petraeus and [Stanley] McChrystal offered...the vice president played a vital role in that process."

The trepidation that early existed about Biden, whose occasional ad libs that have caused some embarrassment, has largely been eclipsed by his gregarious engagement in the serious business of the administration and broad mandate given him by Obama.

As for Biden's free-wheeling manner, as voters in Delaware have said for years: "That's Joe." What they mean is they know the man and if he has some rough edges, that's okay with them--and apparently, so far, with the President of the United States as well.

Jules Witcover is a columnist syndicated by the (Chicago) Tribune Media Services. His newest book is Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption, to be published Oct. 5 by William Morrow of New York.