‘You Were a Senator’: Joe Biden’s Weird Relationship with His Boss

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ROBYN BECK / AFP / Getty Images

U.S. President Barack Obama and Vice-President Joe Biden acknowledge the audience at the conclusion of their acceptance of the Democratic National Convention's nomination to run for a second term as president and vice-president at the Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte, North Carolina, on Sept. 6, 2012

Muammar Gaddafi once asked Joe Biden why Libya was on the U.S. list of terrorist nations. “Because you’re a terrorist!” Biden replied to his face. On a trip to an Indiana battery factory, Biden was shown an electric vehicle called the Think. “Who the f— names their car Think?” he asked. I got to sit in on a Cabinet meeting Biden hosted about the Obama stimulus. “The Recovery Act has been the most successful government program in history!” he blurted as he rushed in the door.

As one of his aides told me, you never have to wonder what Vice President Biden is thinking, because he just said it. He’ll be on a tight leash on Thursday night at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, providing campaign-approved puffery about the magnificence of President Obama. And he believes it, mostly. But as I explain in my book The New New Deal, where all those Bidenisms appear, the exuberant 69-year-old Irish Catholic pol from Scranton, Pa., has complex feelings about his younger, calmer, more polished, more introverted boss. Biden views Obama with a strange mixture of condescension and awe.

Biden is in many ways Obama’s polar opposite, the fire to his ice, the id to his superego, the insider to his outsider. He loves the same tactile side of politics that Obama hates: the schmoozing, the glad-handing, the dealmaking. The tensions in their shotgun marriage surfaced publicly the day after the Inauguration, when Biden teased Chief Justice John Roberts for flubbing the oath, and Obama shot him a stop-it glance that could have frozen lava. In private, Biden mocks the President’s people skills and chilliness, and even his ability to curse properly. And he still sees himself as the Washington wise man showing his young ingenue how politics works. When talking about policies, he often says the President “gets it,” a patronizing Bidenism for “agrees with me.” To illustrate his own importance to the President as a Capitol Hill liaison, he told me, rather indiscreetly, that Obama once said to him, “Look, you were a Senator. I was never a Senator.”

(PHOTOS: The Obama Brand)

Biden thinks the White House has fumbled the politics of the past four years, getting trapped in an unwinnable short-term debate over numbering jobs instead of explaining how the Administration has been driving long-term change. When we spoke about the stimulus, he made several dismissive comments about the brilliant young Ivy Leaguers around the West Wing who seemed to think their Keynesian heroics in preventing a second Great Depression would be obvious to everyone. “I have some sense of human nature,” he told me with a smirk. And when he contrasts his hey-man, working-class, gut-instinct approach to politics with the hyper-rational pointy heads down the hall, it’s pretty clear who he has in mind.

That said, Biden also talks about Obama in tones of genuine amazement: a steel backbone, a brain bigger than his skull, a heart in the right place, a guy who gets the facts and makes the call and never looks back. After watching Obama’s crisp decisionmaking during the transition, he told his chief of staff, “They got the order of this ticket right.” He also sees the President as a man of his word, which means something to the guy who’s always pledging his “word as a Biden.” Obama promised to include Biden in important meetings and listen to his unvarnished advice, and he has. “He wanted me to be the bastard at the family picnic, which, politely, I am,” Biden says. Obama doesn’t always take Biden’s advice — the Vice President was skeptical of the push for health reform, the raid on Osama bin Laden and the surge in Afghanistan — but Biden backs the party line in public. He did get out a bit in front of the President on gay marriage, but that was so unusual, it makes me wonder how accidental it really was.

(PHOTOS: The Democratic National Convention)

Obama views Biden with a mix of condescension and respect too. When they served together in the Senate, Obama saw Biden as a gasbag, a classic example of the dangers of Senatoritis. During the 2008 campaign, he was infuriated by Biden’s lack of discipline, a mortal sin in Obamaworld. And he’s still a bit bewildered by Biden’s goofy side; like everyone else in Washington, he sometimes rolls his eyes at Joe-being-Joe stories. But he gave Biden two areas of responsibility — Iraq and the Recovery Act — and he thinks Biden handled them well. There is also a grudging feeling throughout the White House that while Biden’s man-of-the-people shtick can be annoying — the economists get sick of him asking them to explain what things mean to the ordinary family — the Vice President does have some political and personal insights that the pointy heads lack.

Today Gaddafi and the Think are no more, while the Recovery Act has been pretty damn successful, if not the most successful government program in history. Biden may be a Republican laugh line, and his speech on Thursday won’t rival Michelle Obama’s or Bill Clinton’s. But after 40 years in Washington, sometimes he knows what he’s talking about.