Says Newsweek’s Howard Fineman: “Joe Biden is not an academic, he’s not a theoretical thinker, he’s a great street pol. He comes from a long line of working people in Scranton—auto salesmen, car dealers, people who know how to make a sale. He has that great Irish gift. He went from being a prodigy politician getting elected at the age of 29 to the 1988 run that was sadly, almost comically bad, yet people around him saw something inspiring in him and are greatly devoted to him. And in the intervening 20 years he used that time to diligently educate himself; he has steeped himself in the street corners of the world.”
In the early 1990s Biden’s younger son, Hunter, was attending Georgetown University and asked his father to speak at the school. It was a time, Biden writes, when he found his voice once and for all. He laid out the premise that the lessons he received from the Catholic Church, from Catholic schooling, and from his parents had been the governing forces of his career. “The greatest sins on this earth are committed by people of standing and means who abuse their power,” he wrote.
He confirms that sentiment today. “Whether it’s a boss who is petty at the office or a dictator running roughshod over his people, I just can’t stand it when people abuse power. I do get angry about that, and I hope I always will.”
This certainty of message brought a stronger campaigner to the 2008 election. “My recollection is that he developed this self-deprecation about being long-winded,” says the News Journal’s Williams. “He had never addressed that until he got on the national stage this last time.”
E.J. Dionne, too, saw a different candidate: “The political world noticed, whether they liked him or not, that the Joe Biden of 2008 was a better candidate than he had been in ’88. He was clearer on why he was running and what mattered to him.”
But the double challenge of competing against his Senate friends Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama kept Biden a distant runner-up in the primaries, and he dropped out of the race last January.
Getting Up Again
“I was with the vice-presidential selection committee,” recalls Vermont senator Patrick Leahy, “and I told Barack Obama I saw three criteria. First and most obvious, God forbid if something happens to you, you have to have somebody who can take over on a second’s notice. Second, you’ve got to have somebody who can work with the House and Senate and get your programs through. In my experience only two vice presidents did that role really well: George H.W. Bush and Fritz Mondale. And third, when you think you’re doing everything right and you screw up, you gotta have one person come in, close the door, and say, ‘I think you screwed up and here’s why,’ and you know you will never read about it in the press. And Joe Biden would fit all three of these criteria.”
Biden’s addition to the ticket looked seamless. “He seemed to inherit some of the discipline that was so much a part of the Obama operation,” says Dionne.
Biden and John McCain apparently kept up a regular conversation throughout the campaign. Though Biden won’t confirm this, he does say, “John McCain is a very dear friend of mine. I’m not going to get into the conversations we’ve had; those are private. What I can say is that when the campaign was over, we immediately put it behind us.”
Staffers say Biden is more disciplined these days, more relaxed, but still has flashes of “black Irish moods,” especially on the anniversary of the loss of Neilia and Naomi—he always takes the day off from work. “He’s emotional; he absolutely has a temper,” recalls a former staffer. He recalls days when he’d approach the senator’s inner office, “and his secretary would just wave you off with ‘Not a good time.’ ” He adds, “I think he’s mellowed a lot.”
Like Bill Clinton, he will never be able to keep from schmoozing. Biden says, “I’m going to do my best not to get trapped in the ‘bubble.’ So far it’s worked. After Mass I still go to the same coffee shop. It’s been more cumbersome, but I know if I work hard at it I can still be available and approachable. The funny thing is in Delaware I’ve always been Joe, and everyone calls me that. And I hope they always will.”
Making Up for Lost Time
So what will it be like having the Bidens in town full-time? Those who know him doubt he’ll jump headfirst into the social scene, but he has expressed a desire to use the Naval Observatory vice-presidential residence on Massachusetts Avenue as a gathering place for people on all sides of issues, so there may be more of a Party Joe than in previous years.
He is looking forward to getting to know Washington. “The VP residence is, unlike the White House, smaller and more like a home,” he says. “It’s our hope, now that we’re in Washington, to make up for lost time by having our colleagues, both Democrat and Republican, as well as foreign leaders over for small dinners and special occasions . . . for people of different points of view to have a quiet place to share and discuss them.”
Both Bidens are physically active; Joe says he tries to eat healthily and lifts weights, walks, runs, and uses an elliptical machine. “The one who really works out is Jill,” he says. “She runs every day. She ran the Marine Corps Marathon here in Washington in 1998.” And to relax? “We do like to eat out; Italian restaurants are our favorites. We also like to go see movies. But relaxing for us is really relaxing at home.”
The Bidens, who are by Senate standards without great wealth, probably will continue to maintain dual residences. “As excited as we are about living in Washington, Delaware will always be home—that will never change. So we’ll get back as often as we can. . . . We’ve always lived close to our son Beau’s children in Delaware. Now we’ll also live close to Hunter’s girls—they’re already talking about how they need new bikes to ride to come see Nana and Pop’s new house.”
Beau, 40, Delaware’s attorney general, now serving in Iraq with the Delaware National Guard. Hunter, 39, is a lawyer in DC, and daughter Ashley, 27, is a social worker in Wilmington.
“The thing I most admire about my children is the respect they show everyone they meet,” says their father. “I know it will not sound unbiased, but they are the three most decent people I’ve ever met in my life.”
As for his relationship with President Obama, one former staffer admits, “If this had been 20 years ago, he would have trouble playing second fiddle. But now? He’s a different person.”
While E.J. Dionne thinks both Obama and Biden have equally strong people skills, “Biden is a more outwardly emotional guy. He’s a hugger. Obama is not a hugger. Joe Biden, and I mean this in the best sense, is good at malarkey, and malarkey is not something Obama is given to.”
David Broder guesses that Biden and Obama have already developed a good relationship. “And after the first crisis they go through together, President Obama will find, as others have found, that Joe Biden is a strong guy to have in the foxhole with you,” says Broder. “I’ll be very surprised if he crashes.”