Every morning that President Barack Obama chooses to receive the daily intelligence briefing in person, Vice President Joe Biden sits by his side in a matching armchair in the Oval Office. Biden attends -- and often speaks volubly at -- the "principals meetings" of the president and his top national security officials, as well as at the president's weekly meetings with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. Often he stays afterward for a few minutes of private talk, or the president walks over to Biden's office 30 paces down the hall. He and the president have lunch, by themselves, every week. In a White House where foreign policy is made, to an extraordinary extent, by the president and a few close advisors, Biden is first among equals. It is safe to say that on foreign policy, Biden is the most powerful U.S. vice president in history save for his immediate predecessor, Dick Cheney.
The Obama campaign is counting on Biden to seize back the momentum in Thursday, Oct. 11's debate with his Republican counterpart, Paul Ryan -- momentum that the president himself lost with his strangely diffident debate performance last week. Much of the debate, of course, will focus on the economy and domestic policy, the subjects that preoccupy the American people. Biden has played an important role on these issues as well, and after four decades of talking about them in the Senate and on the Sunday morning talk shows, he should be able to hold his own even against the prodigiously wonkish Republican nominee. But Ryan and GOP nominee Mitt Romney have recently tried to build a case that Obama has proved to be an irresolute global leader, and no one is better equipped than Biden -- at least if he can somehow limit himself to two-minute answers -- to defend the administration's policies abroad.
Biden has played a central role in White House decisions on policy in Afghanistan, Russia, China, Israel, and the Arab world, and his worldly pragmatism has helped shape a White House posture less starry-eyed, and perhaps also less hopeful, than many had expected at the outset of Obama's tenure.
Biden was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when Obama asked him to be his running mate in 2008, and he confided to friends that he feared his second-banana role would reduce rather than increase his influence over foreign policy. But in January 2009, Obama asked Biden to travel to Pakistan and Afghanistan to help him figure out what needed to be done there. Once Obama took office, he dispatched Biden to the Balkans, to Lebanon, and to Georgia and Ukraine to put out fires and issue strategic reassurances -- though Biden started a small fire of his own when he returned from this last trip to say that Russia had a "withering economy." The president asked him to deliver a key strategic address in Munich, where Biden coined the term "reset" to describe the administration's plan to restore relations with Russia as part of the new paradigm of "engagement." Biden quickly became a chief strategist, devil's advocate, and implementer of White House foreign policy.
Biden's exceptional role owes both to Obama's regard for his judgment and experience, and to Biden's own bottomless connections to other leading figures. He has known the national security advisor, Tom Donilon, for a quarter-century; Donilon's brother serves as Biden's domestic-policy advisor, while his wife works for Biden's wife, Jill. Biden's staff, including Antony Blinken, his national security advisor, is highly regarded in Washington, and former aides are salted throughout the National Security Council (NSC) and the executive branch agencies. When I was writing a profile of Biden for the New York Times Magazine in 2009, a White House official told me that on Obama's first day in office, James Jones, then the national security advisor, said to his staff, "You work for the president and the vice president." The vice president's staff was so deeply integrated into the top levels of the policy-planning process, this official added, that, "When you can't get to the president, you can get to them and know what the White House is really thinking."
This cozy relationship also illustrates the difference between Biden and his predecessor. Cheney was a supremely cryptic figure who rarely spoke at meetings and who exercised his influence, to the eternal frustration of national security advisor Condoleezza Rice, in private meetings with President George W. Bush, thus effectively disabling the White House's national security apparatus. Like Cheney, Biden wanted to be the last man in the room, and he is. But no one has to wonder what he thinks. The combination of intellectual vanity and sheer lack of impulse control renders Biden almost physically incapable of not saying what's on his mind (though he has gotten noticeably better at biting his tongue in the face of leading questions from Sunday morning talk show hosts). He is also an exuberant cheerleader, teammate, and coach who wants everyone to hold hands in the huddle. The Obama foreign-policy team has remained broadly collegial (far more than on the domestic side) despite immense pressures, and Biden has played a role in damping down conflict among the (somewhat overhyped) "team of rivals."