Biden's new role: Cheerleading, not policy

With a portfolio that includes the middle class, stimulus spending, Iraq and politicking for endangered Democrats, Vice President Biden should be cutting a high profile.

But the Obama administration's avuncular No. 2 has evolved — after a sometimes bumpy first year — into a classic guy-behind-the-guy. He stays busy but rarely makes news, and he's a trusted presidential confidant — but not exactly in the inner circle.

“He's had the occasional gaffe but he's stayed very much behind the scenes — in the tomb of the unknown vice president,” said Cindy Rugeley, a political scientist at Texas Tech University. “He seems very loyal to the president.”

Recent additions to Biden's brief include leading the American delegation to the Winter Olympic Games. Later this week, he is to deliver a speech on President Obama's agenda for combating nuclear proliferation.

The White House plans to deploy Biden frequently on the campaign trail this year. He recently made a rare joint appearance with Obama in Florida, at a town hall meeting.

“It's amazing the crowds I draw,” Biden quipped in Tampa.

Chief among his duties is relentlessly promoting Obama. It's a task he appears to embrace with relish, on the stump and making the rounds of Sunday television talk shows — familiar territory from his years in the Senate.

“Look, because of the president's bold leadership, we weathered the most ferocious economic storm this nation has seen since the Great Depression, keeping us from sliding into a depression,” Biden told his Florida audience. “The president from the outset has understood that it's all about jobs, but there's a lot of business to attend to just to keep us from sliding off the edge.”

In the early days of the administration, Obama made an effort to give Biden high-profile and topical assignments. But more recently, the vice president's strongest influence is behind the scenes.

Biden and Obama have lunch together nearly every week, and the vice president played a significant role in shaping the president's revised policy in Afghanistan — in large part, by providing an informed opinion contrary to what some of the president's military leaders wanted.

At the same time, Biden's verbal gaffes have been an embarrassment for the president, who sometimes appears tense in public when Biden is at the microphone.

Biden has become a reliable punch line for late-night comedy, where he is often portrayed as an enthusiastic bumbler.

He recently irked party leadership by speculating aloud what could happen if Democrats lose a significant number of seats in November, saying if Republicans win, “this is the end of the road for what Barack and I are trying to do.”

Biden has a different role with Obama than former Vice President Cheney did with former President Bush.

“I think Obama regards Biden as a net plus,” said Bruce Buchanan, a professor of government at the University of Texas. “Unlike with Cheney, everybody knows who is in charge — but like Cheney, it appears Biden has no further political ambitions beyond the vice presidency.”

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