From health-care reform to Afghanistan, Joe Biden has bucked Obama—as only a good Veep can.
Joe Biden had a question. During a long Sunday meeting with President Obama and top national-security advisers on Sept. 13, the VP interjected, "Can I just clarify a factual point? How much will we spend this year on Afghanistan?" Someone provided the figure: $65 billion. "And how much will we spend on Pakistan?" Another figure was supplied: $2.25 billion. "Well, by my calculations that's a 30-to-1 ratio in favor of Afghanistan. So I have a question. Al Qaeda is almost all in Pakistan, and Pakistan has nuclear weapons. And yet for every dollar we're spending in Pakistan, we're spending $30 in Afghanistan. Does that make strategic sense?" The White House Situation Room fell silent. But the questions had their desired effect: those gathered began putting more thought into Pakistan as the key theater in the region.
Back in March, Biden stood alone. When Obama announced that he was launching a counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan—to develop the country and make its civilians safe from the Taliban—Biden was the only one of the president's top advisers to seriously question the wisdom of this course. The vice president even authored a short paper, called "Counterterrorism-Plus," outlining his case for a better-defined, more limited mission. The president listened but promised to review his policy again only after the Afghan election in August. Biden "didn't get a lot of traction internally," says a White House staffer familiar with the debate who did not want to be named discussing internal deliberations.
In the early days of the administration, Biden was a bit of a joke in some quarters of the White House. He was never the buffoonish character portrayed by late-night comics, but his off-message blurts were the source of eye-rolling and some irritation among the president's men and women. None of the gaffes was particularly damaging, but aides who'd been with Obama through the campaign knew that the president valued very tight control. Biden himself seemed wounded by the sniggering. Asked about his gaffes by a NEWSWEEK reporter last spring, he responded a little defensively, "A gaffe in Washington is someone telling the truth, and telling the truth has never hurt me."
Biden can still be irrepressible and long-winded. But in the Oval Office he has learned to be more disciplined without losing his edge. His persistence and truth telling have paid off, and he's found a role for himself. On Afghanistan in particular, the vice president's once lonesome position now has high-level support. The president himself seems to be looking for a middle way—not pulling out of Afghanistan, but at the same time not sending in the more than 40,000 troops requested by the U.S. ground commander, Gen. Stanley McChrystal. Biden has also played the gadfly on health care. He hasn't advocated a particular course of action, but rather has challenged the assumptions of others. "He says the things that others at the table don't want to talk about, or which they find uncomfortable," says White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel.
Across the board, Biden's real value to the president is not really his specific advice. It's his ability to stir things up. Senior government officials who have participated in small meetings with the president and vice president have noticed Obama and Biden engaged in a duet. "The president will lean over, and they will quietly talk to each other. Biden will then question someone, make comments, and the president just leans back and seems to be taking it all in before he speaks," Attorney General Eric Holder tells NEWSWEEK. Ron Klain, Biden's chief of staff, describes the interaction like this: "President Obama is one of the world's greatest listeners; you can't tell what he is thinking. He's able to watch the VP ask tough questions and doesn't have to do that himself. [In that way] he doesn't have to reveal what he's thinking. That's very valuable."
After the election, Obama spoke of wanting a "team of rivals" in the White House. That sounds very Lincolnesque, but in the wired world of cable and bloggers, rivals (or, more typically, their staffers) can quickly become leakers and troublemakers. Presidents can soon come to feel embattled and besieged; the natural inclination is to surround the presidency with yes men and true believers. Biden is a truth teller, almost congenitally so, but he is no backstabber. There is an appealing, slightly vulnerable quality about his eagerness to please. He may run off at the mouth, but he is known for his loyalty. "If there were no gaffes, there'd be no Joe. He's someone you can't help but like," says Sen. Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina. It is significant that when Biden dissented on Afghanistan policy in the spring, he did not go running to the press with his opinions, and he quickly got on board with administration policy.
Biden and Obama did not instantly bond. As a junior senator, Obama was not an intimate of Biden, a six-term veteran and committee chairman. The two men were rivals for the Democratic nomination until Biden dropped out in the early primaries, and Obama chose Biden as his running mate partly because he was a safe political choice, reassuring to Joe Six-Pack voters who might find Obama a little haughty. But Obama knew that Biden could be a shrewd and pointed questioner, particularly on foreign policy. In the spring of 2008, when candidate Obama was regarded as a greenhorn on foreign policy, he surprised and impressed the pundits by deftly probing Gen. David Petraeus on Iraq policy at a congressional hearing. No one but Obama knew at the time that Biden had advised him on his line of questioning.
Offered the No. 2 spot on the Democratic ticket that August, Biden hesitated before saying yes. He was well aware of the professional dangers of the office—from the pronouncement of John Nance Garner, FDR's first vice president, that the job was "not worth a bucket of warm piss" to Dick Cheney's attempts to run a kind of shadow presidency. Neither prospect beckoned to Biden.
That fall he told The New Yorker that his model was Lyndon Johnson, who wanted to help the young John F. Kennedy navigate the shoals of Congress. It was an odd choice: LBJ was miserable, mocked by the Kennedys as "Uncle Cornpone," and Biden risked repeating his fate with the ambitious, smart guys around Obama. More wisely, Biden consulted Walter Mondale, the former senator who became Jimmy Carter's veep and was the first to insist on an office inside the White House, near the Oval Office. Mondale advised Biden to stake out his claim, to decide what he really wanted.
The answer was access. Biden did not want an agenda or an assigned policy task or a big staff. But he did want to be in the room when the decisions were made. Obama agreed and told him he wanted Biden's "unvarnished opinion." Recounting this moment to a NEWSWEEK reporter, Biden opened his arms wide and mock-bellowed, "You've got it!"
At first Obama may have felt that he'd gotten more than he bargained for. The two men are Mutt and Jeff, warm and a little verbose versus precise and a little too cool. After serving as a committee chairman, wielding his own gavel, Biden had trouble adjusting to the bureaucratic strictures of the vice presidency. "This is the first time I've had a boss in 37 years," he told NEWSWEEK in May. To his staff, he would sometimes confess that he had talked too long or said the wrong thing at a meeting with the president—that he had to sharpen his approach.
Less than a month into the Obama presidency, Biden forthrightly, if unwisely, declared that the new administration's economic plan had a "30 percent chance" of failure. Asked about this at a press conference, Obama smiled thinly and answered, "You know, I don't remember what Joe was referring to, not surprisingly." Obama's staffers, who were lined up along the back wall at the presser, snickered along with the press.
Biden felt insulted. Through staffers, Obama apologized, protesting that he had meant no disrespect. But at one of their regularly scheduled weekly lunches, Biden directly raised the incident with the president. The veep said he was trying to be more disciplined about his own remarks, but he asked that in return the president refrain from making fun (and require his staff to do likewise). He made the point that even the impression that the president was dissing him was not only bad for Biden, but bad for the administration. The conversation cleared the air, according to White House aides who did not want to be identified discussing a private conversation.
To demonstrate their palship (and dampen the rumors of disaffection between them), the president and vice president were photographed at one point, sleeves rolled up, eating hamburgers together. Biden worked on discretion. Asked by NEWSWEEK as he flew on Air Force Two in the spring if he could describe any moments when he had influenced the president's thinking, Biden stared down at his hands for a few seconds. "I think I should let him tell you that," he finally said. "Good answer!" exclaimed his relieved communications director, Jay Carney.
Biden can get carried away gushing on about all the time he spends with the president ("Four hours a day!") and his close relations in the administration. ("Hillary Clinton!" Biden exclaims, throwing an arm in the air. "We've been friends for 20 years! Confidants!") But in fact his many friendships forged over the years are highly useful to Obama, who had spent just four years in Washington before becoming president, and half of that on the road campaigning. Biden "knows all the players," says Emanuel. On a trip to Europe and the Middle East this summer, Biden joked and guffawed with political leaders across two continents. He was also able to privately deliver bad news and the occasional scolding in a way the president never could. With the Russians in particular, the president and vice president played good cop–bad cop. Obama publicly declared that he wanted to establish a new era of good feeling with the Kremlin while Biden reminded the Russians that Washington was watching their territorial ambitions and human-rights record.
Biden is especially useful with his former colleagues in the Senate, where he showed an unusual willingness to reach across the aisle. He is still a regular in the Senate gym and dining room. "I've seen him so much, it's like he never left," says Sen. Arlen Specter, Democrat of Pennsylvania. Though Biden initially suggested that Obama might not want to try for health-care reform in his first year in office, the veep has been conscientiously rounding up votes for months. He also brought a dose of reality to the internal discussions over how far the administration could go. "He's been asking, 'What are the trade-offs here?'" says Emanuel. "Early on in the administration everyone thinks you can do everything everywhere. He was the one saying you need to make choices—choices within the health-care system and choices between that and other initiatives. By stating the uncomfortable—or stating the obvious if you've spent time in Congress—he helped people see with better clarity what the choices were, and the consequences of those choices." Emanuel likes to say that government is often a choice between bad and worse, and suggests Biden understands that as well as anyone in the administration.
That description perfectly captures the president's options on Afghanistan. In March, when Obama made his decision to back a counterinsurgency strategy, there was not a searching examination in the White House over the potential cost—in bodies, money, or political capital—or the real prospects for success. During the presidential campaign, Obama had declared that Afghanistan, not Iraq, was the right war, and so the assumption at the White House was that the president would have to make good on his words. He had a request for at least 30,000 more troops on his desk, and he wanted to get enough of them to Afghanistan in time to be of use for the August election. (He ultimately approved a troop increase of 21,000, to a total of 68,000.) Only Biden vigorously questioned whether America would have the patience or resources for a full-scale counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan over the long run. Obama said he'd review the situation again after the election.
In June, Obama appointed General McChrystal commander of U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan (relieving Gen. David McKiernan, who was deemed to be insufficiently creative and forward-leaning by the Pentagon high command). The general was given 60 days to make a recommendation on how to implement the counterinsurgency strategy. McChrystal wrote a classified 66-page report (later leaked to Bob Woodward of The Washington Post) calling for more than 40,000 additional troops and a rigorous attempt to cut down on civilian casualties. McChrystal warned that the situation was "deteriorating" and that, without reinforcements, "failure" was a real possibility.
In Washington, Biden "appeared to grow uncomfortable with the administration rushing to double down without thinking it through," says Richard N. Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, who served both Presidents Bush. Haass, who had opposed the invasion of Iraq in 2003, had written an op-ed in The New York Times on Aug. 20 arguing that Afghanistan was a "war of choice," not a "war of necessity"—refuting Obama's characterization in a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars that same week. Biden called Haass and began quizzing him, later inviting him down to dinner in Washington. "By late August, early September," says Haass, "Biden was pressing his case with the president and the other principals."
Biden has been incorrectly characterized as a dove who wants to pull out of Afghanistan. In fact, according to his "Counterterrorism-Plus" paper, he wants to maintain a large troop presence. He also favors a greater emphasis on training Afghan troops—and defending Kabul and Kandahar—than on chasing the Taliban around the countryside, and he wants more diplomatic efforts to try to peel away those Taliban who can be bought with money or other inducements (like political power). He is leery of massive attempts at nation building and more hopeful that the United States can work with local warlords than with the corrupt and inept central government in Kabul. On a grander strategic level, he wants to tilt the administration's efforts more toward Pakistan (to "make the problem PakAf, not AfPak"), reasoning that Al Qaeda—the real threat to the United States—is hiding out not in Afghanistan but in nuclear-armed -Pakistan.
Biden was once a liberal interventionist. During the 1990s he pushed to use force in the Balkans to stop Serb territorial aggression and genocide. But he has always been a member of the Vietnam generation, and, unlike some younger members of the administration, including the president, he has a firsthand memory of American defeat. "There are a lot of differences [between Vietnam and Afghanistan]," says Chuck Hagel, the former Republican senator from Nebraska and a Vietnam vet who often talks to Biden, "but one of the similarities is how easily and quickly a nation can get bogged down in a very dangerous part of the world. It's easy to get into but not easy to get out. The more troops you throw in places, the more difficult it is to work it out because you have an investment to protect."
Long Washington experience has made Biden a political realist, if not a bit of a cynic. Shortly after 9/11, he described to NEWSWEEK's Michael Hirsh how he had been summoned to the White House for a heart-to-heart with George W. Bush. Bush reassured him that the United States would not abandon Afghanistan after routing Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Bush 43 even indirectly criticized Bush 41, who had turned away from the Afghans in 1989—after the United States had covertly helped the mujahedin rout the Soviet invaders. Biden warned Bush that the commitment would cost billions and take years and a large multinational force, but he was encouraged by the president's enthusiasm. As Biden was leaving the White House, Press Secretary Ari Fleischer asked him to stop outside at the press stakeout to show that Bush's policies had bipartisan support. Biden agreed, but then Fleischer hesitated. "You're not going to say anything about 'nation building,' are you?" he asked. Biden dryly retorted, "You mean, what the president talked about for the last hour?" For Biden, the story encapsulated all the "phoniness" of the endless debate of America's role overseas. The Republicans had slammed Bill Clinton for years over nation building, but now that they were engaging in some of it themselves, they wanted to do it by another name.
On trips to Afghanistan with congressional delegations, Biden gradually grew disillusioned with President Hamid Karzai, who had seemed like such a heroic and hopeful figure in 2002. At a dinner Biden attended with Karzai and several other senators in early 2008, Karzai obstinately refused to concede that his government was riddled with corruption. Exasperated, Biden threw down his napkin and walked out.
Obama also had doubts, dating back to when he met Karzai during the campaign. But this August, as it appeared that Karzai or his followers had committed vast fraud in the election, other Obama administration officials also began to seriously doubt whether Karzai was worth the candle. Biden's earlier warnings began to take on more resonance in the White House war councils.
Biden, it should be noted, has not always showed the most clear-eyed judgment. In 1990 he voted against American involvement in the first Gulf war, which turned out to be a relatively low-cost success, whereas he voted for the invasion of Iraq, which turned into a near fiasco. He opposed the 2007 Iraq surge, which rescued the American effort from near defeat.
The president relies on Biden's judgment, but he may be more interested in having his veep play the devil's advocate. One senses, from both his track record and his recent remarks, that Obama is comfortable with having Biden push from one side and General McChrystal push from the other. Last week the president told congressional leaders that he did not plan on drawing down troops in Afghanistan, but by the same token he was rethinking the full-scale counterinsurgency strategy proposed by McChrystal. Obama has shown a penchant for splitting the difference, for finding the middle way on tough policy issues.
Some administration officials, led by Biden, appear to hope that American forces can rely more on counterterrorism operations—attacks by Predator drones and small elite units on terrorist hiding places—to hold Afghanistan together and defeat Al Qaeda. But critics call this "splitting the baby" and say it'll never work. As a senior civilian Pentagon official points out, "No one has more experience with counterterrorism than McChrystal," who ran black ops in Iraq and Afghanistan for five years. "If there was an easier, better way, he'd be pushing for it," says this official, who would not be quoted discussing internal deliberations. Opinions within the intelligence community are split, according to current and former operatives. Some back McChrystal's view that the only way to obtain the intelligence necessary to conduct counterterror operations is by a counterinsurgency campaign that protects civilians. Yet a significant minority of intelligence officials, at the CIA and elsewhere, doubt that more troops will make much difference; some think the additional forces could be counterproductive.
Senior military officials backing McChrystal have not given up hope that Obama will fully support the general, not Biden, and order tens of thousands more troops to Afghanistan. It is impossible to know with certainty where Obama will come out on this; the strategy meetings will go on until atleast next week. But the president will have confidence that whatever he decides, he will have challenged all assumptions and thrashed out all views. He can also be confident that he won't be second-guessed by his vice president. Biden is determined to be a "team player," says a close friend who asked for anonymity while commenting on Biden's motivations. "He wants to help the president. Joe is someone who is probably not going to run again. This is the apex of his career, and there is no separate agenda. There are people close to the president who are driven crazy by Joe's candor," says the friend. "But that's what you get with Joe."