Vice President Joe Biden, the Republicans' favorite punching bag, gave his critics nothing to laugh about as President Barack Obama's ultimate fireman in rescuing the country from the fiscal cliff it teetered on as 2012 ended.
Mr. Biden's 11th-hour entry by partnering once again with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell struck a modest but crisis-postponing deal, raising taxes on the richest Americans but entailing little or no serious debt reduction. It enabled the president to say the middle class had been protected, but it also let the Republicans claim former President George W. Bush finally had finally gotten his way in making his tax cuts permanent.
It can be said that the result was merely to kick the can down the road on the fight over the size of the federal government and its involvement in the lives of the citizenry. And it can be argued that Mr. Obama lost leverage in the coming negotiations by narrowing the discussion to the Republicans' desired spending cuts.
However, in personal terms, the vice president again demonstrated his ability, and willingness, to bring to bear his 36-year experience and personal connections in the U.S. Senate in the service of the man who chose him to be his stand-by. His latest intervention with his old colleagues underscored his talent in the art of compromise, which is so sorely lacking these days in Congress and in the Oval Office as well.
For all of Mr. Biden's fiery partisan rhetoric on the campaign trail in playing the traditional vice-presidential role of attacker, and for all the jibes over his verbal gaffes, as Mr. Obama's understudy he has been one of the most involved and effective occupants ever in the second office.
His immediate predecessor, Dick Cheney, arguably was a more powerful and influential No. 2 man in the George W. Bush administration. Indeed, there was much speculation that the tail really wagged the dog, particularly in matters of national security and war making.
Mr. Cheney used his office as Mr. Biden has never done to strengthen the power of the presidency in broadly interpreting the chief executive's role as commander in chief of the armed forces, especially in wartime. Indeed, in Mr. Obama's decision to accede to the generals' push for a surge of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Mr. Biden was instrumental in including a timeline for withdrawing them, as well as monitoring the combat pullout from Iraq.
Time and again, the president has demonstrated his reliance on a vice president who has endlessly suffered the disparagement of his political foes to the point of characterizing him as a loose cannon or as a loquacious clown. Speculation leading up to the 2012 election that Mr. Obama might or should kick him off the Democratic ticket in favor of Hillary Clinton, however, never had any credibility.
As a campaigner, Mr. Biden proved to be an asset not only with blue-collar Americans whose roots he shares but also with liberal Democrats who cling, as Mr. Biden does, to the achievements and aspirations of FDR's New Deal. But it has been his role as an active governing partner in selling the Obama agenda, or at least salvaging important parts of it on Capitol Hill, that has been a milestone in the Biden vice presidency.
None of this is to suggest that Mr. Biden is the early frontrunner for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination. Far from it. Polls indicate that if Hillary Clinton chooses to run, the prize would be hers for the asking. But her recent brief hospitalization has already jumped-started the what-ifs, with no other Democrat of national stature yet in sight other than Mr. Biden.
Of course, his age -- he will be 73 in 2016 -- as well as the tendency of many to dismiss him as a joke, would be raised against him if he were to decide to run, which is no certainty.
In terms of actual performance in his long career in public service, however, Joe Biden is no laughing matter as he embarks on his second term as vice president, fully engaged in the business of the Obama administration far beyond the mere ceremonial roles played by so many of his predecessors.
Jules Witcover is a former longtime writer for The Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption." You can respond to this column at firstname.lastname@example.org.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun