Obama's turnaround owes much to Biden's influence

Amid all the talk of an Obama comeback in the December lame-duck session of Congress, not to be overlooked is the performance of Joe Biden as arguably the most active visible vice president ever.

The modifier "visible" is imperative. His Republican predecessor in the office, Dick Cheney, was so widely regarded as active himself as to generate wide speculation that he was the man privately pulling the strings in the George W. Bush administration.

Indeed, the image of Mr. Cheney's behind-the-scenes influence was augmented by repeated descriptions that after 9/11 he was hiding in "undisclosed locations" for months on end, ostensibly for security reasons.

Mr. Biden, by contrast, from the very start of his vice presidency has been front-and-center in the Obama administration, appearing at the president's side on a broad array of both substantive and ceremonial occasions, including most bill-signings and news conferences at the White House.

Most recently, he helped guide through the Senate President Obama's New Start treaty on nuclear-arms reduction. And before that, his personal involvement in negotiating the huge tax cut deal with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was conspicuously recognized by Mr. Obama.

Also, after helping to shape the compromise that is being credited with putting the Obama presidency back on track politically after the drubbing taken in the midterm congressional elections, Mr. Biden has been busy selling it and trying to soothe ruffled liberal feelings over it.

The vice president has been in the forefront echoing President Obama's own rationale that it was an achievement to have extended the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans for two years only.

Mr. Biden has joined his leader in assuring liberals and middle-class voters generally that the deal was struck principally to salvage their tax cuts, and that he and President Obama will continue the fight against the rich tax booty at the time all the Bush cuts expire in 2012. That, of course, is a no-brainer, inasmuch as the president, and presumably his vice president too, will be seeking reelection then and needing their most dependable party base strongly behind the ticket.

With the state of the economy recognized as a key to their prospects for a second term in 2012, Mr. Biden's role as the administration's monitor of the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act — the much-maligned Obama stimulus package — will be critical in convincing the public of its achievements around the country in infrastructure and other federally financed public works.

At the same time, Mr. Biden's other prime administration assignment in foreign policy — overseeing the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq and the lead-up to the scheduled July start of the same from Afghanistan — keeps him in the midst of what will be an equally critical issue in the 2012 election.

Mr. Biden's strong resistance a year ago to the Pentagon's successful push for the 30,000 troop surge into Afghanistan was instrumental focusing its strategy against al-Qaida — counterterrorism — as well as against the Taliban enemy — counterinsurgency.

The year-end review of that strategy, disclosed last week by President Obama, declared it to be "on track" to begin the force reduction on schedule. Mr. Biden defended the administration's planned drawdown on NBC News' "Meet the Press" Sunday, explicitly insisting "it will not be a token amount," as many anti-war skeptics about Secretary of Defense Robert Gates' "condition-based" caveat have suggested.

Mr. Biden, taking note of the recent agreement of NATO partners in Afghanistan to target 2014 for complete withdrawal of combat forces, said flatly, "We're going go be out of there come hell or high water by 2014." In so saying, he reinforced to liberals impatient with Mr. Obama's commitment to end to the war his own role in stiffening the president's resolve.

In the recent midterm elections, the future of the Afghan war was hardly an issue, despite polls continuing to indicate about 60 percent of Americans surveyed think the U.S. involvement is a mistake. The Democrats can't count on the same indifference as a voting issue in 2012. So Mr. Biden can be expected to continue insisting on more than "a token" drawdown in July, and to be a prominent and visible administration spokesman on most major matters in domestic and foreign policy until then.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former longtime writer for The Baltimore Sun. His e-mail is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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