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Is Biden's Star Fading?

At the risk of annoying Jay Carney, one of the menschiest guys in Washington, I can't help wondering if Biden is losing influence. That, at least, was my first thought when I heard he'll be heading Obama's middle-class task force. As the Times notes, "The task force is the first discrete assignment for Mr. Biden." That doesn't sound ominous on its face. But you have to consider the conditions under which Biden accepted the veep job. As Ryan Lizza wrote in his Biden piece this summer:

[Obama] also tested Biden’s understanding of how broad his role would be, as opposed to that of another contender—apparently, Kathleen Sebelius, the governor of Kansas and the only woman known to be on Obama’s short list. “He said, ‘Well, you know, if I offered this to somebody’—he named her, a person—he said, ‘That person would be very happy if I assigned them to reorganize the government.’ And he said, ‘They’d be very happy doing that. How about you?’ ” That didn’t sound like much of a job to Biden. “No,” he told Obama. “That’s not what I want to do.” ...

It was surprising to hear that Biden intends to stay out of the way of the State Department, but it suggests that he understands what might be called the Mondale Rule: that the most powerful Vice-Presidents are those who take on the fewest assignments. According to a history of the Vice-Presidency produced by the Senate Historical Office, Mondale once noted that, because the Vice-Presidency had traditionally been a backwater, its occupants undertook tasks in order to make it “appear that their role was significant.” Yet, rather than amplifying their influence, these assignments entangled them in the bureaucracy. “I used to say I never wanted to do anything that someone else was doing,” Mondale told me. “That’s just busywork. It ties you down and takes time away from what is important, which is getting information and getting advice to the President on tough issues.” ...

Al Gore studied this history, and his idea, according to the Senate Historical Office’s study, was to be “a general adviser to the President, who took little direct responsibility over specific programs.” That was why Gore didn’t want to head Clinton’s task force on health-care reform, “believing that it would consume all of his attention.” Gore did, however, make a major exception to this rule by taking on a project to streamline the federal government—a task that Kerry told me made Gore less available to lobby his old friends in the Senate. “Frankly, I don’t think Clinton used Gore for that very effectively,” Kerry said. “I think when he was given reinventing government it put him on the sidelines.”

According to Mondale, who spoke to Biden at the Democratic National Convention in August, Biden closely studied a memorandum that Mondale sent Carter outlining Mondale’s duties as Vice-President. “I believe the most important contribution I can make is to serve as a general adviser to you,” Mondale wrote. “The biggest single problem of our recent administrations has been the failure of the President to be exposed to independent analysis not conditioned by what it is thought he wants to hear or often what others want him to hear.”

Granted, the Times says the task force "was more substantive because it included members of the cabinet who have the president’s ear and the authority to carry out proposals." On the other hand, it sounds like precisely the kind of time-consuming task Biden was hoping to avoid.

Update: Biden actually riffed on his role in this interview with George Stephanopoulos yesterday. He pretty much reaffirmed the job description he laid out to Ryan:

"When Barack Obama, Senator Barack Obama then talked to me about being his vice president I said we have to – let’s talk and we spent three and a half hours talking and one of the things I asked was, I said I don’t want to be picked unless you’re picking me for my judgment. I don’t want to be the guy that goes out and has a specific assignment – an important assignment to reinvent government, which Al Gore did a great job of. Dealing with some specific discrete item. I said I want a commitment from you that in every important decision you’ll make, every critical decision, economic and political as well as foreign policy, I’ll get to be in the room," Biden said.

Has Obama kept his promise? I asked Biden.

"He’s kept it. Every single solitary appointment he has made thus far I have been in the room, the recommendations I have made in most cases coincidentally have been the recommendations that he’s picked. Not because I made them but because we think a lot alike. I have been there for every one of those meetings," he said.

For what it's worth, Stephanopoulos specifically asked him if the middle-class task force was the kind of assignment he was hoping to avoid. Biden said it's not because it's going to last "only for a certain period of time." I'm slightly skeptical, but if Biden feels like he's been in the room for the big decisions, then who am I to disagree?

--Noam Scheiber