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Straight Man

Miami, Florida--The vice president of the United States folds himself into the rear seat of the black SUV and immediately starts cracking wise about the impromptu interview he has graciously granted me--pretty much all of which is to remain off the record. "You know how disciplined I am," he chuckles, blue eyes crinkling and twinkling. "I'm known for my discipline." Biden reaches into a compartment beside him, whips out a large microphone, and threatens to hold forth for everyone within earshot of the vehicle's external PA system. Only the faintest shadow of anxiety falls across communications director Jay Carney, perched in the jump seat across from us. To be shepherd of this veep's image requires learning to take a breath and, as Biden aides and assorted fans like to put it, "let Joe be Joe."

Of course, letting Joe be Joe has been known to cause the occasional headache for Team Obama. Just over two weeks before Election Day, Biden uttered this unhelpful prediction at a Seattle fund-raiser: "It will not be six months before the world tests Barack Obama like they did John Kennedy. ... Watch, we're gonna have an international crisis, a generated crisis, to test the mettle of this guy." The day after the inauguration, the new vice president, while swearing in a batch of federal employees, joked about his memory being "not as good as Justice Roberts's"--a jab at the Supreme Court chief's flubbing of the presidential oath--prompting Obama to give Biden a disapproving nudge. A couple of weeks later, at the House Democrats' retreat in Williamsburg, Virginia, Biden couldn't resist sharing his notexactly-on-message view of the economic recovery effort: "If we do everything right, if we do it with absolute certainty, there's still a thirty percent chance we're going to get it wrong." Later asked about Biden's remark, Obama went with the wry brush-off: "I don't remember exactly what Joe was referring to. Not surprisingly."

Biden's tendency to floss with his own shoelaces might strike the casual observer (not to mention late-night comedians) as something of a political liability. The White House seeks to portray it as quite the opposite: Faced with a vice president incapable of censoring himself, Team Obama has set about turning this nuisance into a strength. Forget everything you may have heard about Senator Biden, the impolitic, self-promoting, long-winded gaffe machine. Meet Vice President Biden, the brutally frank, calls-'em-like-he-sees-'em, couldn't-be-a-yes-man-if-his-life-depended-on-it truth-teller. Discussing the veep, Biden's colleagues rely liberally on descriptors such as "authentic," "real," "honest," "blunt," "a straight shooter." Within this framework, Biden's lack of a verbal filter is the modest price one pays for a politician of conspicuous integrity, openness, and candor--rare and welcome traits in this industry, no?

The packaging is one of those win-win arrangements management gurus are always extolling: Biden gets to revel in his image as a fearless, forthright man of principle. The rest of the team gets to strategically deploy Biden's big mouth without feeling compelled to address his every stumble. Everyone goes home happy.

There's just one catch: If Biden speaks the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, what happens should he eventually utter a disastrously inconvenient truth--not a run-of-the-mill gaffe but something more grave and substantive? Will the White House ultimately regret its decision to attach ethical import to the vice president's candid, digressive, unpredictable, and occasionally out-of-control political style?

Departing Washington for Miami at the crack of dawn, Biden came strolling down the aisle of Air Force Two, chatting up his fellow travelers. At one point, the conversation turned to dogs. The veep loves 'em--especially the big breeds--and he is clearly enamored of his six-month-old German Shepherd, Champ, with whom he faithfully rises at 6 a.m. each day for a morning constitutional. Envisioning Champ and his master gamboling across the grounds of the Naval Observatory, one is struck by how much Biden himself resembles an overgrown pup: friendly, open, enthusiastic, a shade uncontrollable, and so damn happy. At 66, the man is a ball of pent-up energy. He fidgets when he talks--squirming in his seat, waving his hands--and he's a toucher: He'll tap your wrist, grab your elbow, clasp your shoulder, and lean in close to make a point, pinning you to the wall with those eyes. In meetings, he doodles--mostly houses. (Staffers say he is a frustrated architect.) For stress relief, "he likes to dig up and move around large trees," reports a long-time Senate aide. And he is a chronic furniture-mover, known for shuffling the sofas in his massive Senate chambers. Despite, or perhaps because of, the trials and tragedies punctuating his life--the childhood stutter, losing his first wife and infant daughter to a car crash in 1972, barely surviving two brain aneurysms in 1988--his outlook is exhaustingly upbeat.

This gabby, let-it-all-hang-out amiability is central to the vice president's presentation as the most open, guileless man in politics--the un-Cheney, a role of peculiar import in the nation's post-Bush hangover. Indeed, whatever one thinks of Biden, it's tough to picture the unfocused, attention-loving motor-mouth convening hush-hush meetings and hatching shadowy plots in some undisclosed location. Biden comes across as the sort of guy for whom phrases like "open book" and "what you see is what you get" were coined. And his office has been working to reinforce this image, acknowledges his chief of staff, Ron Klain, citing efforts ranging from the disclosure of Biden's daily schedule to opening up his residence to lawmakers and local school kids. "Part of it is a reflection of his personal style," notes Klain. "Vice President Biden is very personable and likes being with people. He's very open, easy, approachable."

And honest. Let's not forget honest. Biden, the White House wants everyone to know, is so habitually candid that he cannot help but speak his piece, even in front of the boss. As Obama recently told The New York Times, "Joe is very good about sometimes articulating what's on other people's minds, or things that they've said in private conversations that people have been less willing to say in public. Joe, in that sense, can help stir the pot." And stir he does, colleagues report. In meetings, Biden is not shy about disagreeing with the president or other top advisers. He defends his position with characteristic, occasionally disconcerting gusto. Sometimes his view carries the day. (He was reportedly influential in the decision to pursue more limited military involvement in Afghanistan.) Other times it does not. (He loudly opposed attempting health care reform in the current economic climate.) Whatever the outcome of a particular debate, however, the dynamic plays to both Obama's self-image as one who encourages dissent and Biden's self-image as one who delights in providing it.

Painting a portrait of Biden as dogged truth-teller has advantages for the White House beyond letting the public know that Obama tolerates contrarians. It also makes the vice president a valuable spokesman for controversial policies, most notably in the crucial, complex realm of the economy. Not long after the election, Obama tapped Biden to serve both as head of the Middle Class Working Families Task Force (grandly charged with "raising the living standards of middle-class, working families in America") and overseer of the recovery effort. At first glance, this seems a counterintuitive mandate for a politician whose experience and interests lie deep in the jungles of foreign policy. Biden himself was surprised when, having sent the president a long memo on the need to follow the stimulus money, he found the whole sprawling project tossed in his lap. But many in the White House see Biden as a natural public face for the recovery effort. With his humble background, his enduring distinction as one of the Senate's poorest members, and, of course, his reputation for saying what's on his mind, the vice president has an edge in the Regular Guy department. To hear colleagues tell it, Biden is forever lecturing the administration's pointy heads to get real. "Sometimes economists' thinking gets a little too Aspen Institute-y. They forget the people who ride the Amtrak with Joe," says White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel. "Joe gives these people a reality check." Biden's top economics adviser, Jared Bernstein, agrees: "When I brief him, his not-uncommon criticism is, 'Would you speak English and not economese?'" Adds Bernstein, "Something I've learned from him is that people are willing to work with us if we talk to them like grown-ups and explain the lay of the land, what it is we face, and how we get from here to there in honest, coherent terms."

Among the constituencies with whom Biden's forthright charms come in handy is organized labor. Upon touching down in the Sunshine State, Biden promptly headed for Miami Beach's swank Fontainebleau hotel to address the AFL-CIO's Executive Council. After union president John Sweeney's brief intro to the invitation-only crowd, Biden delivered a we're-in-this-together stemwinder that blended political shoptalk with his trademark rambling. ("Thank you very much. Hey, thanks for the welcome! You make it believable! I tell you what, it's like visiting Jimmy Williams in Philadelphia. Hey, it's good to be--at least in my best comfort zone, man. The best place for me to be my whole career is surrounded by organized labor. And I know how to say 'union.' An old joke, Mr. President, you know, you go home with them that brung you to the dance. Well, you all brought me to the dance a long time ago. And it's time we start dancing, man.It's time we start dancing.") But, if his 40-odd minute speech was at times unfocused, it was also poignant, as when Biden spoke of parents having to take "that longest of walks up a short flight of stairs" to their child's room to explain that they had lost their job (which his own father was forced to do when Joe was a boy). And, when Biden offered a paean to his boss ("This is a stand-up guy; this is a guy who could have grown up in our neighborhoods; this is a guy who gets your back; this is a guy who's tough"), it was a moment both emotional and politically shrewd. These labor guys may have voted for Obama, but they don't really know him--not like they know Joe. Biden has been their man for decades, including during last year's election: The unions were feeling sorely neglected by Team Obama until Biden came on the scene. "He was like, 'Call me. Fly with me,'" recalls one campaign aide. "He was able to really keep people happy and keep the grumbling to a minimum."

At the Fontainebleau, Biden's implicit message was clear: Trust me. I don't like these fancy-pants bankers any more than you do. But bailing out their bacon is a necessary evil. And, as the veep plowed into the audience for an intense round of post-speech hugging, cheek-kissing, and back-slapping, you got the sense these union leaders were inclined to cut their friend some slack. After all, who could mistrust such a down-to-earth truth-teller?

Of course, there can be such a thing as too much truth. And here's where the administration's managing of its unmanageable vice president could get tricky. For starters, all the talk of Biden's openness and compulsive frankness can, now and again, make him sound a shade unbalanced--like the title character in the 1998 film Bulworth, who, as his Senate career hits the skids, starts speaking his mind about culture and politics, but only after contracting to have himself killed. Even as Biden's colleagues express great respect for him--especially his folksy ability to communicate with the unwashed masses--there is a fair amount of eye-rolling and chuckling about his lack of impulse control. This is, remember, a field in which excessive candor is typically regarded as a sign of hopeless naivete or mild insanity.

Even more problematic is the possibility that Biden will say something seriously damaging. Historically, most of his gaffes have been of the embarrassing-but-non-destructive variety. Most, but not all. Recall that this is a man who stepped on the rollout of his own presidential campaign by musing about how his thenopponent was "the first mainstream African American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy." He also invited a struggling McCain campaign to reopen discussion of Obama's foreign policy inexperience with his pre-election remarks about the new president being tested. Already, there is gentle speculation (even among some former Biden aides) as to what would happen if, say, the vice president indulged in off-the-cuff speculation about unemployment topping 10 percent or let leak his objections to one of the boss's foreign policy moves. Having pitched Biden as the ultimate truth-teller, the administration could have a mess on its hands. At that point, expect Team Obama to start swiftly recasting Biden as less a man of uncompromising principle than a Bulworth-esque goofball.

That, however, is a problem for another day. For now, the White House seems content to let the vice president charge onward as fearless in-house contrarian and truth-spouting ambassador to regular folks. Whether this plays out happily or ruinously remains to be seen. But that suspense is just part of the fun of watching Joe be Joe.

Michelle Cottle is a senior editor of The New Republic.