By Nick DAngelo
Washington is broken. No compromise seems possible. Gridlock government is here to stay. Enter Joe Biden. It is no secret the Number Two has wanted to be president for the better part of three decades, and there is a strong historical context for it now. After a lifetime in politics, the vice president may be in the best position of his career to make a case for a legitimate candidacy.
He’s an expert dealmaker, a Senate kingpin and the true carrier of the Obama legacy. At the Golub House and Pi Sigma Alpha sponsored discussion on Inauguration Day last week, Political Science Professor Brad Hays noted that it has been Biden, not President Obama, who has been responsible for the gritty shepherding of the administration’s policies. The reason? Obama has few friends.
Spending less than three years in the U.S. Senate before announcing his intentions to seek the Democratic nomination, President Obama spent less cumulative time in that deliberative body than we will at Union. Tasked with bringing some sort of unity to Washington in 2009, the president failed. The last four years have been marked with intensifying partisan spars, which may be partially attributable to the president’s own lack of close relationships.
The vice president, who spent 36 years in the U.S. Senate before joining the Obama ticket, has carefully crafted the deals that have been made between Democrats and Republicans.
Senator Angus King, the independent freshman from Maine, has blamed the bitter partisanship in Washington on the lack of personal relationships between colleagues. Kept behind closed doors for the most part, the vice president is wheeled out as a secret weapon for the administration, aiding in healthcare talks, the Fiscal Cliff compromise and most recently as the chief standard bearer of the president’s gun control initiatives. His personal relationships with Senate and House colleagues have saved the agenda every time.
The precedent for presidents achieving big things based on personal courtship runs deep in modern political history. Lyndon B. Johnson is perhaps the best example of what warm relations can accomplish. Before becoming John F. Kennedy’s vice president in 1961—a position many felt was a demotion for Johnson—the Texan spent a decade as Senate Majority Leader. Political commentators have often noted the ironic similarities between the Kennedy-Johnson and Obama-Biden tickets: an empty vision on one end, bottomless experience on the other.
Johnson was known for his irascible and crude behavior, and for his shrewd ability to simply get things done. Mark Updegrove, author of Indomitable Will: LBJ in the Presidency, says that Johnson is one of the most underrated presidents of the 20th century, “based largely on a prodigious legislative legacy that came from a passion for social reform and his sheer ability to get things done.” Part of that ability was an intense legislative strategy that included leading a fractured Democrat Party. The 36th president humorously noted, “I only think about politics 18 hours a day.”
Ronald Reagan’s wit and personality was a trademark of his presidency—and his relationship with House Speaker Tip O’Neill, a Massachusetts Democrat, was another. Reagan and O’Neill were philosophical enemies, but their willingness to talk (often over Irish lunches) led to real tax reform and ensuring the sustainability of Social Security.
Unlike today’s “political relationships,” the Reagan-O’Neill dynamic was genuine. In a letter to Chris Matthews, a long-time aide to O’Neill, Reagan’s congressional liaison Max Friedersdorf told of the speaker’s visit to the hospital after the president’s assassination attempt,
“The speaker went to Reagan’s bedside, took hold of both his hands and knelt. ‘Thanks for coming, Tip,’ he heard the president whisper. The two recited together the 23rd Psalm. Tip rose, kissed Reagan on the forehead and said he didn’t want to keep him from his rest.”
Despite his goofiness and rude debating strategies, perhaps there is an aura of Biden that feels of an earlier, romanticized period of American politics. Referring to this phenomenon as “The Biden Moment,” the New York Times writes, “Mr. Biden is the one major Washington figure who consistently evokes a sense of thrill in what he is doing.”
The thought of a Biden presidency should send chills down the backs of most Americans, but the idea that personal relationships can truly break partisan gridlock is far from fantasy.