Great leadership profiles of Joe Biden


U.S. Vice President Joe Biden addresses the final session of the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina. (ERIC THAYER/REUTERS)
October 11, 2012

Jena McGregor is a columnist for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.

It’s nearly impossible to read anything about Vice President Joe Biden that doesn’t focus on his loquaciousness, his old-fashioned politicking, his warm and high-touch approach on the campaign trail, and his propensity for saying things he shouldn’t. It’s as if the world’s political editors joined together and made a rule that no profile of Joe Biden should ever be published that doesn’t include the adjective “gaffe-prone.”

This is partly because, of course, Biden is loquacious, he is always ready with a smile and a hand on the arm, and he is, well, known for stepping in it. From saying that he supports same-sex marriage before President Obama had made his views clear to his recent remarks that the middle class has been “buried” over the past four years, the press—and Republicans—have a field day with the downside of Biden’s off-script nature.

But there is more to Biden’s style and the role he’s played as vice president than being the garrulous uncle of the current White House. He hasn’t granted many interviews lately—ABC News reports the veep’s last national television interview was in May, while his opponent in Thursday night’s debate, Paul Ryan, has done something close to 200 such interviews since getting Mitt Romney’s running-mate nod in August. Still, there are plenty of great must-reads that give clues to Biden’s leadership style as vice president.

Biden’s Brief,” by Ryan Lizza in The New Yorker

In this 2008 profile, Lizza recounts how Barack Obama convinced Joe Biden to be vetted as his vice president, giving a clue to what kind of leadership role Biden wanted to play in the White House. During the vetting process, he insisted on getting several hours of Obama’s time to sketch out his responsibilities, said he had no interest in playing a role “reorganizing government” and made it clear he wanted to play a powerful advisory role to the president. As Biden recounted to Lizza, “I said, ‘Barack, look, if you’re going to ask me to do this, please don’t ask me for any reason other than that you respect my judgment. If you're asking me to join you to help govern, and not just help you get elected, then I’m interested. If you’re asking me to help you get elected, I can do that other ways, but I don’t want to be a Vice-President who is not part of the major decisions you make.’ “

“After Cheney,” by James Traub in The New York Times Magazine

Traub’s lengthy piece from 2009 is as much a policy feature as it is a vice presidential profile, examining the role of Biden, the former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in the administration’s foreign policy, and comparing it to his predecessor, Dick Cheney. And yet, it gives keen insights into the relationship between the Obama and Biden. (“’Everyone wants this to be some kind of buddy movie — ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,’” one anonymous senior White House official  told Trab. ”Presidents and vice presidents are never close friends. It’s a working relationship; it’s more like the C.E.O. and the chairman of the board.”) It also provides a look into Biden’s own view of his role, as the one willing to ask tough questions or to “upset the apple cart” on Obama’s insular team. Traub characterizes this well when he writes that “an administration full of youthful true believers, enraptured with their heroic leader, needs a skeptic and a scold,” and that Biden’s “happy warrior” role is likely to continue “as long as he has apple carts to overturn.”

The Salesman,” by Mark Bowden in The Atlantic

Bowden’s 9,640-word opus, written in 2010, is not for the faint of heart. But it is by far one of the most in-depth and well-written looks at Biden and does a masterful job of illustrating how he makes that which is often seen as his Achilles’ heel—his verbosity and tendency for gaffes—work to his advantage. Bowden crystallizes these supposed weaknesses into an identifying strength: “His prodigious loquacity is not about vanity, as his critics claim—although Biden is as vain as the next successful man. It’s about selling. It’s about the deal.” Bowden has perhaps one of the best descriptions of Joe’s warmth on the trail (“Joe Biden doesn’t just meet you. He engulfs you.”). And he adds: “All good salesmen know that the key to closing the deal is trust. You need to hold your customers’ attention and convince them that you are just like them. Biden is eager to share his own experiences, because trustworthy men have nothing to hide. He takes you immediately into his confidence—this is often what gets him in trouble with reporters—so that you will offer him your own.”

More from On Leadership:

Must-read leadership profiles of Paul Ryan

President Obama’s bad debate advice

Exhaustion is not a status symbol

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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