What Biden’s deal says about Obama

Jena McGregor
Columnist January 2, 2013

Vice President Biden’s role in the “fiscal cliff” negotiations is getting a lot of attention.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) called him his “dance partner,” leading some to say Biden “upstaged” Obama by pulling together a deal the president could not. His last-minute involvement in the fiscal cliff deal is another sign Biden may be, in the words of one commentator, “the most influential vice president ever.”  Others even went so far as to call the deal “the first day of the Biden presidency,” calling the vice president “more useful, realistic and constructive in a budget crisis than his boss.”

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

The president may not have been able to strike a deal to avert the fiscal cliff with House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio). But the implication that Obama’s failure to clinch the agreement himself is a sign of bad leadership could not be more wrong.

What would be bad leadership is if Obama tried to step in and manage the deal himself when McConnell, after reaching an impasse with Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), specifically asked to negotiate with Biden. There are many leaders whose egos could not survive the hit from seeing their second-in-command get all the credit for a deal. Others wouldn’t be willing to acknowledge it themselves, as Obama did in remarks late Tuesday night: “I want to thank the work that was done by my extraordinary vice president, Joe Biden,” the president said.

Good leaders build teams of people around them who have complimentary skill sets they lack and use them without hesitation when the moment calls for it. Obama has shown time and time again that he is willing to deploy Biden’s experience in the Senate, from the negotiations over the extension of the Bush-era tax cuts in 2010 to the debt ceiling discussions in 2011. Obama could be trying to give Biden, who may run for the top office himself in 2016, an opportunity to shine. Or, he could simply be a poor negotiator unable to make Americans face unavoidable realities. Either way, he had the sense to see that Biden’s long-standing relationship with McConnell had the best chance of a successful outcome, and didn’t stand in its way.

Would it have been better if the president hadn’t turned to a campaign-style rally with a “joking mood” on the very day he was trying to get Republicans on board for a bipartisan deal? Of course. Were there ways he could have managed the negotiations with Boehner better? Sure. Is the deal Biden hammered out with McConnell, which delays major spending cuts and likely means more 11th-hour deal making while the country sits perched on another economic cliff, really what we expect from our leaders? Hardly.

Still, the deal is a reminder that experience, relationships and the trust of one’s colleagues — all qualities our leaders increasingly lack — are the keys to some kind of progress, however small, on the challenges this country faces. As more and more voters cheer Washington outsiders who have never worked on crafting legislation before, much less forged the relationships that exist after decades of working together, there are fewer and fewer ties that bind the people we’re relying on to solve our problems. Obama may not get credit for putting together a “grand bargain” or even hammering out a less attractive deal like the one we finally got. But he should get credit for being willing to step back and let his No. 2’s skills go to work when they were most needed.

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

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