By Anne E. Kornblut and Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, January 31, 2009
During his first major White House event since taking office, Vice President Biden on Friday announced that he will be leading a task force on issues affecting the middle class.
"This task force, I might add -- which coming out of the vice president's office will be a bit unique -- will be fully transparent," Biden said as President Obama stood by his side.
The audience in the East Room laughed and applauded. And unlike last week -- when Biden's off-the-cuff comment about U.S. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. drew a chilly reaction from Obama -- his dig at secretive former vice president Richard B. Cheney drew no rebuke.
The relationship between Biden and Obama has continued to develop over the pair's first weeks in office, aides say, with the two spending as much as four hours a day together. Biden has already been assigned two missions: heading the task force on middle-class issues, which will hold public hearings on matters including green jobs and retirement plans; and, next week, leading a delegation to an international security conference in Munich.
Biden made his first prominent White House appearance Friday with the launch of the Middle Class Working Families Task Force, billed as a "major initiative targeted at raising the living standards of middle-class, working families in America." Although the term "task force" is often coded language for a group that tackles an issue on which an administration hopes to postpone taking direct action, Obama administration officials said that this one was designed to have heft: In addition to Biden at the helm, it includes the secretaries of labor, health and human services, education and commerce, the directors of the National Economic Council, the Office of Management and Budget and the Domestic Policy Council, and the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers.
Officials said they did not know how big the task force's budget will be, but they stressed that it will deliver its conclusions directly to the president. Asked whether the task force will have real power, an administration official said the "teeth come from our ability to elevate these issues to the level of the White House." The task force is expected to recommend specific pieces of legislation and executive orders that Obama can issue, and in addition to publishing its findings on a new Web site, will hold public meetings, the first in Philadelphia on Feb. 27.
As vice president, Biden has not entirely curbed his habit of wandering off the script.
In an interview with CNBC on Thursday, Biden said of the Employee Free Choice Act, also known as "card check": "This year. This year, we hope. Our expectation is this year, this calendar year, that we will move, and hopefully with some bipartisan support, to dealing with this issue."
But in an interview with The Washington Post before his inauguration, Obama was less committal. Asked whether the bill, which would allow workers to organize more easily, would come to his desk within a year, Obama said, "Let's see what the legislative docket looks like."
Also in his Thursday interview, Biden expressed support for the Buy American proposal, which has ignited a debate internationally over the specter of rising U.S. protectionism. The proposals have particularly alarmed Europeans and Canadians, some of the largest foreign sources of imported steel in the United States, who have spoken out forcefully against the measures over the past two days.
"I don't view that as some of the pure free-traders view it, as a harbinger of protectionism," Biden told CNBC. "I don't buy that at all. So I think it's legitimate to have some portions of Buy American in it."
On Friday, at the lectern in the White House briefing room, press secretary Robert Gibbs said the White House is still reviewing the benefits of Buy American, which is part of the spending bill the House passed Wednesday. "The administration is reviewing that provision," he said. "It understands all of the concerns that have been heard, not only in this room but in newspapers produced both up north and down south. So let us undertake that review, and when we have something to announce as it relates to that review, I will be able to answer any number of your questions related to a review that has not yet currently been done."
But some outsiders were already reacting to Biden's comments.
"I know that countries around the world are expressing grave concern about some of these measures that go against not just the obligations of the United States but, frankly, the spirit of our G20 discussions," Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper told the House of Commons in Ottawa on Thursday, according to an official transcript of the meeting. "We will be having these discussions with our friends in the United States and we expect the United States to respect its international obligations."
The provision passed Wednesday by the House as part of the stimulus bill would mostly bar foreign steel and iron from the infrastructure projects laid out by the $819 billion economic package. A Senate version still being considered goes further, requiring, with few exceptions, that all stimulus-funded projects use only American-made equipment and goods.
Biden's comments were hailed by proponents of expanding Buy American provisions, while opponents took heart in indications that Obama may be less supportive. The measure has split U.S. corporate community, with steel, iron and textile manufactures and labor unions strongly supporting a broader Buy American provision. Large U.S. exporters, including General Electric and Caterpillar, have come out strongly against the measure, arguing that it could ignite strong retaliation against American companies overseas.
"Vice President Biden had it right," said Scott Paul, executive director of the District-based Alliance for American Manufacturing, a partnership of the United Steelworkers union, some domestic steel manufacturers and related companies. "Domestic sourcing is not protectionism. It is a long-standing policy of the U.S. government that is completely compliant with our international trade obligations."