By Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 11, 2009
The person in the White House most knowledgeable about Supreme Court nominations sits in the vice president's office.
With President Obama filling his first high court vacancy with the retirement of Justice David H. Souter, Vice President Biden finds himself regularly consulting with the president and fielding queries from the White House counsel and others for insights on the process.
"The president is basically taking advantage of my experiences by asking me nuanced questions about both individuals and timing," Biden said in an interview Friday. "We've gone through specific nominees, which we're burrowing in on."
A former head of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Biden chaired half a dozen Supreme Court confirmation hearings and voted on every sitting justice with the exception of John Paul Stevens. His feel for the personalities, complexities and sensitivities of the process has been forged during some of the most explosive confirmation battles, including those of Justice Clarence Thomas and Judge Robert H. Bork, the conservative legal scholar who was rejected by the Senate.
Although Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel is leading the search, which is being run through the White House counsel's office, Biden and the president have gone over lists of potential nominees, discussed the best ways to approach senators about a prospective pick, and talked about when it would be best to announce a choice.
For Biden, the consultative role is part of his expanding portfolio as Obama's all-purpose adviser, globe-trotting emissary and political handyman.
After a 36-year career of being his own boss in the Senate, Biden is adjusting to what it means to work for someone else, be it on the issue of the Supreme Court or foreign policy.
With ethnic tensions again flaring in the Balkans, Biden, who helped encourage the U.S. military intervention there in the 1990s, is being dispatched to the region later this month. Even before they were sworn in, Obama sent Biden to Iraq and Afghanistan to get a firsthand look at the war efforts.
He traveled to Europe more than a month ahead of Obama to signal the administration's intention to recalibrate its transatlantic relationships. Biden was also dispatched to Latin America on a scouting mission before Obama visited Mexico and attended a meeting of Caribbean and South American leaders in Trinidad and Tobago last month.
"He has traveled more than any vice president" at the start of an administration, said Ronald A. Klain, Biden's chief of staff. "Having a vice president who can do that kind of work has been a large asset to the president."
When longtime Republican Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.) announced late last month that he would become a Democrat, Biden was credited with playing a lead role in coaxing his old friend into crossing over.
Biden also has been put in charge of the administration's $787 billion economic stimulus plan. He has traveled the country to tout the legislation's merits, rubbed shoulders with union members, met with educators and talked to local officials. Biden also heads the president's "middle-class" task force, which is looking at ways to reverse economic trends that in the past eight years have left many workers struggling as the costs of health care, education and other essentials have risen faster than their incomes.
"My greatest value to the president is that I have a lot of experience. I have been to a lot of places before, and I don't just mean geographically," Biden said. "He never has to worry whether or not I'm going to tell him something."
Unlike his predecessor, Richard B. Cheney, Biden has not attempted to develop his own power center in the White House. Instead, he and his staff consult closely with the president's team, attending daily meetings with their West Wing colleagues. He also hosts a weekly breakfast with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, at which they plot foreign policy strategy.
Biden has amassed substantial influence despite a well-earned reputation for verbal gaffes, a tendency that is sharply at odds with the cool, controlled style of the president. The vice president veered far off message when asked in a recent television interview what advice he would give a family member planning to travel to Mexico, the source of the global swine flu outbreak.
"I wouldn't go anywhere in confined places now," Biden said, contradicting a message of calm caution carefully put forth by Obama. "It's not going to Mexico, you're in a confined aircraft when one person sneezes it goes all the way through the aircraft. That's me. I would not be, at this point, if they had another way of transportation, suggesting they ride the subway."
The episode offered more evidence for an observation frequently made about the vice president: that his enthusiasm and plain-spoken candor are simultaneously his greatest political strengths and his greatest weaknesses.
"The beginning of wisdom about Joe Biden is that he is an enthusiast," said Ross Baker, a Rutgers University political scientist who has worked in the Senate. "The flip side of that enthusiasm is that he sometimes gets carried away. With all the goodwill and ebullience, you're buying a certain potential for indiscretion."
So far, Obama seems willing to take the bad with the good.
With the White House working with a list of fewer than 10 potential court candidates, many observers expect Obama to announce his choice by June.
"I think we have plenty of time, meaning between now and early summer," Biden said, adding it would be best to have the justice confirmed before the Senate's August recess. "Our expectation is that we may be able to move more rapidly."
Given the strong Democratic majority in the Senate, many conservative activists have conceded that they would have a hard time derailing most any candidate Obama nominates. Still, Biden said, it would be best to avoid an ideological fight by picking a justice with stellar credentials, a mainstream legal view and "an understanding that decisions on the close calls affect individuals."
"When you pick someone in that genre, there usually is not a holy war," Biden said. "That's the inclination of the president. So I expect things to go rather smoothly."
Staff writer Scott Wilson contributed to this report.