Howard Kurtz on Vice President Biden's image and role as White House spokesman

Despite gaffes, Vice President Biden has blossomed as President Obama's prime spokesman.
By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 10, 2010

A dozen top officials were gathered in Rahm Emanuel's White House office for the 7:30 a.m. staff meeting when talk turned to Dick Cheney's upcoming appearance on ABC's "This Week," where he would undoubtedly keep pummeling the administration's efforts against terrorism.

Senior adviser David Axelrod and press secretary Robert Gibbs concluded that they needed a "peer" who could punch back against Cheney: Vice President Biden.

On Saturday night, Feb. 13, Biden said in an interview pre-taped from the Olympics in Vancouver for NBC's "Meet the Press" that his predecessor is "not entitled to rewrite history. . . . He's factually, substantively wrong." The next morning, after his staff briefed him on Cheney's appearance, Biden said on CBS's "Face the Nation": "That's Dick Cheney. Thank God the last administration didn't listen to him at the end."

Whoever won the exchange, this much is clear: One year after a series of self-inflicted wounds, Biden's image has been transformed from bumbler to big blanking deal. His rehabilitation follows a concerted media strategy that has positioned him as the administration's top on-air spokesman, buttressed by a broader White House role and a stronger relationship with President Obama.

"There is a plain-spokenness and candor and bluntness to the way Biden presents himself that really cuts through the din out there," Axelrod says. "Sometimes that can create a little hiccup here or there. But the upside so outweighs the downside that I don't give it a second thought."

At a time when Obama is being panned -- even by some of his allies -- for failing to show sufficient emotion over the gulf oil spill, no one has ever accused Biden of restraining his feelings.

Ron Klain, Biden's chief of staff and a regular at the Emanuel morning meeting, says his boss has "always been someone who tells it like it is. The first reaction was 'Oh my God, each one of these things is a gaffe of some sort.' People have come to appreciate his style."

Klain concedes that "early on, when he said controversial things, we sometimes reacted defensively to that" -- and with good reason. When the swine flu scare was at its peak in the spring of 2009, Biden told Matt Lauer on NBC's "Today" show that people should avoid airplanes and subways: "I would tell members of my family, and I have, I wouldn't go anywhere in confined places now."

Biden was widely mocked for fostering panic. A Washington Post editorial accused him of having "foot-in-mouth disease." New York Times columnist Gail Collins called him "Washington's most compulsive talker." The incident came weeks after Biden, in pushing the president's stimulus package, said that no matter what the administration did "there's still a 30 percent chance we're going to get it wrong."

For an administration that prided itself on discipline, Biden was reinforcing his reputation for meandering off message. He was still making the transition from being a senator from Delaware, a post in which he could ramble at length and spoke only for himself, to being the president's top surrogate, a situation in which Klain says journalists "super-flyspecked" his words. These days, Biden makes fewer unforced errors and has been dispatched to the network morning shows after major events, such as the passage of the health-care law and the nomination of Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court.

With four decades of political experience, Biden, says Emanuel, "has a feel for how something's going to sell and what the gut reaction of the public is going to be. We make these decisions as a team."

A new approach

Joe Biden started talking as soon as he got to Charlie Rose's Manhattan studio.

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