That comes after Pence last Thursday called Vice President-elect Kamala D. Harris to congratulate her, offering her Air Force Two to travel to the inauguration, a courtesy Biden extended to Pence four years ago. Most dramatically, Pence on Jan. 6 rejected efforts to disrupt Congress’s certification of the election results, making him the target of a violent mob as he formalized Biden’s win.
At a time when big factions of each party view the other as contemptible, Biden and Pence are haltingly cooperating to shore up the traditional exchange of power. It’s a dynamic helpful to both, as Biden works to enhance his legitimacy with Republicans and Pence seeks to regain credibility after the Trump years.
William Kristol, who was Vice President Dan Quayle’s chief of staff, said cooperating with Biden lets Pence shape his post-Trump political brand. “Is there a market for ‘civilized Trump acquiescence but not totally crazy’ conservatism? Probably,” Kristol said. “Playing that middle ground — civilized Trumpism with a civil face — isn’t a bad place for him to be, really.”
And for Biden, the Pence link lets him argue that he’s not naive to embrace bipartisanship. “He wants to say that Trump is an aberration both for the country and for the Republican Party,” Kristol said. “From the point of view of his governance, it is good for making that case.”
If the dynamic is helpful to both figures for the moment, it is also fraught. Many Democrats still despise Pence for enabling what they see as Trump’s destructiveness for four years and do not want Biden to help rehabilitate him. Pence, meanwhile, hopes to curry favor among the GOP base and potentially challenge Biden in 2024, so working with him now could carry a cost.
The two leaders have never been personally close. But as Trump refuses to acknowledge his election loss, their relationship has quietly become critical — and may be even more so in the coming months if Trump continues to rile up his followers by declaring that he was cheated.
Despite faithfully backing even Trump’s most incendiary actions for four years, Pence in recent days has taken on the traditional role, eschewed by Trump, of representing an outgoing administration, for example traveling to California and New York this weekend to bid farewell to military troops.
Four years ago it was Biden who was the outgoing vice president, welcoming Pence as he took office. He offered Pence help settling into the vice-presidential residence at the U.S. Naval Observatory, and he continued calling regularly to check on Pence, aides to both men said, until he ran into trouble with liberals for calling Pence “a decent guy” in early 2019.
They already knew each other by then, having overlapped in Congress for eight years before Biden became vice president. During the Obama administration, Pence joined the GOP House leadership and then became governor of Indiana.
The differences between the two men are evident. They’re separated in age by 17 years — Pence is 61, Biden 78. In Congress, they served in different chambers and different parties, battling on everything from the Iraq War to gay rights, putting them in the same newspaper articles but rarely in the same room.
But they shared courtesies over the years, stemming from a mutual respect for institutions, allies of both men said. During the departure of a president determined to shatter norms, that commonality is suddenly crucial.
“Pence is a gentleman, and he takes the office and the decorum seriously,” said Olivia Troye, a former aide to Pence who left the Trump administration over concerns about its handling of the pandemic and later appeared in an ad endorsing Biden. “At the inauguration, I have no doubt that he will be respectful. That is just the kind of man Pence is. He is not the kind of man who throws tantrums.”
Trump, in contrast, plans to skip the ceremony, making him the first outgoing president to boycott his successor’s inauguration since Andrew Johnson declined to attend President Ulysses S. Grant’s swearing-in in 1869. Instead, Trump is expected to fly to his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida on Wednesday morning.
Allies of both men now wonder whether Pence will step into the role traditionally occupied by former presidents, especially if Trump is a pariah in his post-presidency or actively works to undermine the Biden administration. That could mean, for example, joining with former presidents to support Biden in moments of national crises.
“I would love to see him fulfill that role, because I think he’s great at it,” said one former Pence aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a former boss. “It’s something that the country needs.”
One person close to Biden, who has not spoken to the president-elect about Pence, said the next few days will further clarify Trump’s standing. Any additional violence from pro-Trump agitators, for example, would make it even more attractive to lean on Pence, the person said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive matter.
Jen Psaki, Biden’s incoming White House press secretary, said Biden and Pence have not spoken in recent days. Devin O’Malley, a spokesman for Pence, declined to comment for this story.
Many Democrats are loath to give Pence credit after what they consider years of sycophancy to Trump.
“He can’t shed four years of intimate Trumpism by 30 seconds of doing some of the right things,” said Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-N. J), who contracted covid-19 after sheltering in the Capitol with Republican lawmakers refusing to wear masks. Citing Trump’s policies on race, coronavirus and other issues, she said of Pence, “He earned every bit of our skepticism and reluctance to trust him on any level.”
Transportation Secretary-designate Pete Buttigieg memorably summed up Democrats’ scorn for Pence when he was running for the Democratic nomination, calling him “a cheerleader for the porn star presidency.”
Amy Walter, national editor of the Cook Political Report, said the recent assault on the Capitol changed the landscape for the vice president. “When you have people running through the Capitol saying, ‘Hang Mike Pence,’ you don’t have a lot to lose in saying, ‘I’m going to work with the incoming administration,’ ” Walter said.
In presiding over the Jan. 6 joint session of Congress that certified the 2020 election, Pence reprised a role that Biden himself played four years ago. Biden had also faced a party with raw emotions, though not violent ones. As presiding officer, Biden swatted aside several objections and instructed the sergeant-at-arms to remove protesters from the gallery.
Democrats did not challenge the election results in 2016 as forcefully as many Republicans did this time, but they repeatedly noted that Trump had lost the popular vote and received help from Russia. In that tense atmosphere, Biden met with Pence multiple times, hosting Pence and his wife at a lunch in the Naval Observatory just one week after Hillary Clinton conceded.
Biden’s office issued a statement at the time saying the two had discussed their work in Congress and “their friendship dating back many years,” according to a newspaper account. (A Biden transition aide said the suggestion of a long friendship seemed overstated, though it had come from Biden’s vice-presidential office.)
One Biden aide recalled creating binders and briefing top Pence staffers in a “dutiful” attempt to ease the transition. A former Pence aide agreed, saying, “I do think Biden and his team did what they could to make a smooth transition for us.”
After Pence took office in January 2017, Biden regularly reached out, according to two people familiar with their conversations. “Biden did make a habit of staying in touch with Pence until, of course, primary politics made that untenable,” said a Pence confidant, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share internal talks.
The break came, according to this person, in early 2019 as Biden, then considering a presidential run, faced criticism from Democratic activists for calling Pence “a decent guy.” Biden made the comment during a speech at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, where he recounted how foreign leaders reacted poorly to a Pence speech because of their dislike for Trump.
Biden described Pence as “a guy who’s a decent guy — our vice president — who stood before this group of allies and leaders and said, ‘I’m here on behalf of President Trump,’ and there was dead silence. Dead silence,” Biden said.
Many Democrats were upset that Biden would characterize Pence as “decent,” given his hostility to gay rights and abortion. Biden had to soften the comment, saying, “There is nothing decent about being anti-LGBTQ rights, and that includes the vice president.”
Wednesday’s inauguration won’t be the first time that Pence has attended a ceremony celebrating Biden’s ascent. In 2009, Pence had just been elected to chair the House Republican Conference — making him the third-ranking House Republican — and he dined on seafood, pheasant and duck at a lunch at the Capitol following the swearing-in ceremony for President Barack Obama and Biden.
By the time Pence came to the House in 2001, Biden had already been a senator for nearly three decades. If Biden is gregarious, Pence is courtly; while Biden’s political persona is that of a friendly neighbor, Pence projects a courteous schoolteacher.
In late 2008, Pence described himself as leading a “cheerful opposition” to the Obama administration. That played out in budget battles, including a hard-fought showdown in 2011. Biden, negotiating with Congress on behalf of the Obama administration, made a proposal to cut about $33 billion in spending, but Pence opposed it as too small-bore.
“By picking a fight and winning this one small step toward fiscal discipline, the American people will see . . . that we can fight and we can win,” Pence told a tea party rally outside the Capitol.
Pence also criticized the Obama-Biden stance toward Iraq, which in 2010 included withdrawing troops. “To make their point, Mr. Obama and Mr. Biden even voted to deny necessary funding for our troops,” Pence charged in an op-ed in the Washington Times.
But especially by the standards of today’s rhetoric, Pence was not nasty or personal. In June 2010, he chastised fellow Republican Rep. Joe Barton (Tex.) for accusing the Obama administration of a “shakedown” of BP over the Gulf oil spill, saying in a statement with other Republican leaders that Barton’s comments were “wrong.”
And Pence was gracious in November 2010 when Biden traveled to Indiana. “Obviously, every Hoosier should welcome our president and vice president to the Hoosier state,” Pence said. “The more Indiana and our communities and our economy can be in the forefront of the thinking of this administration, we welcome it.”