It was a little after 11 a.m. on a Wednesday morning in mid-January, and Joe Biden was settling into a conference room on the second floor of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. In his role as head of the administration’s gun-control task force—which President Obama had asked him to lead after the massacre in Newtown—Biden had convened a group of gun-control advocates for a frank discussion about preventing future deaths. It was to be a personally delicate conversation, with multiple attendees having either lost loved ones to gun violence or themselves been victims.
The session, like all those his task force was holding with experts and advocates, was meant to be private, so after five minutes of introductory remarks, Biden booted the small gaggle of journalists from the room. He then zeroed in on the 17 men and women gathered around the long conference table, specifically reaching out to those who had endured tragedy by briefly relating his own story of loss. (Biden’s first wife and baby daughter died in a car crash in 1972.) “He did a good job making a connection with the survivors in the room and making them comfortable to speak about a delicate and sensitive occurrence in their lives,” says Hildy Saizow of Arizonans for Gun Safety. “He has grieved before, and that was important,” says William Kellibrew, head of an eponymous foundation aimed at breaking the cycles of violence and poverty. (At age 10, Kellibrew saw his mother and 12-year-old brother gunned down by his mom’s ex-boyfriend, who then forced Kellibrew to beg for his life.)
Biden voiced admiration for the victims and survivors working to turn their private nightmare toward the public good. And then the vice president—widely considered perhaps the most insufferably talkative person in Washington, the loosest loose cannon in a city full of them—did something completely out of step with his public persona: he basically shut up. Going around the table, Biden (with Attorney General Eric Holder at his right) had each person spend a few minutes sharing their story or recommending three action items they considered key to reducing gun violence. Participants were supposed to hold it to three minutes, recalls Kellibrew, “but you know some people are going to forget.” At no point, however, did Biden try to rush the process. Only once or twice did he break in with a question or quick word of encouragement. He mostly just sat there, briefing book in front of him, listening and taking notes. Lots of notes. Pages of notes. “He had this whole system with some things written in some places and some in others,” says Dan Gross, head of the Brady Campaign and Center to Prevent Gun Violence, who sat diagonally across the table from Biden. Gross says chuckling, “I started trying to figure out which page of notes I wanted to go on.”
Once everyone had finished, Biden flipped back through his notebook, responding to specific suggestions and stories. “There was no doubt among anyone in the room,” says Gross, “the extent to which he had been genuinely listening.”
Four years into the Obama administration, Biden remains one of its more curious creatures. Critics deride him as Obama’s court jester, his big mouth a perpetual source of heartburn, headaches, even national embarrassment. And yet, as longtime Obama counselor David Axelrod put it in a recent interview with Newsweek, Biden continues to be “the go-to guy when a difficult assignment comes up.” Disentangling the United States from Iraq; building early bridges to Chinese president-in-waiting Xi Jinping (a diplomatic assignment he pulled in 2011); hunkering down with Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell to avoid a fiscal-cliff dive; and, most recently, tackling gun control, item No. 1 on the president’s agenda—these do not seem obvious missions for an allegedly embarrassing windbag.
Why does Biden keep getting called up for such delicate duty? I recently spent some time canvassing Washington insiders in search of the key to this enduring mystery. One answer I heard repeatedly is that the Joe Biden who yuks it up on the campaign trail—or, say, tells new senator Heidi Heitkamp’s husband at her mock swearing-in, “Spread your legs, you’re going to be frisked”—is a far cry from the Joe Biden one often encounters away from the spotlight. The biggest difference may be the trait that was on full display at the gun-control meeting: for a guy who often can’t seem to stop running his mouth, Biden is surprisingly adept at using his ears. In Washington Diplomacy, a 2003 collection of political profiles, then-senators Richard Lugar and Chuck Hagel (the latter now Obama’s nominee for secretary of defense) both praised Biden’s listening chops. Aides past and present say this gives him an edge at the negotiating table. “He tries to hear what his counterpart is really saying and what their needed wins are—to understand what’s motivating and moving them,” says the VP’s former chief of staff Ron Klain. Jared Bernstein, the vice president’s former chief economist, puts it this way: “His reputation is of talking endlessly and going off script. But my experience when I would be briefing him was really of him sitting there listening and taking notes and asking pretty piercing questions.” “He looks you right in the eye,” gushed Kellibrew in the wake of the gun-control gathering. “You may believe that you are the only person in that room.”
Other aspects of Biden’s m.o. are similarly discordant with his public image. White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett describes Biden-behind-closed-doors as a man who is disciplined and meticulous. “He’s very precise, very direct, because in negotiations you don’t want anything to get lost in translation. I’ve been in the room when he reported back on the status of negotiations. He has an incredible memory. He can give the tick-tock of who said what and what tone was used.” And while Biden is generally viewed in Washington as a less cerebral complement to Obama—operating from the gut more than the head—those who’ve worked with him say the veep is fanatical about doing his homework. “Whenever he undertook a project for the White House you’d see teams of people going in and out of his office. He spent hours preparing,” recalls Axelrod, who used to work right down the hall. Heading into any type of meeting, he is an obsessive prepper. “His style is more to prepare orally than it is to take home big, thick briefing books,” says Klain, “so a Joe Biden prep session is like a very long moot-court kind of thing”—with the VP peppering aides with questions and follow-up questions, and getting way down in the weeds. “Sometimes,” Klain says, “it drives his staff a little crazy.”
Biden also makes a particular point of understanding the ideas animating the opposition. Tony Blinken—now the vice president’s national-security adviser, previously the Democratic staff director on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee—recalls how then-senator Biden kept close tabs on what neoconservatives were saying: “He would have Bill Kristol come in several times a year, and he loved giving people copies of Bob Kagan’s book Of Paradise and Power.” Bottom line, says Bernstein: “It’s very important to him to know a bit more than everybody else in the room about whatever we were dealing with.”
None of this is to suggest that the conventional picture of Biden is outright wrong. Incomplete, yes. But not wrong. After all, there’s no denying that Biden—in addition to being a good listener and a careful planner—is a world-class blabbermouth. But even this perceived flaw has in many ways served the VP well over the past four years. When the brand-new administration needed to show that it felt the country’s economic pain in January 2009, Biden was put in charge of a Middle Class Task Force. The reason? No one schmoozes the masses better than emotional, unscripted Joe. “Have you ever seen him with firefighters?” asks erstwhile Biden pollster Celinda Lake. “He tells them, ‘Oh, my God, you saved my life twice!’” (Once when they pried his two sons out of the wreck that killed his wife and daughter, and again when he suffered a near fatal brain aneurysm in 1988.) “You’ll see grown firefighters and him in tears when he talks to them.”
Within the White House, Biden’s storied outspokenness also comes in handy. One of the great assets the vice president brings is to function as the president’s “wing man,” observes an administration official. Insiders note that Biden’s style naturally lends itself to his being out front on internal deliberations and questioning the various players’ premises on an issue. “He is correctly viewed as someone who will forcefully speak his mind during meetings,” says Bernstein. During the administration’s Afghanistan review, Obama specifically asked Biden to push back on every assumption people brought to the table. This created space for the president to play things close to the vest and avoid letting his views skew the discussion.
And when it comes time to twist some congressional arms—as during the recent fiscal cliffhanger or the 2010 tax-extension deal—no one disputes that Biden is a vastly happier warrior than, for instance, his boss. “The willingness to mix things up politically is very much part of Biden’s personality and skill set. Less so on the president’s side,” says Bernstein. For Biden the negotiator, grinding out the devilish details is part of the fun. His former Senate chief of staff and friend of 40 years, Ted Kaufman, recalls Biden (at the time the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee) and Jesse Helms (the committee’s Republican chairman) inching toward an agreement on the 1997 chemical-weapons treaty. Remembers Kaufman: “He and Helms literally sat for hours and hours, negotiating not every line but every word.” “He’s energized by that process,” says Blinken. “It’s both an intellectual and a political challenge.”
Biden reaps one other, somewhat ironic benefit from his eccentric public persona: it radically lowers expectations. Of course, being thought of as a punchline has obvious political downsides, especially if Biden is contemplating a run for the Big Chair himself in 2016. But at least in his current job, low expectations can sometimes be helpful. The VP can say or do things that other pols—such as his 2012 vice-presidential rival Paul Ryan—could never get away with, as one Romney campaign staffer complained to me recently. Case in point: a meet-and-greet at a diner in Ohio, at which Biden was photographed getting cozy with a female motorcyclist who appeared to be sitting on his lap. “We would go to reporters and say, ‘Look at this, Ryan’s doing all this good stuff while Biden… is out there saying and doing things like cavorting with biker chicks in a diner.’ The universal response would be, ‘Ah, that’s just Joe being Joe.’ ”
Indeed, more than his listening skills or negotiating acumen or let-it-all-hang-out-there personality, Biden’s real gift may be his ability to wield these disparate attributes—sometimes in front of the cameras, often behind the scenes—while being widely regarded as a harmless, ineffectual goofball. Good ol’ Joe can take on key projects without drawing the same scrutiny—or engendering the same level of public suspicion and anxiety—as an official taken, well, more seriously. (“He is not the dark, brooding presence that Cheney was,” notes Axelrod.) It also allows the vice president to level sharp criticisms at the opposition without coming across as nasty. (Just ask Paul Ryan, whom Biden grinningly bludgeoned during their October debate.)
The resulting Biden dichotomy drives Republicans nuts. “He occupies this amazing space in Washington,” grumbles one senior GOP Hill aide, “where he is simultaneously responsible for vast areas of the federal government and yet is not expected to do much of anything well.” It may be one of the most remarkable political maneuvers anyone in this town has ever pulled off.