60 Minutes Vice President Joe Biden, April 26, 2009
The first 100 days of an administration is when the first report cards come out. The president is facing a barrage of tough issues and is getting some good marks - and some criticism. What about the vice president? Well, he's still "regular Joe," a man deepened by tragedy when his first wife and baby daughter were killed in a car crash in 1972. He's been a senator for 36 years, chairman of two powerful committees, and as he told 60 Minutes correspondent Lesley Stahl, he may have more experience than any vice president ever. And yet he has a reputation as a gaffe-machine - a loose cannon who simply talks too much. Stahl asked if he was worried about doing an interview for 60 Minutes. "It's not you I'm afraid of," Biden replied. "It's me!!" But everyone 60 Minutesspoke to at the White House said they don't want him to change.
"The president and the entire team close to him has encouraged me not to try all of a sudden to be a different Joe Biden than I was for the past 36 years," Biden told Stahl. "Sometimes maybe I shouldn't be as straightforward as I am. …I'm not sitting on it. I decided I just - it's who I am." After trying to muzzle the man often ridiculed for his loose lips, the White House now calls his - shall we say exuberance - an asset. They call it "truth telling." And they see his talent for connecting as a real advantage - his "hot" personality, versus Obama's cooler approach. "You seem to be not just yin and yang, but diametric opposites. He's so disciplined. This is not you," Stahl remarked. "He's crisp. This is not you." "There's a lot of constituencies out there that want the time. Want to hear more than they, as you would say, the crisp answer. They want somebody who's going to take the time and have the time to listen to them," Biden replied.
"And that's you?" Stahl asked. "That's basically my job. I like engaging with people," the vice president replied. Call him "schmoozer in chief." And, as he told an audience in St. Louis, he loves being vice president: "When I was a United States Senator and a powerful chairman, I'd have to plead," Biden joked. "Now I can just call a cabinet meeting. They all show up. (laughs) You know what I mean?" But at the end of the day, he is the number two and the question of how he's dealing with the transition from powerful senator to the guy standing behind a much younger president has become a Washington parlor question. He admitted to Stahl that after 36 years being his own boss, the first 100 days have been a period of adjustment. "Well, it's like, for example, I would ordinarily have phoned the captain [of the Maersk Alabama] as Chairman of Foreign Relations Committee. Well, it’s not appropriate for me to do that. I mean, the president did it right away. Do you follow me?" Biden replied. "And so I mean, it's little things. They're really not big things, but little things." He hasn't had much time to worry about the "little things" because there've been so many big things: from Afghanistan to bailouts to torture memos. Which means, he told Stahl, he's been spending a lot of time with the president. "When Mr. Obama asked you to be his vice presidential running mate, there was kind of a deal - a conversation. You wanted to be, I’ve heard the expression, 'uber-advisor.' You wanted to be involved in all the issues. And be the last person in the room when he makes a decision. Has that worked?" Stahl asked. "Well, the first part is too sophisticated for me," Biden joked. But he told Stahl that overall it has worked out. "On every major decision the president has actually sought my advice," he said. The president wants everyone to know - his team, and us - in case there's any question, that he thinks he made a brilliant choice. Asked what kind of impact Vice President Biden has, President Barack Obama told Stahl, "He's pretty fearless in offering his opinions. He's oftentimes willing to make the
contrarian argument. The one that runs against conventional wisdom. And really forces people to think and defend their positions, and that ends up being very valuable for me."
Asked if Biden argues with him, Obama said, "You know, Joe's not afraid to tell me what he thinks. And that’s exactly what I need, and exactly what I want." (CBS) With so much on his plate, the president has made his number two the stimulus cop: the assignment is to see that the $787 billion in stimulus money is spent wisely. Biden is on the phone several hours a week with mayors and governors, making sure they follow the rules. "It does seem like the administration is saying we can do it all. The spending; not have taxes - all of that. Maybe you’re not completely leveling with us, that your assumptions are too rosy. This was just what the administration was not supposed to be doing," Stahl remarked. "What we have done is we have taken what are the consensus estimates on the low side of what we think is going to happen," Biden replied. "But I keep hearing we're going to have high, really high unemployment until the end of 2010," Stahl remarked. "Look, it took us a long time to get into this, and it's going to take us a while to get out," Biden replied. "That's why we're investing the money we're investing to this recovery package." "Had we not done that, things would be a great deal worse," he added. "Is this the right time to fix all of that, or is the economy in such bad shape that the deficits are going to get out of hand in the future. That's the fear. There is a fear," Stahl pointed out. "That's right. It's a legitimate fear," Biden acknowledged. "There's only one way to keep it from happening. Reduce our energy cost and reduce our health care cost. "The only question is when. That's the only question," Stahl said. "Now, now," Biden said.
All his expertise doesn't mean the White House rests easy when the vice president is holding forth - his penchant for bloopers still make them nervous. The president himself once called them "Joe’s rhetorical flourishes," like this one: "If we do everything right, if we do it with absolute certainty, there’s still a 30 percent chance we're going to get it wrong," the vice president once said. "The gaffes. Have you and the president had a heart to heart about some of those. I mean, he's actually shown some displeasure with you in public," Stahl said. "That's true," Biden agreed. "That had happened in the past, and quite frankly, the president said to me he was sorry it was taken out of context: his body language in one of those cases." His body language was evident when Mr. Biden made fun of the chief justice's flubbing at the inaugural swearing in of the president. "Do you talk it out, the two of you afterwards? Have a heart-to-heart? Take him to the woodshed? Are you candid enough with each other?" Stahl asked President Obama. "We are actually. And if, you know, Joe was off message on a particular day, usually I don't have to bring it up. He's the first one to come to me and say, 'You know what? I'm not sure that's exactly how we want to position ourselves.' The flip side is: if I'm off message, he's not going to be bashful about saying, 'You know, Mr. President, I think… we might want to steer more in that direction,'" Obama explained. "Does it make me susceptible to being a target? Yeah, it does," Biden told Stahl. "A little bit of lampooning kind of stuff," Stahl remarked. "Much of the ridicule of me is well deserved," Biden acknowledged. The vice president gets especially high marks as a team player. For those who predicted he and the secretary of state would be rivals, they appear to be mistaken - in fact, they meet for a policy breakfast every Tuesday. "He's been at the highest levels of American foreign policy decision making. And we all listen to him," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told Stahl. (CBS) He prides himself in knowing how the world works. So what about the criticism that the president's been too chummy with some of our adversaries?
"The Republicans are hammering on this handshake that the president had with Hugo Chavez. And whether it conveyed some kind of lack of toughness on his part," Stahl remarked. "Do you think Hugo Chavez or anyone else in the world thinks Barack Obama shaking hands with a man who's invited to a conference with him, who's president of another country, who walks up to him and shakes his hand… Do you think they think that's weakness? I think it expresses confidence," Biden replied. "And there's something else bubbling. This is a direct quote from Dick Cheney saying that quote he finds it 'disturbing that Mr. Obama apologizes all the time.' Dick Cheney said, quote: 'Our enemies will be quick to take advantage of a situation if they think they’re dealing with - quote - 'a weak president,'" Stahl said. "Look, I don't know anybody in the world who thinks this guy's a weak president, number one. Number two, I don't know what he's apologized for. For example, saying we should close Guantanamo is not an apology. That's not an apology saying we fundamental-we don't engage in torture. He didn't go out and say, 'Oh, my God, the fact that the last administration did these things - we're so sorry.' He did say - he just said, 'We don't do torture any more,'" Biden argued. Stahl joined him on a trip to Whiteman Air Force base in Missouri last week. Mr. Biden feels a special bond with military audiences. His own son Beau, a captain in the Army National Guard, was sent to Iraq in November, when his unit was called up. Flying back to Washington on Air Force Two, Stahl asked him if he worries about his son's safety. "I’ve ridden home with too many dead young men and women in caskets and it’s just impossible to not associate with that. I mean, you think as a parent, 'God forbid: how would I respond?'" Biden said. "But do you ever say, 'My God, my own son is there.' You must," Stahl remarked. "Well, I don't know how to answer that," Biden said. "The way I deal with it, I don’t think about it that way. I'm proud of him. He's a good man." He still calls both his sons, Hunter, 39, and Beau, now 40, “honey.” Asked how they feel about the nickname, Biden told Stahl, "I think they feel good about
it. When we see each other we hug and kiss. After my wife and daughter were killed, I don't know quite what happened, but I found myself being maybe more physically embracive of my little boys." He's physically embracive with everybody, including total strangers. He hugs, he slaps, he punches, grabs, holds, noses in, and bumps foreheads. Children are a special magnet: he and his wife Jill worked them like a rope line of voters on a campaign. And he cannot resist speechifying, even when his audience is made up of six year olds. (CBS) The Bidens have been married for 31 years. In addition to the two sons, they have a daughter, Ashley. They've lived a modest life in Delaware; Mrs. Biden, a professor of English, still teaches at a community college. Jill Biden still comes home and grades papers. "I'm no different than most American women who are raising children and working," she told Stahl. They both seem to be getting a kick out of living in a big mansion now. "Joe Biden was always one of the poorest senators. Every time the tax returns came out: "Joe Biden, one of the poorest…," Stahl pointed out. "That hasn't changed," Biden acknowledged. "Now he's the poorest vice president," Biden's wife Jill joked, laughing. The vice president likes to talk about his working class roots as he goes around the country telling average Americans how all the stimulus money is going to help them. But while talking about stimulus spending, Stahl pointed out the deficit. "We inherited a yearly debt of $1.2 trillion. We’re going to cut that debt we inherited in half within the first four years," Biden argued. "Oh come on, Stahl said." "No, we are," Biden said. "With all the spending?" Stahl asked. "With all the spending," Biden replied.
"And no taxes on any part of the middle class," Stahl remarked. "No additional taxes. The tax cuts are for the middle class," he said. When Stahl said he was "rosy," Biden replied, "I think I’m realistic." So is the vice president really unleashed? There is a sense he's trying to find a balance between watching his tongue - he hasn’t made a gaffe since early February - and just being "Joe."
Video of 60 Minutes interview with Vice President Joe Biden