WASHINGTON – Vice President-elect Joe Biden was all smiles Thursday when he paid a courtesy call the man he will succeed, Dick Cheney. But he has insisted he wants to be nothing like him. Biden has called Cheney "the most dangerous vice president we've had probably in American history" and said he couldn't name a single good thing Cheney had done.
But even if he won't acknowledge any similarities, there's one way that Biden wants to be like Cheney — a strong partner in governing the country.
Biden is proving to be a hands-on No. 2 to President-elect Barack Obama. He is carving out his own niche, specializing in foreign affairs, his area of expertise for decades in the Senate, and sticking close to Obama.
Past vice presidents have often been relegated to ceremonial roles, without major input on daily decisions. But the last two vice presidents, Cheney and Al Gore, have been extraordinarily involved and insisted on private weekly lunches with their bosses.
Biden has said he told Obama, before accepting the running mate slot, that he wouldn't want a peripheral assignment like reorganizing government, which Gore took on, along with other tasks. In a New Yorker interview last month, he said he told Obama: "I don't want to be a vice president who is not part of the major decisions you make."
Biden will certainly have a special interest in the Iraq war, with his son scheduled to deploy there this month.
So far, Biden has been working closely with Obama. He has been in almost all the president-elect's meetings at his new government office space in Chicago and has been dispatched to make calls to several foreign leaders.
Biden was asked to smooth over a miscommunication following Obama's phone call with Polish President Lech Kaczynski last week. Kaczynski issued a statement saying Obama vowed to continue with President Bush's missile defense project. But Obama's advisers denied it, and the Polish foreign minister later said it was a misinterpretation on their part.
Biden called Kaczynski a couple of days later to explain that the Obama administration will assess the program before deciding whether to stick with it.
He also spoke this week with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Jordan's King Abdullah II, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Brown's predecessor, Tony Blair. And he spoke with Israel's foreign and defense ministers, along with Israeli opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, according to a statement issued Thursday by the Obama transition team.
Biden has said he'd like to use his 36 years of experience in the Senate, including leadership of the Judiciary and Foreign Relations committees, to help push Obama's agenda in Congress. It's longtime insider's experience that Obama lacks and a role that has not been Cheney's focus.
On the campaign trail, Biden often lambasted Cheney. In a debate with Republican rival Sara Palin, Biden objected to Cheney's claim that the vice presidency is part of the legislative branch because of its largely ceremonial role as Senate president.
"The idea he's part of the legislative branch is a bizarre notion invented by Cheney to aggrandize the power of a unitary executive, and look where it has gotten us," Biden said. "It has been very dangerous."
"But the thing I think he's really, really has done: I think he's done more harm than any other single high elected official in memory in terms of shredding the Constitution," Biden said. "You know, condoning torture, pushing torture as a policy, this idea of a unitary executive, meaning the Congress and the people have no power in a time of war, and the president controls everything. I don't have any animus toward Dick Cheney, but I really do think his attitude about the Constitution and the prosecution of this war has been absolutely wrong."
Despite the harsh words during the campaign, the Cheneys invited Biden and his wife, Jill, to the Naval Observatory, which is the official vice president's residence, for an hourlong tour Thursday. Biden said he had been in some of the first-floor rooms before. But it was his first look at much of the mansion that will be his first Washington residence after decades of commuting by train from Delaware.
Both couples were on their best behavior, at least during their greetings on the porch that reporters observed.
"Mr. Vice President, how are you doing," Biden said. Cheney replied, "Joe, how are you?" and offered his congratulations.
As reporters left afterward, a Secret Service agent could be heard telling another agent standing guard for the famously reclusive vice president, "I haven't seen press here since I've been here."
A statement from Cheney's office said the couple "enjoyed giving the Bidens a tour of the residence and wished them well as they make it their home in January."