Muzzle Off, Biden Breaks His Record Silence


Barack Obama’s transition team has kept Joe Biden under wraps longer than any vice-president going back at least 20 years – longer even than Dan Quayle.

Biden’s first interview as vice president-elect airs Sunday on ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos” – 47 days after the election, setting a modern record. Democratic sources say the president-elect hasn’t been trying to muzzle Biden – who drew a public rebuff from Obama at least twice in the campaign for going off-message.

But Biden’s Sunday interview, as well as a one-on-one Monday with CNN’s Larry King, signal a new phase in the transition, one where Biden will take a more visible role, including working Capitol Hill to drum up support for an economic stimulus package before the inauguration.

“You’ll be hearing a lot more from him in the days and weeks to come,” said a Democratic official involved with the transition. 

“We had a very narrow window of time starting the day after the election to ramp up and get all the Cabinet positions filled,” the official said. “People still want to hear from the people in place for the next administration, and this is sort of an obvious progression.”

The newfound publicity also marks Biden’s latest evolution within a disciplined Obama operation that has watered down the public traits that made Joe Biden, Joe Biden – the long-winded speeches, the off-the-cuff quips, even the gaffes.

A hint of Biden and Obama’s contrasting styles was briefly on display last week, when the vice president-elect joined the president-elect to announce the energy team in Chicago. There was a bottleneck as the group exited the news conference because Biden was congratulating the nominees.

“Come on, Joe,” Obama said off mic, “Stop holding up...”

A look to vice presidents past suggests Obama’s team is rolling out Biden a lot more gingerly than others before him – despite his 36 years in the Senate and experience as a fixture on the Sunday morning shows.

Since the election, Biden has delivered prepared remarks a handful of times, only speaking at three of President-elect Obama’s 12 news conferences, and he has taken no questions from the press corps.

By contrast, Dick Cheney was briefing reporters and sat for round after round of television interviews in the weeks following the 2000 election, during the Florida recount. Cheney gave interviews to two Sunday morning news shows four days after he became vice president-elect when Al Gore conceded on Dec. 13, 2000.

Dan Quayle gave an interview to The New York Times that published November 20, just a couple weeks after the 1988 election. Al Gore did his first interview as vice president-elect with Bob Schieffer on CBS’s Face the Nation on Dec. 13, 1992.

Walter Mondale also gave a lengthy interview to the Times toward the end of December, noted Joel Goldstein, an expert on the vice presidency who teaches law at Saint Louis University.
Biden has certainly given the Obama transition reasons to be nervous.

During the campaign, Biden called raising taxes on the wealthy “patriotic.” He told CBS’s Katie Couric he thought the Obama ad attacking Sen. John McCain’s lack of computer skills was “terrible.” Biden informed an Ohio voter that he and Obama were against clean-coal technology – except that, Obama was for it. He said mega-insurer AIG should not receive a government bailout, when Obama had taken caution to say he wouldn’t “second-guess” the government and criticized McCain’s for having a knee-jerk anti-bailout reaction.

Obama had to step in on that one, saying on NBC’s “Today” show, “I think that, in that situation, I think Joe should have waited as well.”

Two weeks before the election, Obama again had to address an off-message comment from his running mate. Biden had said that within six months Obama would be tested by an international crisis, a remark the McCain campaign seized upon.

“I think that Joe sometimes engages in rhetorical flourishes,” Obama told reporters in Richmond, Virginia, “but I think that his core point was that the next administration is going to be tested regardless of who it is.”

Goldstein said keeping Biden in the background also is a way to shine the light brighter onto Obama, who despite his strong victory is still a figure many Americans are just getting to know.

“The conventional explanation is that Biden is gaffe prone and therefore they’ve muzzled him,” Goldstein said. But for Obama, “one of the raps on him was that he was inexperienced. And by really making him really the exclusive spokesperson, it does allow him to demonstrate early on, particularly when the country needs real leadership, that he’s up to providing it.”

Still, being number two in the Obama campaign and then the transition has made the public persona of Washington’s most loquacious, happy-go-lucky politician nearly unrecognizable.

The lack of interviews alone is an about face. Biden was the most frequent guest on the Sunday news shows – in just 10 months, from August 2007 to this past June, he appeared on the shows at least 13 times. His interview with Stephanopoulos will be his first Sunday news show junket since joining the Democratic ticket – and he is only on for half of the hour-long show.

Biden was the most frequent guest on the Sunday news shows – in just 10 months, from August 2007 to this past June, he appeared on the shows at least 13 times. His interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos will be his first Sunday news show visit since he appeared on NBC's "Meet the Press" on September 7, after becoming the Democratic vice presidential nominee -- and he is only on Stephanopolous’ “This Week” for half of the hour-long show.

Those who have observed Biden over the years have taken note of his adjustment to the Obama team’s temperament.

“I have been impressed with his ability to adapt to Obama's team and its disciplined, no-drama style,” Democratic strategist Paul Begala recently wrote in an email.

“I just think that, with Obama going on a much-deserved vacation to Hawaii, it's a good time for Biden to speak up. Notice that as Obama dials down, Biden dials up. They've got the teamwork down pat already,” Begala said.

Biden was reined in during the campaign, but the Obama team needed him out in public. At one point he was speaking from a teleprompter (the campaign said he was learning a new speech). Biden’s interactions with national media were cut short. He was said to give the reporters traveling with him less access than his competition, Gov. Sarah Palin.

“Anyone who has watched Joe Biden over 35 years in the Senate might have a little bit of trouble recognizing the guy who is running to be Barack Obama's Vice President,” a reporter wrote in TIME magazine last month. “Oh, yes, he looks like the same fellow. But traveling with Biden during this campaign has sometimes been like reporting on a politician packaged in shrink-wrap.”

That’s even more so during the transition, when the Obama team doesn’t need Biden to be visible like he was in the campaign. For more than three weeks after the election Biden was rarely seen and completely silent. Speculation arose that he was being marginalized. Those close to Biden have said that is not so.

When the vice president-elect spoke publicly for the first time on December 1, nearly a month after the election, it was as if the old Biden was back. There he was, the animated former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, full of facial expressions, crossed arms, deep, pensive frowns and broad smiles as Obama introduced his national security team. Biden laughed. He patted one of the nominees on the back. He praised the team with Biden-style vigor, beginning three sentences in a row with “Each member…”

The public saw even of Biden’s signature self that week – veering off prepared remarks, cracking jokes.

At a meeting of the nation’s governors earlier this month, Biden gave the public some of his signature freestyle when he substituted his prepared remarks for a self-effacing joke that that tied in Palin, who was seated in the audience.

Biden was supposed to say, “Governor Palin, your being here today sends a powerful message that when campaigns end, we are all partners in progress. Thank you.”

Instead he said, “I want to thank all of you for being here. And Governor Palin, I want to thank you particularly. I might -- I might point out, as I told you, we walked in, since the race is over no one pays attention to me at all. So I maybe will walk outside with you or something later and -- they'll say hello to me or something. Great to see you, governor, and thank you.”

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