Ordinary Joe: A new HBO series satirises President Obama's right-hand man

No one notices the Vice President, right? Maybe they should: Joe Biden is as gaffe-prone as Dubya, is the subject of wild rumours, and yet remains Obama's right-hand man. Now there's even an HBO series satirising his job – which is one of the weirdest in politics, says David Usborne.

No self-respecting political reporter in Washington, you would imagine, would ask to be attached to the Democrat 'B' team in this election year, as in second fiddle or Biden. Joe Biden, the Vice President, rides a mere Boeing 757 instead of the jumbo that is Air Force One – though they do have the presidential M&M's on board – and has a profile that at first sight seems as grey as the carefully combed strands that cling to his dome.

Not being taken quite seriously goes with the job. All we remember of Dan Quayle, who was a heartbeat away when George HW Bush trod the White House carpets, was that he couldn't spell potato. Even Al Gore, who served two terms as 'Veep' (Vice President) to Bill Clinton and came within a few hanging chads of winning the presidency himself in 2000, struggles sometimes for respect, possibly because of that business of having invented the internet.

When he was first approached by President Barack Obama in mid-2008 about being his running mate, Biden was entirely reluctant, according to his friends now, reasoning that he would have less of a voice as Vice President – should the ticket win – than he would staying in the US Senate where he had served since 1973. It looked like an express trip to obscurity to him, a condition that didn't appeal to a man so famously garrulous.

Other factors threatened to make it worse than normal. The outgoing Vice President was Dick Cheney, who managed not just to be a presence in Washington but one that nearly everyone feared. It was impossible to be neutral about Cheney. The Iraq war, torture, Guantanamo, he defended them all. Neocons loved him, the rest of us not so much.

Once he joined it, Biden found that the campaign was even lonelier than he had feared. Barack Obama, the first black man with a shot at the White House, was a world superstar. Worse, his immediate opponent and running mate on the Republican ticket was Sarah Palin. A Pew Research Centre study found that in one week in September 2008 when the campaign was first in high gear, Biden received a mere 5 per cent of national coverage. His debate with Palin wasn't an astounding success either. The pundits said he had won it, but not overwhelmingly.

Biden, it is true, was known as a windbag with a skill for pomposity. Even so, he had come to enjoy a certain status in Washington. He had himself run for president in 1988 – that campaign was derailed when he was accused of stealing lines from a speech given by Neil Kinnock, the former British Labour leader – and again in 2008, though he had dropped out shortly before the New Hampshire primary. Accepting the Veep slot from his erstwhile rival risked surrendering a self-image as Capitol Hill sage for one as Pennsylvania Avenue lackey. He hadn't had a boss in decades. Even worse was the fear that, like vice presidents before him, he might become a new national joke.

That there is ample comic potential in the office has been evidenced just this spring by the new HBO series Veep, a fun-poking spoof starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus (formerly of Seinfeld) as hapless Vice President Selina Meyers. The first season – a second has just been ordered by the cable channel happy with ratings so far – will debut in the UK next month. The Meyers character even resembles Biden, in so far as she too ran for the presidency itself before being knocked out of the primary contests by a former opponent who has become her boss. At least one aide to Biden admitted to having watched the first episode. "It was pretty funny," she ventured, if sheepishly.

A cross between The Office and Yes, Minister, the BBC sitcom set in the corridors of Whitehall of 20 years ago, Veep does to the vice presidency what the West Wing did to the presidency – but in reverse. It makes us take it less seriously, portraying the goings-on in the offices of the Vice President in the Old Executive Building next door to the White House as the stuff of farce. Meyers is surrounded by aides who are idiots and spends her every day crawling on her belly to the Oval Office and to Capitol Hill.

The particular danger for Biden – and herein one of two reasons why journalists actually relish covering him – is that he has a propensity to create laughs of his own, by stepping in it. The catalogue of Biden bishes is long. Two years ago, he startled a high-level guest – Brian Cowen, the then Prime Minister of Ireland – with a well-meant remark about his deceased mother. "God rest her soul," he said. Reading Cowen's face, he realised his error. "Wait, your mum's still – your mum's still alive." Then there was the occasion when he acknowledged a Missouri state senator, Chuck Graham, at a rally. "Stand up, Chuck, let 'em see ya," he said. Chuck is wheelchair-bound.

Biden's verbal missteps come in various forms. First, there is the entirely unintentional gaffe. Last month, this reporter was as bamboozled as anyone when, during a foreign policy speech at New York University, Biden, defending Obama's Iran policy, stepped right in it recalling the Theodore Roosevelt edict, "Speak softly and carry a big stick". Biden paused before saying with emphasis: "The President has a big stick". The audience tittered yet he persevered, "I promise you". The remark, with its racial-erotic implication, caused a Twitter tempest and a cornucopia of late-night talk show jokes. "While discussing Iran, Joe Biden said that Obama 'has a big stick'. In related news, Biden is now banned from the WH steam room," the comedian Jimmy Fallon averred. You might almost have wondered if whoever had authored the speech was angling for a job as a writer on Veep.

There are the jokes he makes on purpose that are cute – he recently paid tribute at a national teachers' conference to his wife, Jill Biden, a professor of English with, "I've been sleeping with a teacher for a long time. But it's always been the same teacher" – and those that misfire, as when he surveyed an audience of Turkish-American and Azerbaijani-American campaign donors earlier this year and saw them glazing over. "You all look dull as hell," Biden blurted. "The dullest audience I have ever spoken to. Just sitting there, staring at me. Pretend you like me!"

That then candidate Barack Obama chose Mr Biden as his running mate came as a surprise to some precisely because of his reputation for loose lips. Once they were campaigning on the same ticket in the autumn of 2008, at least one moment of strain between the men surfaced after Biden commented that if elected, Mr Obama would surely be "tested" by a foreign power quickly after taking office. The Obama camp was reported to be livid. Before long, erroneous rumours were circulating that Mr Biden would step aside and the number two slot would be given instead to Hillary Clinton, who was later, of course, to be appointed Secretary of State.

That morsel of chatter – and it happened again at the end of last year with another burst of unsubstantiated speculation that Mr Obama was poised to dump Mr Biden in favour of taking Hillary as his running mate in 2012 and giving him the State Department in return – was a symptom of a lingering misapprehension about the former senator from Delaware. And herein lies the second reason why reporters are happy to be on the Biden beat. There is nothing remotely lightweight about him. As for his role in the Obama administration, he is at the heart of it.

"I suppose you could say Cheney's visibility is not necessarily something that anybody would want to emulate, Biden's successes are certainly those that you would," argues Doug Wilson, who recently stepped down as an assistant secretary of defence to advise the Biden campaign. "He has been key in negotiations with the Senate on the budget, key on negotiations with Iraq, key on negotiations to find a way forward on Afghanistan and he has been key politically for the President in identifying with and reaching blue-collar, working-class constituencies from which Biden comes and which make up so much a part of the swing-state votes in the northeast and the Midwest."

Biden's earliest years were spent growing up in the hardscrabble town of Scranton, Pennsylvania. When his father hit hard times, the family moved to Delaware, where he was to become a lawyer. In 1972, Biden took the unlikely leap of challenging a seemingly immovable Republican incumbent, Caleb Boggs, for a seat in the US Senate and won by just over 3,000 votes. At his swearing in, he had just turned 30, the age limit for serving in the Senate. A few weeks after taking office, his young wife, Neilia, and one-year-old daughter were killed in a car crash. Two sons, Beau and Hunter, were critically injured but were later to recover. He was to marry Jill five years later.

If his personal tribulations have seared Biden – in 1988 he twice underwent critical surgeries to correct brain aneurysms – so have his years in the Senate, where he served long stints as chairman of both the judiciary and foreign relations committees. His years in charge of the former featured such episodes as the confirmation hearings of Justice Clarence Thomas that were hijacked by allegations of inappropriate behaviour by the nominee towards a former subordinate, Anita Hill. Biden was berated by liberals for not giving Ms Hill's claims sufficient credence.

Of particular appeal to Mr Obama, however, were his years, over much of the last decade, at the helm of the foreign relations panel. Obama has sat under him on the same panel. Going into the 2008 elections experience on international affairs was an area where Mr Obama was lacking. Biden, who was on speaking terms with leaders and top officials around the world and in Nato, the UN and the European Union, was the person to fill that gap. "He has been years in the arena," Ret General Wesley Clark, who also ran for the Democratic nomination four years ago, told me. "It's been extremely important for this administration."

His speech at NYU trumpeted Mr Obama's record on foreign policy and lashed ex-President Bush for his, noting the failure to kill bin Laden or conclude the Iraq war. He warned that Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican nominee, would be Bush redux. Romney, he said, would rewind "to a foreign policy that would have America go it alone. Shout to the world you're either with us or against us. Lash out first and ask the hard questions later, if at all. Isolate America instead of our enemies. Waste hundreds of billions of dollars and risk thousands of American lives on an unnecessary war. And see the world through a Cold War prism that is totally out of touch with our times."

Not that everyone in Washington sees Biden's own record glowingly. He opposed the first Gulf war and voted in favour of invading Iraq, which he also once envisioned being partitioned three ways, and opposed the ultimately successful surge of US troops in 2007. Charles Krauthammer, the conservative commentator, was among critics offended by the NYU address. "The Vice President ... over the last 30 years holds the American record for wrong on the most issues in foreign affairs ever," he told Fox News. Helle Dale of the right-leaning Heritage Foundation says Biden's description of America's posture on the world stage under Bush is simply wrong.

"The level of the Vice President's dishonesty is staggering," she contended. "Yes, the country was at war, but the successful surge strategy in Iraq (opposed by Senator Obama) was pushing the Iraq war toward a conclusion. Al-Qa'ida was not resurgent but in retreat, and though Osama bin Laden was at large, the intelligence was being gathered that later would allow President Obama to authorise the US raid on his compound."

Something else that Biden got wrong: when Obama canvassed the opinions of his top aides on whether to give authorisation for the mission to take out bin Laden last year, Biden said 'no'. That Biden has publically admitted to it is something that his supporters say demonstrates his strength and why he is valued by the President.

Biden, nonetheless, might have had one tiny extra reason to want bin Laden dispatched. Documents collected at the Pakistan compound declassified a week ago reveal that the al-Qa'ida leader told his followers to target the top US leadership for assassination but to leave Biden alone. His logic? Killing Barack Obama would make Biden president. "Biden is totally unprepared for that post, which will lead the US into a crisis," bin Laden reportedly said.

Senator Ted Kaufman, who was Biden's chief of staff for 17 years, says that Obama and Biden are a perfect team and the reason can be traced back to the day they agreed to share the Democratic ticket in 2008. Biden, he recalls, said to Obama he would be his VP on condition that he would be the last man in the room with him on every major decision that had to be taken. That, says Kaufman, is exactly how it has worked. "That is the reason why things have gone so well between the them. That was the deal they made and the President has stuck to it."

It has also worked because Obama has delegated to his VP in a way most of his predecessors did not, particularly in giving Biden full responsibility for winding down the Iraq war. Other tasks assigned to him over the past term have included overseeing infrastructure spending rising out of the 2009 anti-recession stimulus package and negotiating the withdrawal by 2014 of troops from Afghanistan. "Nobody in Washington underestimates the importance of the role that Joe Biden has played for this administration and the person who underestimates it the least is the President himself," suggests Wilson.

This month, meanwhile, saw the official kick-off of the Obama re-election effort and one of the first reasons that Obama turned to Biden has come back to the fore: his ability, also highlighted by Wilson, to connect with the working-class vote in a way that Obama might find more difficult. He may be a decades-long Washington insider, yet his jokes, occasional rough edges, his Pennsylvania roots, even his relative penury – he used to boast he was the least rich member of the Senate – mean that this is a hole in the Obama resume he is ideally suited to fill.

Fans and friends of Biden laugh when asked if, even for a second, they took the latest round of Hillary rumours seriously, that the ticket this year would have read Obama-Clinton not Obama-Biden. "You read all kinds of things in Washington but it's what's done as opposed to what's gossiped about that matters and Joe Biden has been the partner throughout." Kaufman adds categorically: "There was no way".

Can we finally put the Clinton-Biden nattering axis to rest? Not quite. If the Democratic ticket prevails in November and the balance of gaffes versus accomplishments still weighs in Joe Biden's favour at the end of the administration's second term a certain someone, even though he will be 73, will surely eye a run for the top job in 2016. And so, in all likelihood, will somebody else. (Someone currently employed at the State Department.)



Garret Hobart (1897-1899)

Serving under Republican President William McKinley, the two enjoyed an intimate friendship – and their wives were pals too. As a result, Hobart had serious political clout: in 1898, he insisted that the US should act in a dispute with Spain

Lyndon B Johnson (1960-1963)

A Democrat VP who went on to become the big P... he was John F Kennedy's deputy till his assassination in 1963. Johnson had little power under Kennedy, but made a great success of stepping up to the role of president under harrowing circumstances. A year later he was voted in to the top job

Dick Cheney (2001-2008)

Often named the most influential Veep ever, Cheney was the powerhouse behind the Dubya administration. Following the September 11 attacks, he helped shape an aggressive foreign policy and pushed for military intervention in Iraq


Aaron Burr (1801-1805)

The third-ever Vice President, under Republican Thomas Jefferson – who called him "a crooked gun ... whose aim or stroke you could never be sure of". Burr's aim proved sure in a duel with ex-Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton in 1807 – he shot the man stone dead

Spiro Agnew (1969-1973)

VP to Nixon, Agnew matched his boss for bad behaviour. He resigned in 1973 after allegations of bribery during his time as Governor of Maryland, for which he was fined $10,000. Agnew later suggested it was a ruse by Nixon to deflect attention away from the Watergate scandal

Dan Quayle (1989-1993)

Served under the elder George Bush and proved to be a gaffe machine – most famously, when visiting a school, he watched a pupil spelling out the word 'potato' on the board, and encouraged the child to add an 'e' on the end