Joe Biden and Vice Presidential Leadership

Public discussion of Vice President Joe Biden tends to focus on the 2016 presidential campaign. No matter that the first delegates won't be chosen for 30 months or so, the usual stories ask "Will he run?" or "Won't he?" And if he does, they report, he's behind former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in preference polls.

Speculating about future presidential elections three years in advance is great fun but not very instructive. Three years before the first (and in one case, only) presidential election they won, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush or Barack Obama were certainly not the consensus prediction to be the next president. Looking at how particular public figures actually lead (or don't lead) teaches a lot more.

Whether one likes Joe Biden's politics or not, during the first 54 months of his vice presidency, he has built a record rivaled by few others on the modern political scene. And that record becomes especially impressive coming as it does in the context of a governing system which seems increasingly dysfunctional. Three elements make Biden's role distinctive.

First, at a time when Americans are unhappy with the performance of most governmental institutions, Biden has made the vice presidency consequential to an extent never before achieved. Walter F. Mondale created the modern office and each vice president beginning with him has made important contributions. But Biden has taken the office to a new level, in the breadth of his significant involvements and his ability to sustain his role as long as he has. He supervised the implementation of the recovery act and the disengagement from Iraq. He negotiated the deals which produced budget and tax agreements and averted the perils of the Fiscal Cliff. He has undertaken diplomatic missions to countries critical to America's national security. He has handled portfolios in domestic and foreign policy addressing some of the most important challenges facing the country. His work has been bureaucratic as well as legislative. One need not agree with every position he takes to recognize that he brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to government as well as skill in discharging a range of assignments.

But Biden has not simply taken on substantive vice presidential portfolios. He has also been willing to become the point person on controversial issues which engender passionate response. A year ago, Biden was widely criticized for stating his personal support for same-sex marriage before that position became administration policy. Yet since Biden's declaration, President Obama has announced the same position, and many others have come around to follow that lead, including former President Bill Clinton, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, virtually all Democratic senators and some prominent Republicans. And additional states have adopted same-sex marriage.

Gun control presents a second controversial issue where Biden has emerged the point person, this time on a matter where the perceived power of the National Rifle Association has intimidated many other politicians. Even after the Senate failed to produce 60 votes to support the bipartisan bill which Senators Joe Mancin and Pat Toomey offered, Biden has continued to make the case for "common-sense solutions to keep guns out of the wrong hands, " as he put it in a column in the Houston Chronicle last month. Whereas that commentary argued to a Texas audience presumably skeptical of the political imperatives of gun control measures, Biden has also cast the issue as a moral issue which requires political courage. More than virtually any other visible public figure, he continues to speak out on this subject.

Biden's willingness to embrace such roles on seemingly partisan issues becomes especially significant in view of the third distinctive element of his service. It's hard to think of anyone currently in public life who has been more dedicated to, or successful at, working across the aisle than Biden. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who doesn't routinely praise Democrats, recently wrote in Time magazine of Biden's unparalleled interest in, and ability at, building bridges across wide partisan gaps to enable future collaboration. In April Biden praised Senator John McCain generously at a forum at the McCain Institute. And, of course, it was Biden who worked with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to craft various legislative compromises culminating in the tax deal which averted the Fiscal Cliff.

Our government will not become functional again until we have public officials with the skill to improve the trajectory of their offices, with a willingness to take principled stands against powerful interests, and with a commitment to seeing legislative politics as a means to finding common ground with ideological foes through civil exchange for the public benefit.

Regardless of one's politics, it's hard to disparage Biden's constructive brand of leadership in these respects. That's something we could use more of in public life, in both parties.