By Justin Sink, Amie Parnes and Mike Lillis - 01/18/13 12:41 AM EST
Vice President Biden will take the oath of office riding a political high, with his prospects as a 2016 presidential candidate never brighter.
Biden is poised to play a central role in President Obama’s second term, after negotiating a deal on the “fiscal cliff” with Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and leading a task force charged with finding ways to reduce gun violence.
Looking ahead, aides to the president say, Biden will work as the point person on efforts to shepherd through sweeping new gun regulations, while those on Capitol Hill fully expect to see the vice president during looming negotiations on the debt ceiling, deficit and sequestration.
“It’s not so much his Senate history — I think he’s just really good at talking to people and negotiating with them,” one senior administration official said in discussing Biden’s virtues. “He has this expression that all politics are personal. If you can establish trust with a person, you’re going to be able to identify some common ground and get to a resolution. His approach is particularly effective because they trust him.”
Four years ago, it seemed unlikely Biden would be an heir apparent to Obama, but a CNN/Time poll released Wednesday showed his approval rating spiking to 59 percent, surpassing even Obama’s. Early polls find only Secretary of State Hillary Clinton beating Biden among Democrats.
Biden’s standing is remarkable, since it wasn’t always clear he would gel with the Obama administration. The vice president’s propensity for gaffes as well as his bluntness and affability seemed oddly out of sync with the president’s reserved, professorial nature.
In 2009, several months into the start of the new administration, Biden caused a stir during the swine flu outbreak by saying that he wouldn’t have his family members go “anywhere in confined places now.”
A year later, when he dropped the F-bomb at the historic signing of the Affordable Care Act, it became an instant YouTube sensation — and a cellphone ringer. Even in the past year, as Biden jumped ahead of the president on gay marriage and made a number of missteps — including a cringe-worthy comment about banks putting an African-American audience “back in chains” — on the campaign trail, it appeared he could be sidelined in a second term.
But senior administration officials and Democrats on Capitol Hill have found Biden’s style an essential asset. And while Biden can — and still does — stick his foot in his mouth, his authenticity has earned him allies across the aisle and admiration from progressives.
Aides say Biden has grown from the experiences.
“Over the last few years people have seen him as he settled into the role,” the senior administration official said. “He has grown a lot just by nature of the experiences he’s had.”
Through it all — in even the rockiest of times — aides say he’s proven his trustworthiness to Obama.
One senior administration official said Obama and Biden “have found a real groove where they complement each other and have a lot of trust in each other.”
The praise of Biden has extended to Capitol Hill, where lawmakers see Biden as the “McConnell whisperer” who gets things done.
“In an institution where personal relationships are paramount, Joe has a lot of great personal relationships. That’s what has helped him get these deals done,” said Rep. Robert Andrews (D-N.J.).
Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.), the senior Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said it would be “almost political malpractice not to have him deeply involved” in upcoming negotiations, citing the vice president’s ability to win over Republicans.
There have been hints Biden could still be itching for another go at the White House.
As he voted in November, he coyly told reporters he didn’t believe it was the last time he would cast a ballot for himself. A week earlier, he told one voter that he would “vote for me in 2016” after seeing how the president’s healthcare law was implemented.
One former senior administration official pointed to Biden’s recent trip to Costco, surfing the aisles while doing his Christmas shopping, as an example of his powerful ability to connect with everyday Americans.
“He connects with people at a very fundamental level,” the former official said. “It wasn’t hard to see Joe Biden there, and that’s the point.”
Take the recent Senate swearing-in, for example.
The always affable Biden joked to Sen. Heidi Heitkamp’s (D-N.D.) husband that he was “going to be frisked” when a photographer ordered him to drop his hands. Later, he kidded the elderly mother of Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), telling her that he was going to “ruin your reputation here” before giving her a hug. The Bidenisms went on and on, so much so that a petition on the White House website called for a reality show starring the vice president.
And while Biden might still evince a propensity for verbal gaffes, his authenticity has earned him allies across the aisle and admiration from progressives.
“I think people are seeing him in three dimensions, as opposed to the Twitter version,” said one senior official. “His style is cool now. People want people who can break through and talk to other people. He doesn’t represent trench warfare. He’s the guy who can talk to anyone. I think people are looking for leaders who want to try and rise above it. And they realize he’s appealing and likable and has vast knowledge and experience.”