Obama lets Biden talk off-script

President Obama’s campaign is letting Joe be Joe on the campaign trail — not requiring Vice President Biden to stick to the script.

There’s no evidence the folksy, plain-spoken Biden is being put on a shorter chain during the final stretch of the campaign, despite his propensity for gaffes.

The latest dust-up came Tuesday, when Biden spoke of a middle class being “buried” over the past four years. Mitt Romney’s campaign seized on the remarks, saying it agreed the Obama administration’s policies had hurt the middle class and even printing up $30 T-shirts emblazoned with Biden’s face and the words “Honest Joe.”

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It was the first major gaffe by the vice president since early August, when he told a southern-Virginia crowd — which included a number of African-Americans — that Romney’s tax policies would “put y’all back in chains.”

Since then, Biden’s responsibilities and his role on the campaign trail have, if anything, grown, even as he prepares for his face-off against GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan next week.

The vice president has been appearing at three to five campaign events per week since the convention, and he doesn’t always take advantage of his teleprompter. 

Supporters argue Biden’s positives for the Obama ticket outweigh his negatives, and that the occasional off-message remark is part of a candor aides insist is a valuable asset for the campaign.

“You have to let Joe be Joe,” said one top Democratic strategist. “Because most of the time he’ll deliver and he’ll deliver in a very big way that appeals to a broad cross section of the electorate.”

In his speech on Tuesday, Biden was working himself up, his decibel level rising, trying to connect with his audience at the North Carolina Music Factory in Charlotte, and apparently speaking off the cuff, without a teleprompter. Such moments can help Biden win over voters, but also make misstatements more likely.

The “chains” gaffe in August took Team Obama off message for several days, and made some question Biden’s value to the ticket. But while his occasional hiccups on the stump can cause some heartburn at the Obama campaign headquarters in Chicago, aides and those close to the operation say Biden’s strengths — namely, his ability to relate to average Americans — outweigh his weaknesses.

“The traits that make him attractive to voters are the ones that cause him problems,” said one top Democratic strategist. “But what he brings to the administration and the campaign are overall net positives.”

There are signs the White House is being more careful with how he is used.

Biden hasn’t been appearing on television programs or conducting sit-downs with newspaper reporters — especially since he made news on NBC’s “Meet the Press” in May after he endorsed gay marriage, forcing Obama to do the same and admit that his own position had “evolved.”

“You haven’t seen him do a lot of interviews and chatting it up,” said Jamal Simmons, a Democratic strategist. “But I don’t think there’s a great amount of heartache. I think the American people have a high tolerance level for Joe Biden’s antics.

“Uncle Joe sometimes makes mistakes,” Simmons quipped.

Republicans pounce on every occasion Biden veers off course. Within minutes of the vice president’s remarks on Tuesday — when he told the North Carolina crowd “the middle class has been buried the last four years” — both the Republican National Committee and the Romney campaign blasted him for the comments. Romney’s aides said the middle class has indeed been “buried” by the policies set forth by the Obama administration.

And at an event in Iowa on Tuesday, Ryan piled on, saying, “Of course the middle class has been buried. They are being buried by regulations, they are being buried by taxes … they are being buried by borrowing, they are being buried by the Obama administration’s economic failures.”

Still, Obama-Biden campaign aides say that Biden has the full support of Obama and that while he has taken the White House off message occasionally, he has always been the president’s biggest ally and defender.

“No one has been fighting harder to ensure the president is reelected this November,” an Obama campaign official said. “Folks love the vice president — he’s already done more than 110 events across the country, and he’s hit key markets in key states all year long, directly connecting with voters in their communities at event after event and winning votes everywhere he goes.”

One practice Biden has continued doing, in between his official events at campaign rallies, is making unannounced stops at local delis, firehouses, the occasional high school football practice — and arguably his personal favorite, the Dairy Queen.

Last month, he received attention for cozying up to a woman decked out in biker attire during a stop at an Ohio deli. And he drew an occasional “oh-that-Joe-Biden” eye-roll when he talked candidly about cheerleaders being the “best athletes in college” on a visit to New Hampshire.

And even though he knows the press is listening closely and scrutinizing his every word, he has continued to speak off the cuff — albeit a bit more carefully.

Before he made his “buried” remark on Tuesday, he sought to rip Romney, but tripped up on his words, trying to be more artful in his criticism of the Republican presidential nominee.

“Basically, I think my opponent said something like — I don’t know, he said something about he was — regrets or — I don’t know,” Biden began. “Something — he wished he hadn’t voted that way, OK?

“I don’t want the press saying I misquoted him, but he — but he went back and said, ‘I did that but I kind of wish I didn’t,’ or whatever,” Biden added, as the crowd laughed at his carefully couched phrasing. “All right.”