The vice president on guns, global warming and why he's "the last guy in the room" on every decision Obama makes
There is a keen Kennedy-like vigor to Joe Biden that overwhelms any room. As was once said of Theodore Roosevelt, he, too, wants to be the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral. Unlike President Obama, who speaks in interviews with Hemingway-esque sparseness, Biden rambles like Thomas Wolfe, painting a robust picture of an ever-changing America where coal miners will soon be working in clean-tech jobs, gun-safety laws will be tougher and China will be reined in by the White House from poisoning the planet with megatons of choking pollutants.
Never before have a president and vice president been as close personally and professionally as Barack Obama and Joe Biden – just think about the past 80 years. FDR switched out VPs with the regularity of a farmer rotating his crops. Harry Truman had little use for the lightweight Alben Barkley. Dwight Eisenhower never really trusted Richard Nixon. Historian Robert Caro just published an award-winning 736-page biography – The Passage of Power – that essentially chronicles JFK's deep aversion for LBJ. Nixon's selection of the pugilist Spiro Agnew in 1968 as his vice president blew up in his face a few years later: A volcanic eruption of ethics charges were levied against Agnew, and he was forced to resign. Gerald Ford and his vice president, Nelson Rockefeller, never quite jelled. Ford, in fact, asked Bob Dole to run as the VP candidate in 1976 – an awful slap to Rockefeller. Although it's true that Jimmy Carter was extraordinarily close to Walter Mondale, their relationship lacked the two-term gravitas of Obama and Biden's ironclad bond. Ronald Reagan wasn't particularly intimate with George H.W. Bush; their wives often feuded. And when Bush became president, he didn't take Dan Quayle very seriously. (Nor did the country.)
Of course, Al Gore and Dick Cheney were formidable presences in the past two White Houses. But by the time both of those men left Washington, their relationships with their bosses were strained. During the 1992 presidential campaign, Bill Clinton and Al Gore were clearly chummy, tossing footballs together on the trail as "Don't Stop," by Fleetwood Mac, blasted out of the bus speakers. But once the Monica Lewinsky scandal started unraveling, Gore backed away from a tainted Clinton. Cheney was seen as the puppet master of the Bush White House, the mastermind of the Iraq War. But by the end of Bush's second term, the two men had grown estranged.
As Biden tells it, these days he and the president see eye to eye on all policy issues. Only their nuances are slightly different. It's not far-fetched to think that Biden will run for president in 2016 on Obama's coattails. This notion surprises many Republicans, who feel Obama is foundering and that Biden, who will be 74 at the beginning of the next presidential term, is too old. But Biden is smart to stay close to Obama, whose public-approval rating hovers just below 50 percent (a number that rises to around 75 percent among registered Democrats). Assuming Hillary Clinton runs for president in 2016, she will sell herself as a successor to her husband, harkening back to the economic heyday of the 1990s. By contrast, if Biden gets into the race, it will be as an Obama Democrat promising to expand on the record of the last two terms.
What matters the most to Biden these days is whether he can persuade Congress to enact meaningful gun-control laws. After the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, in Newtown, Connecticut, President Obama asked Biden to head up the Gun Violence Prevention Task Force. Though his efforts so far have failed to overcome congressional resistance, he says that he is not giving up. If serious gun-control legislation is passed in the next three years – and Biden is convinced it will – he will deserve the lion's share of the credit.
My takeaway from my one-hour White House interview with Joe Biden is that he must be considering a presidential run. There will be too much Obama-era unfinished business – implementing the Affordable Care Act, fighting for climate-change initiatives, for example – for Biden to throw in the towel. His strengths as a candidate are his blue-collar persona, family values, lifetime support of labor unions and farmers, foreign-policy expertise and stouthearted belief that the Obama administration's record of accomplishment – from the economic recovery to the killing of Osama bin Laden – has been historic. With Air Force Two at his disposal and his two superbright sons, Hunter and Beau, probably working as his chief advisers, Biden can give Hillary Clinton a run for her money. Although she will have an unquestioned advantage among women, it's not inconceivable to think that labor unions, environmentalists, African-Americans, LGBT voters and small-business owners will prefer the hypercaffeinated, hard-charging vice president. Like Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, a presumed Republican candidate, Biden has learned to turn the sound-bite culture on its head by speaking from the gut. Though he's been a major political player since the Nixon years, Biden has pulled off the trick of not seeming like politics-as-usual. It could be a mistake to underestimate his populist appeal. And it's hard to imagine that this highly ambitious man will choose not to pursue the office he's wanted all his life.
The biggest push since the inauguration has been on gun control. The president made you the point person, and yet the background-check measure failed in the Senate, even though it was supported by 90 percent of the American people. What does it mean that we can't pass even the weakest measures to curb gun violence?
It means two things. One, that we have had an impact on the public's thinking. If we did that poll a week before Sandy Hook, my guess is you wouldn't have 90 percent of the American people. They said, "You have to do something." So we've already won the battle with the American public on this, not just on background checks but on magazines, on assault weapons, et cetera. This is a case where the public is way ahead of Congress, and the Congress hadn't figured it out, just like they were . . .
With gay marriage?
Remember, I got criticized for saying I support gay marriage . . . . I just decided I couldn't be quiet about it anymore, and everybody was stunned that that's where the public is. And I'm not stunned; it's where the public's been for a while. Talk to any of your kids, for God's sake.
Did you get blowback from the president or people in general?
I got blowback from everybody but the president. I walked in that Monday, he had a big grin on his face, he put his arms around me and said, "Well, Joe, God love you, you say what you think." I knew he agreed with me. It wasn't like he was in a different place. My point is: That's where the public is on guns. There has been a seminal shift in the attitude of the American public toward gun safety.
Is the Senate really that insulated from the rest of the country?
A lot of our colleagues – a few Democrats and a lot of Republicans who know better – thought, "The public hasn't changed, if I vote with you, I get beat up. . . ." The 17 or 18 people I called and spoke to thought they would get in trouble supporting any additional, quote, "burden on gun ownership." The ones who still said no, the four Democrats and remaining nine or 10 Republicans, they didn't offer any substantive reasoning to be against it. In one form or another, they all said the same thing: "Joe, don't ask me to walk the plank, because the House isn't going to do anything, anyway." The other one was, "Joe, I know it's 85-15, 80-20, 90-10 in my state. You know how it works: The 10 percent that are against, they're all going to be energized; they're going to organize against me. And the 90 percent who are for it, it's not going to be a determining vote for them." My argument was, "You've got it wrong. The public has changed." And guess what? It turns out we were right. To use the vernacular, there's suddenly a lot of senators out there who have seen the Lord. You find out that the senator from New Hampshire is in trouble; she voted no. I can name you four senators who called me and said, "Jesus, I guess you were right – maybe we can find some other way of doing this. Can we bring this back up?"
So what's the next move?
We're going right back at it. The biggest thing that's changed is that the people who were for the background checks are saying it will be a determining issue. There's pace on the ball now; this is a different country. I'm convinced we'll be able to bring this back up, and I'm convinced we can win this.
After the Boston Marathon bombings, your language was typically direct. At a memorial service for the slain MIT campus policeman Sean Collier, you called the bombers "two twisted, perverted, cowardly, knock-off jihadis," which, of course, is exactly what everyone in America was thinking. Are these kind of remarks spontaneous?
No, I actually wrote that speech. I wanted to communicate two things: first, to make it clear that there is not this sort of gigantic, coordinated network run by Al Qaeda that has cells all around the country and, second, that the republic is not in jeopardy and there's no reason for us to jettison the Constitution and erect a police state in order to protect people. The moment we change, they win. That's the only way they win. Because what they hate about us is what we stand for. It makes a lie of everything they argue – that there's only one way to run your life and there has to be this constraint on humanity.
My whole point in that speech was, we cannot let them win by buying into what was immediately being argued – that we shouldn't have an immigration bill, that we should try them as enemy combatants, that we should put up more lights, cameras and invade people's privacy more. It was a terrible tragedy, but we found the guys, and we'll find anyone else who was involved. We'll make rational adjustments in plugging holes within our law that could have been plugged, if it turns out to be that way. But do not, do not, do not yield in any way to the intimidation.
Why doesn't the Obama administration use the bully pulpit to talk about climate change like it does for gun control?
We have. The president used the biggest settings he had, in the inaugural address and the State of the Union. In his inaugural address, he said, "We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations."
In the very beginning, we decided that we had to move on this. And we thought, cap-and-trade. But it got shut down, even when we had a Democratic Congress. So from that point on, the president has been trying to figure out how he can use his executive authority to make some real changes. We've been dealing with a Congress where a significant portion of the other party thinks there's no such thing as global warming. On top of that, we were in the midst of the deepest recession we've had since the Great Depression. So it was easy for the energy-interest guys to make the case that anything we would do to deal with global warming would be a job-killer. You'd see ads all over the country, an African American or a hard-hat guy – classic Democrat, you'd think – saying, "I'm an energy voter, and this idea the Obama administration has is going to cost you your jobs."
Despite the congressional opposition, do you feel the Obama administration has made inroads in the climate fight?
The thing I'm proudest of that we were able to get done in the first term was the Recovery Act. It had $90 billion in clean-energy programs. We had a lot of money going into research and development, and also tax credits for wind and solar energy. Republicans say to me, "That's not government's role," and I say, "Why in the devil do you think we have the investment tax credit you guys get for drilling for oil? How did that start?" The reason it started was six, seven decades ago, we didn't have the technology to know how many dry wells you had to dig before you hit a gusher, so we rewarded people for going out and exploring. We still spend $4 billion a year on that – and they don't even need it anymore. And yet they fight us on renewable-energy tax credits.
In terms of conservation, we've doubled the fuel-economy standards, which is going to save hundreds of millions of barrels of oil and about $1.7 trillion over time – without, basically, any Republican support. In the meantime, also, there has been at least a near-term boom in terms of natural gas. Theoretically, it would be nice not to have any carbon fuels. But natural gas is a hell of a lot less polluting. So in this budget, we're continuing to push for the transition from coal-fired plants to natural-gas electric plants. If you moved the trucking fleet in this nation to natural-gas-run vehicles, you'd save hundreds of millions of dollars and cut greenhouse-gas emissions. And you'd reduce our dependence on foreign oil.
But it's been hard to get our arms around, with this Congress, what you know you should be doing. You should be attacking the carbon emissions, period, and whether it's cap-and-trade or carbon tax or whatever, that's the realm in which we should be playing. In the meantime, the president is going to use his executive authority to, essentially, clean up the bad stuff, encourage the good stuff and promote private industry moving in that direction. If we had a different Congress, I think you'd see a more aggressive emissions legislation.
You mentioned a carbon tax. Is the Obama administration going to follow the lead of China and propose such a policy?
The truth is, right now, no, because we know it will go nowhere. Look, one of the things we are doing, and the president is asking me to kind of get ahead of here, is that we have a real chance, both in this hemisphere and with China, to enter into joint ventures on renewable energy and on cleaner-burning natural gas. Let me give you an example: The Chinese are building something like one new coal-fired plant a week – a week. So pick the biggest coal-fired plant you know around here that's spewing pollution, and they're building them every week, and they've been doing that for the last six or seven years.
The Chinese have figured out that they have a giant environmental problem. Folks in Beijing, some days, literally can't breathe. Over a million Chinese die prematurely every year because of air pollution. And the pollution generated in China is choking us, not just the Chinese. One of the examples I used on the campaign trail last year was that after the Japanese tsunami, we had huge chunks of cement, chunks of piers, washing up on the beach in Oregon. If the current can carry that stuff across the ocean, imagine what's coming across in the atmosphere. So we have a great opportunity here to figure out how we can not only begin to wean ourselves off of carbon-based fuels but wean the world off of them too. It's just a gigantic opportunity, and it produces a boatload of jobs. There are going to be 600,000 new jobs out there in the gas industry over the next 10 to 12 years.
Sen. John McCain and others have criticized the administration's foreign policy for not being tough enough, for issuing veiled threats, at best, and being overly cautious, especially when it comes to Syria, North Korea and Iran. Now that we know Syria is using chemical weapons on its own people, how does that change the administration's approach?
Let me say, for the record, I disagree with the basic premise. I want to just put this in perspective. When we came into office, there were two wars raging: one without any sense of how to end it and the other without any sense of how to manage it. Iran was on the ascendancy; it was incredibly influential in the Middle East. When we came to office, our alliances were more frayed than at any time in at least the 40 years I've been here. When we came to office, we found ourselves in this position where we were among the least-respected major nations in the world, and that counts for something. When we came to office, we continued to condone the notion of torture. Al Qaeda was on the ascendancy; it was not on the decline. In the meantime, all of that has changed. The phrase I've used all the time is, "We have to lead not just by the example of our power, but by the power of our example."
We are stronger today, by a long shot, than when we came into office, and in this period we also got a new nuclear-arms-control agreement with the Russians. We have a growing nonadversarial relationship with the Chinese. Latin America is stronger and better than before. Just go around the globe. And for the first time since I've been involved, since the Shah was overthrown, the world is uniting with us in putting the blame on Iran. For the first time since I've been around, China is talking about cooperating with us with regard to North Korea. So the whole premise, I fundamentally reject.
Now, I love John McCain – I just went out to do an event for him. We used to be close friends, and we're trying to get that back a little bit. Campaigns have a way of causing those things to wane. . . . But here's where we are with regard to Syria. With all the credibility we've gained in the world, we don't want to blow it like the last administration did in Iraq, saying "weapons of mass destruction." We know that there have been traces found of what are probably chemical weapons. What we don't know yet – and we're drilling down on it as hard as we can – is whether they were accidentally released in an exchange of gunfire or artillery fire, or blown up or something. We also don't have a chain of ownership. We don't know for certain whether they were used by some of the opposition, including the radicals who have aligned themselves with Al Qaeda. It's probable, but we don't know for certain, that they were used by the regime.
If the judgment is chemical weapons were used, then the president is likely to use a proportional response in terms of meaningful action. We also believe that no matter how this ends, there is going to be political unrest in Syria for some time to come, and we want to make sure that, in the transition from Assad, there is, as best we can form it with the rest of the world, an inclusive, nonsectarian government that has institutions that still exist to be able to govern a country. The one lesson we learned from Iraq and the last administration is . . . how can I say it? In managing the affairs in Iraq, they destroyed every institution. There was no structure left. There wasn't even a Department of Public Works. And we know we can fix that, if we're willing to spend a trillion dollars and 160,000 troops and 6,000 dead, but that we cannot do. So what we're trying to do now is – and we're having some success – is get the opposition in coordination and not have, indiscriminately, weapons going to Al Nusra, who are very extreme. We've declared them a terrorist organization, and its leader has said he's pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda, so it's not like we're making it up. This is a very, very tough process to manage.
At this juncture, a White House aide comes in to tell Biden that the president needs him downstairs for a briefing on terrorism. He nods in agreement and continues with the interview.
Bush and Cheney and Clinton and Gore famously had their weekly lunches together. Do you have regular, unstructured one-on-one time with the president?
Matter of fact, I just had lunch with the president. I spend an average of four to five hours a day with him, every single day. When I first got asked to do this job, I said, "No, thank you. I'll do anything I can to help you, but I'm not interested." Then he said, "Go home and talk it over with your family." When the actual offer came forward, he asked me what portfolio do I want, and I said, "I don't want a portfolio; I don't want to be Gore" – who was a great vice president – "I don't want to be Cheney. You said you wanted me here to help you govern, and I have a lot of experience." I wanted a commitment that I get to be the last guy in the room on every major decision – not generally, but specifically. My job is to accommodate what he wants done and, internally, to make my cases for what I think we should be doing different. So it's been a really good relationship, and everybody knows that – around here and around the world. Think about it: Even our critics have never said that when I speak, no one doubts that I speak for the president. I speak for the president because of the relationship. And the only way that works is if you're around all the time. Literally, every meeting he has, I'm in. You don't have to wonder what the other guy's thinking; I don't have to guess where the president's going. So it's been really great. Once a week, no matter what, we sit down for between 35 minutes and as long as an hour and a half, depending on what we have to say.
We talk about everything, and our wives are friends. Today, we talked about foreign policy at some length, we talked about China, we talked about Russia and we talked about Syria. So that's more than you wanted to know, but this is the nature of the relationship, and that's why it works.
We have very different styles, but we are simpatico. At all the debates we had – trying to get the nomination in '08 – we're the only two who never disagreed on a single substantive issue. He has a great line. He said, "We're the ultimate odd couple," he says. "We make up for each other's shortcomings." He makes up for a hell of a lot more of mine than I do of his, but it's worked. When you leave the Senate, they let you buy your Senate chair. I have two sons, and I didn't know what to do. He said, "Look, give Beau your chair; I'll give Hunter my chair." So Hunter has President Obama's chair from when he was a senator. That's major league. On Saturday mornings, it's not at all unusual to see the president, the first lady and the second lady and the vice president sitting in a little tiny gym in suburban Maryland, watching my granddaughter Maisy and his daughter Sasha in this basketball league. The president always talks about my granddaughter on national television: "She's going D1." "Mr. President, didn't your daughter's team win their championship?" "Yeah, it was because of the vice president's granddaughter Maisy Biden."
Considering how busy you are, do you have time to read books? If so, which ones would you recommend?
I make the time because it's important. Let's see. There is a good book titled The River of Doubt, by Candice Millard, about Teddy Roosevelt's exploration of the Amazon in Brazil. I knew nothing about this. My goodness, let's see. There's Mr. Putin, by Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy. Insightful. He's an interesting man. Anyone who's traveled with me to Afghanistan knows why I love this book: War, by Sebastian Junger. And that reminds me of another book, Lessons in Disaster, by Gordon Goldstein. There's a great line in there where LBJ turns to [National Security Adviser] McGeorge Bundy and says, "How can we win this war in Vietnam?" And Bundy says something like, "Sir, we don't know how to win the war, but we know how not to lose it."
This story is from the May 23rd, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone.