When President Barack Obama last week wrapped Vice President Biden in a bear hug after his Farewell Address and followed up with surprise Presidential Medal of Freedom, anyone watching could tell the two men weren’t faking it.
So ends the closest and longest-lasting partnership between a president and vice-president in American history—one with crossed signals, raw emotional exchanges and even little-known secret codes that, as Obama told me recently, shaped policy-making in the Situation Room.
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That partnership began with candidate Obama’s promise to a man 19 years his senior that if he joined the ticket in 2008 he would be “the last guy in the room” on every important decision the president made. It grew into genuine affection, strengthened during the illness of Biden’s son, Beau, who died of brain cancer in 2015. And it’s ending with their legacy under assault from the new president, whose appeal to middle-class voters in 2016 underscored Biden’s failure to convince the White House to do more on their behalf.
Until 1977, there was no history of presidents and vice presidents working closely together, much less bonding. Jimmy Carter reinvented the job by giving Walter Mondale substantive assignments, and all vice presidents since then have at least enjoyed a weekly lunch with the president. Al Gore and Dick Cheney became exceptionally influential, but in their second terms they fell out with Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, respectively. Only Joe Biden saw his power last eight years and his relationship with the president deepen over time.
It didn’t begin so well. When Obama arrived in the Senate in 2005, he and Biden circled each other warily. Biden thought Majority Leader Harry Reid and Majority Whip Dick Durbin had put the freshman phenom on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which he soon chaired, almost as “affirmative action for young people,” as a member of Biden’s staff called it. Obama, in turn, thought Biden was acting aloof toward him—a complaint more often directed at Obama.
Biden was first impressed by Obama when the young senator gave speeches in 2005 and 2006 on civil rights, the issue that had first brought Biden into politics when Wilmington, Delaware, was wracked by racial unrest in the late 1960s.
In 2007, both senators launched presidential campaigns and Biden clumsily called Obama “articulate and bright and clean,” a gaffe that Biden—in his clueless ‘50s dad mode—didn’t know he’d made until it was explained to him by an aide.
After Biden finished fifth in the 2008 Iowa caucuses behind even Bill Richardson—a fact that didn’t go unnoticed seven years later by those who thought he would have lost in 2016, too—he secretly advised Hillary on how to catch up to Obama, whom he didn’t endorse until he had clinched the nomination.
Obama picked Biden as his running mate because of his foreign policy experience, his contacts on the Hill and his appeal in his native Pennsylvania. “But mostly I chose Joe because he’s a good man—sincere, cared about people, honest, willing to give me candid advice,” Obama told me in a phone interview, stressing that Biden has never once in eight years disappointed him. “The thing I could not necessarily predict was his loyalty and his ability to keep our conversations to himself.”
Biden wasn’t sure if he’d take the job. He needed assurances that he would be consulted on everything. Obama gave them but felt in retrospect that the risk was more on Biden’s side: “He had no guarantees that I would follow through on that commitment,” he told me.
The thing I could not necessarily predict was his loyalty and his ability to keep our conversations to himself.”
At first they seemed a mismatched pair: Cool Cheshire cat and bounding Yellow Lab; Mr. Spock and Uncle Joe. While Biden—a superb retail politician—was soon seen as stacking up well against the Republican vice-presidential candidate, Sarah Palin, his lack of discipline worried the Obama camp. After Labor Day, Obama grew annoyed at Biden for saying at a fundraiser that Obama would be “tested” by the world in his first year, as John F. Kennedy was. On the day after the 2009 inauguration, when Chief Justice John Roberts had to re-administer the oath because he flubbed it the first time, Biden referred in public to Roberts’ miscue and the cameras caught Obama giving him a stern poke. And at his first press conference, Obama was asked about Biden’s comment that the Obama economic program had about a “30 percent chance” of getting it wrong. “I don’t know what Joe was talking about,” the new president said curtly.
But over time, Obama took Biden’s gaffes in stride. According to Obama and Biden aides, as long as Biden apologized for them, Obama quickly forgave him. Occasionally, he even enjoyed Biden’s excesses. At the signing ceremony for the Affordable Care Act in March, 2010, microphones picked up Biden softly saying that the bill was “a big f—ing deal.” Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, reflecting the president’s view, tweeted that Biden was right. Even when Biden, appearing on “Meet the Press,” endorsed gay marriage without authorization, Obama was not as annoyed as his West Wing staff. “Joe got a little ahead of his skis,” was all the president said.
By this time, the president not only trusted his vice-president, he found that he needed him in the foxhole with him, and there weren’t many people outside his family he could say that about. The two are “philosophically simpatico,” Biden told me recently. They disagreed—sometimes vehemently— only on tactics: “We have a deal. We have shouting matches between us, but it’s [just] us.”
They spoke alone at their weekly lunches and alone after the Presidential Daily Briefing on intelligence and almost every important meeting when both were in Washington. But sometimes their most important communication was unspoken. Obama and Biden worked in wordless tandem in the Situation Room, where Biden served as what Obama told me he called “my hidden proxy.” By pre-arrangement familiar to fans of buddy cop movies, Biden posed tough questions and offered provocative ideas that Obama wanted discussed but preferred not to raise himself, for fear of tilting the debate. (If the president tips his hand, subordinates tend to tailor their arguments to that position to win favor.) Biden took the lead this way dozens of times, most memorably on debates over Iraq and Afghanistan.
Obama told me that he thought the synchronized approach gave high-level policy discussions “more intellectual rigor” and let him stay above the fray. Biden remembered Defense Secretary Leon Panetta theorizing that every time Obama leaned back in his chair in the Situation Room, it was a quiet cue for the vice president to do his thing. Biden was amused that their gambit had been discovered: “I told Leon he was correct.”
When Obama wasn’t arranging secret signals with Biden, he was delegating important parts of the presidency to him. His faith in his No. 2 “allowed me to farm out a lot of phone calls on a day-to-day basis and they [foreign leaders and members of Congress] knew he was speaking for me,” Obama explained. It helped that Biden is beloved in Washington, while Obama, who shuns the normal give-and-take of politics, is merely respected.
Biden’s most significant domestic assignment was supervising the 2009 Recovery Act, which was larger than anything FDR tried during his fabled First Hundred Days. In contrast to the New Deal, where the word “boondoggle” originated, Obama’s nearly $1 trillion stimulus package was surprisingly scandal-free. Even Republicans like Sen. Pat Roberts who hated the whole idea of a stimulus were impressed by an accountability structure that fixed problems quickly. “Sheriff Joe,” as Obama called him, rode herd on tens of thousands of projects to make sure they weren’t stupid ideas that would discredit recovery efforts. Ron Klain, Biden’s first chief of staff, remembered a prominent senator calling to ask for a skate park in his state. “The vice president was, ‘No, No, No!’,” Klain said. “It showed everything about him in the executive branch – his commonsense mentality turned out to be better judgment than all the slide rules together.”
Beginning in 2010, Biden went to Capitol Hill during end-of-the-year lame duck sessions and—against considerable odds—cut deals with then-Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell that delivered under-valued Democratic victories. Among Biden’s wins were ratification of the New START Treaty on nuclear arms, expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit (the most successful anti-poverty program in a generation), temporary reduction of the payroll tax to keep the recovery going and elimination of the military’s don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy. Had Obama tried to cut these deals himself, he likely would have failed. For many Republicans, even meeting with the president caused them political problems with some conservatives. Biden’s secret was his uncanny ability, based on 36 years in the Senate, to know what members needed to make an agreement. “It was not his relationship with McConnell as much as his instinct on how Republicans would react to certain stimuli,” said Pete Rouse, a longtime senior adviser to Obama.
There could have been more. After the massacre of schoolchildren at Newtown, Obama and Biden worked overtime trying to round up the votes for gun safety measures that enjoyed broad public support. Both men describe it as the most disappointing vote of their eight years.
Obama faced unreasonable obstruction, but on other bills he wasn’t entirely blameless for the failure to compromise. The president had what one former Biden aide described as a bakery problem: He would settle for half of the loaf he sought, but if Republicans wanted, say, croissants that he hated (e.g. huge tax favors for corporations), he’d give them none. This made it harder for Biden to negotiate. “They [senior White House aides] were always nervous about letting the vice-president near Congress because they were afraid of getting something done,” said Bruce Reed, a former Biden chief of staff, by which he meant giving away more than progressives could stomach.
Biden believes that the biggest domestic mistake of the Obama White House was that it served middle-class voters better than it listened to them. It was a lesson he got from his father. “People don’t expect government to solve all their problems,” Joe Biden Sr. told his son in the 1960s and 1970s. “But they do expect them to understand their problems.” More specifically, Biden agrees with critics who say the White House waited too long in the first term before pivoting to a jobs bill, then sold it poorly. Dozens of other Obama policies on health, education and the economy that helped the middle class were never placed in a compelling narrative. Later, Biden told me, Obama’s staff missed a chance to refocus on the middle class in ways that could have helped Democrats in both the 2014 and 2016 elections.
Despite Biden’s best efforts, the problem of downwardly mobile white men—Trump’s base— never moved front and center in the West Wing. Biden was known to lose his temper with White House staffers—from junior aides to high-ranking officials— who saw the middle class as an abstraction. “He was not afraid to say, ‘That’s bullshit—you’re talking about people here,’” Klain remembered. But others, as Reed put it, found it “disconcerting to watch the West Wing turn to the vice-president to interpret the middle class for them as if he were the only one to know any members of it.” Obama the former professor sided with highly credentialed economic advisers like Lawrence Summers more than Biden would have liked. “There was a default to pedigree,” Biden told me.
Biden likes to say that “when they call me ‘Middle Class Joe,’ they don’t mean it as a compliment.” He’s still ticked off at Eric Schmidt, chair of Google, for lobbying him on an internet piracy bill with the argument: “You understand we’re the economic engine of America. We will deluge the White House.” Biden offered respect for Google’s “value-added” but told me he felt like throwing Schmidt out of his office. He pointed out that, all together, the tech sector employed fewer workers than GM shed in a single year during the Great Recession.
In the fall of 2014, the president and his senior staff held a week’s worth of meetings in the Roosevelt Room to figure out what to do in the final two years of Obama’s presidency. “I said, ‘You gotta start talking to these people,’” Biden recalled, referring to working-class voters he thought deserved a break and would help the White House politically if they felt someone had their backs.
A big debate ensued that was reminiscent of one Biden had for years with Ted Kennedy—should money be targeted on the poor or the middle class? Even though Republicans were blocking them at every turn, Biden thought both interests could be served and he wanted a middle class tax cut. Obama’s political advisers, Biden remembered, were sure it would fail, which would weaken the president politically. Biden said his argument was, “Let’s get caught trying.”
They didn’t even try. The consequences of these policy decisions would be felt in the 2016 election when the non-college educated white voters Biden argued needed more attention voted for Trump, who won by 20 points in several Ohio and Pennsylvania counties carried by Obama in 2012.
Biden was more influential on foreign policy.
“Joe will do Iraq,” Obama announced to his senior staff less than a week after taking office in 2009. He later told me that of all the issues he and Biden worked on together, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were the most important: “That day-to-day interaction was most valuable to me.”
Biden, who as a senator had proposed partitioning Iraq, began traveling to the region every other month. He quickly developed deep knowledge of the complexities and a useful relationship with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. But in 2010 Maliki lost a close election and refused to relinquish power, leaving the government in limbo. In crisis after crisis, Biden’s goal was to get Iraq to be a place where “politics has broken out.” It did, but so did war. When Biden couldn’t convince an increasingly authoritarian Maliki to broaden his government to include more Sunnis, many defected to ISIS. He finally helped ease Maliki out in 2014 but by that time ISIS was 30 kilometers from Baghdad.
Biden ended up on the losing sides of some debates—for instance, bombing Libya—and he told me that he advised Obama to hold off a couple of days before going after Osama bin Laden. In the last hours before the decision, a dissenting intelligence report concluded that bin Laden wasn’t in the Abbottabad compound after all. Biden recommended one more reconnaissance flight before going ahead with the mission. When the president wanted to proceed anyway, the vice president—out of earshot of other advisers— told me that he advised him to “follow your instincts.”
Former Defense Secretary Bob Gates (who opposed the bin Laden mission throughout) wrote in his book that Biden over the years was mostly wrong with his recommendations. But Biden’s long-time argument for drone attacks over the counterinsurgency and ambitious nation-building approach favored by Gates and Clinton proved more influential with Obama, less harmful to American troops and cheaper. ISIS has been rolled back without U.S. casualties. Iraq is functioning—barely. Overall, Obama sided with Biden and U.S. forces in the region were reduced from 180,000 to 15,000—a major shift from the wartime footing of the previous eight years. Afghanistan is hardly paradise, but dire predictions about a collapse of the U.S.-allied government in Kabul have not come to pass on Obama’s watch.
Biden was often Obama’s eyes, ears and enforcer. He spent dozens of hours with Xi Jinping before Xi became president of China, which gave Obama a useful heads-up on a crucial relationship; helped secure global sanctions against Iran that led to the nuclear deal; pushed for European sanctions against Russia after it invaded Crimea; helped restore ties between Israel and Turkey and offered tough love to allies. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina both found themselves on the receiving end of phone calls from the vice president threatening an aid cutoff if they didn’t take steps to fight corruption. In both cases, the threats produced results.
Even when the administration fell short, as it did in closing Guantanamo, Biden worked the problem hard. In 2013, Clifford Sloan, the State Department’s special envoy to close the prison, was negotiating with an unnamed foreign government, which wasn’t sure how much high-level U.S. backing there was to take Gitmo detainees, a concern that made it into a written intelligence report that was not specifically directed to the vice president. To Sloan’s amazement, Biden saw the report and made the high-level phone calls necessary to re-settle the detainees.
Biden brought the same energy to the “Cancer Moon Shot,” which in just one year made great strides in breaking down silos in cancer research to help speed cures. Biden incentivized researchers to collaborate better and signed scores of agreements with other nations designed to improve global cancer research and enhance prevention. He will work on it the rest of his life.
Since November, legions of Democrats have argued that Biden would have spared the country the miseries of Trump had he chosen to run in 2016. Biden agrees. He decided not to, as he has said many times, because he wasn’t emotionally healthy enough to do so after the death of Beau, “my soul.”
Every conversation with Biden quickly turns to Beau, a popular Delaware attorney general planning to run for governor at the time of his death. Biden likes to point out that Beau, a major in the Delaware National Guard, showed such leadership in Kosovo, and later in Iraq, that General Ray Odierno said at his funeral that he expected to address him as commander-in-chief some day.
Beau, who along with his younger brother, Hunter, survived the 1972 car accident that killed Biden’s first wife and infant daughter, suffered a stroke in 2010 that seemed unrelated to cancer but wasn’t. In 2013, he was diagnosed at M.D. Anderson in Houston with a glioblastoma and given a “death sentence,” his father said. After chemo and radiation, he suffered from aphasia, which gave him trouble finding words.
Biden said Obama was extraordinarily supportive during Beau’s illness, telling him that short of war he knew he would be off the job and with his son. For a year and a half, the White House closed ranks around the Biden family, protecting them from public attention.
Biden refused to admit that Beau was dying, and it looked for a time as if he had stabilized. The vice president pursued all possible leads, including a Hail Mary clinical trial. Game face in place, he showed up at Yale to give the Class Day speech wearing Ray Bans and offering jokes about his Corvette.
Two week later, his son was dead. After the funeral, Joe, Hunter and Val stood by the coffin at the church for 11 hours greeting people who had stood in line for three or four hours. “People assume because I’ve been through this before, I knew how to deal with it,” Biden told one friend. “But because I’d been through it before, I knew it would never end.”
Vicki Kennedy, Ted’s widow, called to say that she had a letter from Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. to a grieving acquaintance after Joe Jr. was killed in World War II. The patriarch of the Kennedy family wrote that nothing would ever fill the hole in his heart but he would spend the rest of his life thinking ‘What would Joe do?’” Biden vowed to spend the rest of his life asking the same question, as blue WWBD bracelets suddenly appeared all over Delaware.
Within two months of Beau’s death, the unforgiving calendar of presidential politics demanded that the vice president make a decision. Planning for a 2016 campaign had actually begun in 2013, before Beau got sick. The theory was that Biden was matched to the moment—that even his gaffes made him authentic and popular, an idea later borne out by Trump’s success. When Beau died, Biden’s chief of staff, Steve Richetti, and his longtime political adviser, Mike Donilon, returned to the idea and Biden was sorely tempted by it.
Last month, it didn’t take much to get him talking about how it might have gone had he run. He told me he had the support (including from organized labor) to beat Clinton in the primaries with an innovative, forward-looking campaign that rejected SuperPAC financing. Suddenly he was ticking off caucuses and primaries: She would win Iowa, Bernie Sanders would probably take neighboring New Hampshire and he would score big in South Carolina.
But there were big hurdles. Biden complained privately in 2015 that Clinton had vacuumed up most of the big donors and talented operatives. Had he jumped into the race, he would have been far behind her in almost every aspect of organizing a campaign. In retrospect, the two of them might have split the establishment vote and the black vote, giving Sanders the edge. The Vermont senator would have highlighted Biden’s sponsorship of the unpopular 1994 crime bill, his support of TPP and his ties to MBNA, the Delaware-based credit card giant. The plagiarism that drove Biden from the 1988 race would have been resurrected, and friendly reporters might have bent over backwards to be tougher once he jumped into the race.
It’s easy to say that had he been nominated, he would have demolished Trump. Internal Clinton polls showed him after Labor Day with an approval rating in Pennsylvania more than 40 points higher than the GOP candidate’s. Michigan and Wisconsin liked him, too. But counterfactuals are tricky. No one can know what knives Trump would have pulled on him had he been the Democratic nominee.
When Biden was making his decision in the fall of 2015, the Obama White House tried to nudge him out of it. Polls showed Biden doing better than Clinton in head-to-head match-ups with Republicans, but running third on the Democratic side. David Plouffe, Obama’s senior political adviser, advised Biden that his chances looked bad. The president himself was respectful of his right to make his own decision. But he, too, counseled him that it would be a tough race and that he doubted he was emotionally healthy enough so soon after Beau’s death.
Two months after Beau died, Maureen Dowd wrote a New York Times column with Biden’s cooperation that said Beau “tried to make his father promise to run, arguing that the White House should not revert to the Clintons.”
Obama walked over and put his hands on his vice president’s shoulders. “Joe, promise me you won’t sell the house. I’ll give you the money.”
The truth was more complicated. According to a family friend, Beau believed that his and Hunter’s survival after the 1972 accident kept his father alive, but so did politics. Four decades later, Beau knew his death would ravage his father, so he urged him to fill the void as he had after the accident—again, with politics. Hunter, too, thought it was the natural thing for him to do.
But Biden, pressed gently by Jill to make a decision, was having doubts, agreeing with friends who said that running for president should not be therapy. As the phantom campaign pressed up against hard deadlines, family considerations became overwhelming. Hunter, a corporate executive, had been dismissed in 2014 from the Naval Reserve after testing positive for cocaine. The idea of subjecting his only surviving son to withering scrutiny filled him with dread. And Biden, who for three decades was one of the poorest members of the Senate, feared for a time that Beau hadn’t left enough money to provide for his family.
One day at lunch, he told the president, “We’ll sell [our] house. We’ve got a lot of equity.” Biden recounted to me how an emotional Obama—who had made millions in book royalties writing about his own father—got up from the table, walked over and put his hands on his vice president’s shoulders. “Joe, promise me you won’t sell the house. I’ll give you the money.”
Biden declined, of course. It turned out Beau had done better estate planning than his father realized, though Biden still worries about his grandchildren’s tuition.
Obama told me that the two men talked about Beau constantly for a year and a half. “The conversations with him were conversations between two dads—the memory of seeing a child suffering, and what that meant. Issues of politics were secondary.” Of any comfort he may have provided, the president said, “He would have done the same for me.”
The depth of their friendship, which has no precedent in the history of presidents and vice presidents, has crossed generational lines. Sasha Obama and Maisy Biden (Hunter’s daughter) are sophomores and best friends at Sidwell Friends School, where the president quietly helped coach their basketball team for three seasons. Michelle Obama and Jill Biden worked happily together helping military families, and Biden enjoys an especially warm relationship with Michelle’s mother, Marian Robinson, whom he calls “Mom.”
“I think I do know his heart,” Biden said of the outgoing president. “It’s a generous, loving heart but he doesn’t [always] know how to express it outside of family.”
Biden started getting a sinking feeling about the election in October.
While most Democrats breathed a sigh of relief after the final debate, the vice president fretted. He thought Hillary paid too much attention to Trump’s character and wondered what would have happened had she responded to the Access Hollywood tape with something along the lines of, “‘Everybody knows what he’s like. [Now] let me tell you what I’m going to do for you.’”
When I asked him in mid-October why Clinton had not repeatedly wrung Trump’s 2015 comment that “wages are too high” around his neck, he grimaced and spread his arms in exasperation. He and Obama still expected Hillary to win. But in the last week, speaking to raucous crowds in battleground states, he noticed that that the cheers were dutiful when he mentioned Hillary’s name. “It just didn’t feel good,” he told me.
At home at the Naval Observatory, Election Night was excruciating. A Biden granddaughter, watching at the White House, said she felt like she was going to vomit and asked her mother to pick her up. A Biden grandson worried that the election meant war. While “Pop” tried to soothe them, he knew their gloom was shared around the world.
Biden believed there was “not one overarching thing” that changed the outcome, but he kept searching for one, anyway. While he tried not to blame Clinton, he couldn’t help himself, even when admitting that she had slipped on his kind of banana peel: “Would it have been different if there hadn’t been the Biden gaffes that I do—‘basket of deplorables’? I don’t know, I don’t think that cost it. But this was so close in three different states.”
Despite his frustrations, Biden is certain that he and the president didn’t abandon white working-class voters, millions of whom benefitted from Obamacare, college loans and other of their programs. And yet many of them say they’ve been left behind. “If we had at least said, ‘I feel your pain,’” Biden told me, feeling the pain of a party that—irony piled on irony—failed to attach Bill Clinton’s signature 1992 line to his wife’s message.
During the transition, Obama and Biden decided there was no percentage in attacking Trump. Biden told me that he’s worried that “a lot of Democrats and serious press people are thinking, ‘When he [Trump] goes low, sometimes you have to go lower.’” It’s tempting but a trap, he said. “My view is, when he goes low—it’s not, Michelle’s phrase, ‘Go high’—it’s just ignore the goddamn low and talk [about] what you want.”
For Biden, that’s cancer, the middle class and American leadership in the world, which he believes is at risk under Trump. He told the World Economic Forum in Davos this week that Russia wants “to return to a politics defined by spheres of influence,” a policy he considers a threat to the postwar world order. And he suggested that Trump saw matters differently, warning: “It is only by championing the liberal international order—by continuing to invest in our security, reaffirming our shared values and expanding the cause of liberty around the world—that will retain our position of leadership.”
Shortly after the election, he and Jill retreated to a friend’s house at Rehoboth Beach and decided that making money wasn’t any more important to them than it had ever been. Instead, Biden will focus on keeping his Cancer Moonshot and establishing policy institutes at the University of Pennsylvania (on global affairs) and the University of Delaware (domestic initiatives).
And the historic partnership will continue. “For Joe and myself, and Michelle and Jill, we have a great interest in figuring out how to promote young talent,” Obama told me, signaling that both families would be working beyond politics to help the generation that came of age during their era. That, they believe, is their most important legacy of all.