White House Press Secretary Roberts Gibbs on Monday called Vice President Biden an "enormous asset to the administration," insisting that the loose-lipped No. 2 is not a distraction even after the State Department had to walk back his thorny comments on Russia.
The vice president is known for his blunt, and sometimes off-color, commentary on issues ranging from swine flu to immigrants to President Obama's teleprompter. The latest surprise came when he suggested that Russia will cooperate with the United States on a range of issues because the country is a mess.
"I think we vastly underestimate the hand that we hold," Biden said during an interview with The Wall Street Journal at the end of his trip to Georgia and Ukraine. "Russia has to make some very difficult, calculated decisions. They have a shrinking population base, they have a withering economy, they have a banking sector and structure that is not likely to be able to withstand the next 15 years, they're in a situation where the world is changing before them and they're clinging to something in the past that is not sustainable."
This drew a swift rebuke from the Kremlin, as the Obama administration has repeatedly said it wants to "reset" relations with Russia. The two countries produced a string of agreements on nuclear stockpile reduction and other matters following Obama's recent trip to Moscow.
Sergei Prikhodko, an aide to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, was quoted in the Interfax news agency calling Biden's remarks perplexing.
"The U.S. vice president's intention to tie this serious work (on cutting nuclear weapons stockpiles) to economic reasons rather than to the responsibility that Russia and the U.S. bear to the international community are absolutely incomprehensible," he said.
Prikhodko acknowledged Russia's economic problems, but blamed them on "reckless" behavior by U.S. institutions.
She called Russia a "great power" and said there is an "enormous amount" of work being done to strengthen their relationship.
"It takes time, it takes trust-building. And we want what the president called for during his recent Moscow summit. We want a strong, peaceful and prosperous Russia," she said Sunday.
She made clear that the United States has its terms. She said the administration will insist that Russia cannot have a "sphere of influence" in the former Soviet states in Eastern Europe.
"The Russians know that, you know, we have continuing questions about some of their policies, and they have continuing questions about some of ours," she said. But she praised Russia for its help in pressuring Iran and North Korea, and repeated that Russia and the United States are resetting their relationship.
Asked about the Biden remarks Monday morning, Gibbs neither supported nor rejected them.
He said both Obama and Biden believe better relations with Russia is in the national interest of both countries.
The issue came up again at the daily press briefing Monday afternoon. Gibbs dismissed talk that Biden was a distraction, saying the administration is "enormously helped" by his work in implementing the stimulus package and seeking reconciliation among factions in Iraq.