Published July 28, 2009
Vice President Biden often gets labeled as a gaffe machine. But he's more like the Democrats' version of the Straight Talk Express.
Love him or leave him, the man speaks his mind.
The Obama administration this week was compelled, once again, to explain and defend the vice president after he made some tough comments about Russia.
Biden had suggested in an interview with The Wall Street Journal that Russia would have no choice but to cooperate with the United States because it is on the brink of sharp decline.
After a rebuke from the Kremlin, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton walked back the remarks. On Monday, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs still defended Biden as an "enormous asset" to the administration.
As the vice president lives up to his campaign trail persona by adding more foreign policy tasks to his portfolio, the administration can reasonably expect more "straight talk" on the world stage, which could continue to lead to a clash of styles with Clinton and President Obama.
The problem with Biden's commentary on the Russians, in which he called their economy "withering" and their banking sector collapsing, was not necessarily that it was off the mark. The problem was it was too true, analysts said.
"He is more right than not in terms of his geopolitical analysis," Peter Feaver, a Duke University professor and former National Security Council adviser, wrote on the Foreign Policy magazine Web site, calling Biden's interviews "among the most interesting ones out there."
Feaver backed up Biden's Russia assessment in an article titled, "Biden Commits a Truth About Russia."
But blunt Biden, in committing a truth about Russia, ran afoul of his own advice, which he gave in the very same interview with the Journal.
"It is never smart to embarrass an individual or a country when they're dealing with significant loss of face," Biden said. "My dad used to put it another way: Never put another man in a corner where the only way out is over you."
After the article was published -- "withering" quote and all -- Russia seemed to be the man in the corner.
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," Prikhodko said.
Democratic consultant Tara Dowdell said the issue with Biden is not his experience or know-how, which she described as vast, but his candor -- it's akin to the "straight talk" that Sen. John McCain used to define his campaigns but its delivery often get Biden into trouble.
"You know what you get when you get Joe Biden," she told FOX News. "I think he's pretty candid. I think a lot of the stuff he says is actually what he's thinking. In politics, unfortunately you can't always say what you're thinking."
In the last several months alone, Biden has caused problems for the administration by doing just that.
-- In an interview with ABC's "This Week" in early July, Biden conceded that the White House team "misread how bad the economy was." His confession came as unemployment hit 9.5 percent, despite the administration's insistence that it would hold to 8 percent with the stimulus plan.
-- Two weeks later, he indelicately summed up the administration's approach to stimulus spending.
"People, when I say that, look at me and say, 'What are you talking about, Joe? You're telling me we have to go spend money to keep from going bankrupt?" he said at a stop in Virginia. "The answer is yes."
The too-much-truth syndrome predates Obama's inauguration.
-- Biden stirred trouble in October when he told fundraising audiences that Obama, if elected, would face a "generated crisis" to "test the mettle of this guy."
Obama clarified that any president would face challenges, and tried to dismiss Biden's dire prediction as one of his trademark "rhetorical flourishes."
Since taking office, Obama has faced a slew of international crises, though it may be unfair to say they were all "generated" to test Obama.
-- Asked by CBS in September how he felt about an Obama campaign ad that made fun of McCain's inability to use a computer -- a result of injuries sustained while a prisoner of war, Biden replied he thought it was "terrible."
-- At a campaign stop in Nashua, N.H., on Sept. 10, Biden said Obama may have been better off had he picked Clinton to be his running mate.
"Hillary Clinton is as qualified or more qualified than I am to be vice president of the United States of America. Let's get that straight," he said. "She's a truly close personal friend; she is qualified to be president of the United States of America. She's easily qualified to be vice president of the United States of America and quite frankly it might have been a better pick than me, but she is first-rate."