No doubt the new Bob Woodward book Obama’s Wars will have many useful pieces of information about the administration’s national security process. But the New York Times summary contains one tidbit that fascinates the blogger obsessed with the Vice Presidency.
The president concluded from the start that “I have two years with the public on this” and pressed advisers for ways to avoid a big escalation, the book says. “I want an exit strategy,” he implored at one meeting. Privately, he told Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. to push his alternative strategy opposing a big troop buildup in meetings, and while Mr. Obama ultimately rejected it, he set a withdrawal timetable because, “I can’t lose the whole Democratic Party.”
This seems like a particularly interesting use of the VP in the policy process. First, some background, there are two approaches a VP can take to influencing the policy process. Mondale set the standard of saving his advice and advocacy for meetings with the president only – a “hidden hands” influence. Mondale learned from his mentor Humphrey, who was shut out of the NSC after disagreeing with LBJ – who assumed anything spoken would leak. Under Clinton, Gore was free to disagree with the President in meetings and there was an understanding that Gore really was an advisor in chief. Still, the administration was pretty good at making sure that there were no public policy disagreements between the VP and President.
A VP who has the President’s confidence can be a useful figure in supporting alternative viewpoints within the White House. VP’s can’t be fired and any other staffer may be afraid to break from the group.
But here we have something else, Obama seeming to use Biden as a human trial balloon. Perhaps knowing that the brass would be putting on a full-court press, Obama needed someone prominent who didn’t have much to lose (Biden won’t be running for any other office and VPs are almost impossible to get rid of – as VP scholar Joel Goldstein observes.)
A new and interesting play perhaps…