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Cliff-deal role boosts Biden

| Saturday, Jan. 5, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Late last week, Vice President Joe Biden had no problem telling the press who sealed the deal on the so-called fiscal cliff.

“Me!” he said, grinning ear-to-ear.

And, for a moment, Biden came away looming politically larger than Sen. Harry Reid, who should have been the Democrats' star negotiator. The Nevada Democrat is the majority leader, after all, and holds most of the Senate's political clout.

Yet Reid — who famously has not passed a budget for three years in the chamber that he and his party control — was knocked out of the negotiations by a phone call to Biden from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., after Reid said he had nothing left to give Republicans.

Thanks to Biden's 36 years in the Senate, a deal was done hours later.

“Most people I spoke with said it was the right way for Democrats to go,” said Steffen Schmidt, an Iowa State political science professor. He described Reid as “the extremist-liberal bad cop” and Biden as “the compromising good cop who cut the deal.”

“There was a fake ‘oh-my-God' about the deal Biden cut, but it was for show,” he added.

In the Democrats' backrooms there were high-fives all around, Schmidt said, because everyone got what they needed from the deal — including Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who didn't vote for it. “If Harkin's vote had been needed, I hear he would have voted yes,” Schmidt said.

To a degree, Biden also looked better than President Obama.

When the negotiations hit a snag, Obama had decided the presidential thing to do was to goad Republicans with a campaign-style event mocking their weakened hand. In contrast, Biden sat down and negotiated with the other side.

Last year, according to Schmidt, many Iowa Democrats “wanted Obama to dump Biden and put Hillary Clinton on the ticket for 2012.”

Now, he said, many Democrats in the all-important caucus state “are saying Biden is on the top of their list, right behind Clinton, for 2016.”

Schmidt reels off descriptions of the former U.S. senator from Delaware that he has heard recently from activist Iowa Democrats: “Working-class guy … hard-hitting in the debates … (he) can get a larger percentage of white voters in 2016 than Obama did.”

Biden was Obama's emissary for this deal. As Schmidt explained, that allows Obama to say, “It's not what I would have preferred but we got it done — we won this skirmish and took no casualties.”

For the moment, “Biden the Negotiator” appears to eclipse “Joe the Biden,” as he is derided when he's in gaffe mode: August poll numbers put his approval rate at an anemic 43 percent; late last month, after Obama designated him gun-control czar after the Newtown tragedy, CNN/ORC polling showed Biden's approval climbing to a healthy 54 percent.

Joe Biden's own worst enemy has always been Joe Biden, according to Dane Strother, a Washington-based Democrat strategist. “But he has gone from being his own worst enemy to his own best asset,” Strother said of Biden's recent turnaround.

Biden's lowest point last year — and a perfect example of his wayward tongue — came in August, when he told a black audience in Virginia that Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney was “going to let the big banks once again write their own rules — unchain Wall Street! They're going to put y'all back in chains!”

“Could Joe Biden successfully run for the party's nomination? Sure,” said Strother. But he wonders if running the president's gun-control effort could become a potential landmine.

“In politics, you can talk about guns,” Strother said, pausing. “Then you can talk about everything else.”

Today,, the two-time (1998, 2008) presidential candidate's campaign website, directs you to his official White House website. Yet the Internet domain is still held by former staffers; his campaign guru and longtime adviser, Mike Donilon, is never far out of reach and has worked on the Obama-Biden re-election campaign and as a counselor to the vice president.

For Americans, it is always either too soon or not soon enough to talk about who the next president might be.

Joe Biden has just had his first glimpse of both moments at the exact same time.

Salena Zito covers politics for Trib Total Media. (412-320-7879 or

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