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Biden a key part of Obama's inner circle

By Ed Henry, CNN Senior White House Correspondent
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Biden opens up
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • President Obama values Joe Biden's advice as truth teller, officials say
  • Biden's largest influence can be seen in Afghanistan debate
  • Vice president also plays key role on health care, stimulus
  • Biden confesses sometimes it's hard to remember he has a boss

Washington (CNN) -- Apparently you can take the vice president out of the Senate, but you just can't take the Senate out of the vice president, and that might be the secret to Joe Biden's influence in President Obama's inner circle.

As I waited Friday in the ornate rooms of the old Department of War near Biden's office in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building next to the White House, I kept wondering which Biden was going to show up for our exclusive interview.

Would it be the old Joe that I used to cover as the Senate correspondent for Roll Call newspaper many years ago, who would throw an arm around me in a Capitol hallway and be happy to give a -- let's face it -- fairly long answer about any subject I'd throw at him?

Biden had this habit of dropping flattery as well as a reporter's name into the answers for familiarity in his gosh-darn-it manner: "Look Ed, I'm literally not just blowing smoke, but you know as much about the Bush tax cuts as I do. ..."

Video: Biden on his relationship with Obama
Video: Biden's take on the economy
Video: Delaware diners' views on Biden

Or would I encounter a New Joe, who's had all the spontaneity knocked out of him by White House handlers who want to clamp down on his blunt, off-the-cuff comments that turn into gaffes? After all, who can forget this year when Biden went on NBC's "Today" show and said he told family members not to take mass transit because of the swine flu -- just as the White House was trying to calm people down instead of scaring them more?

I got my answer as soon as he rushed in, flashing that signature Biden smile and asking how the heck I'd been, and did I know how happy he is to have his son Beau home after serving in Iraq because as a parent (this is where he lowered his voice just so) you never stop worrying about your children. Then he almost immediately started dropping my name again, "You know, Ed -- you have kids."

The personal references continued on every subject from the economy ("Every expert out there has said, Ed, and you know this.") to Pakistan ("I know you know the area, you've been doing this, you're a pro."). In short, it was like we were back in a Capitol hallway shooting the breeze, Biden the politician was trying to flatter a reporter, and this was hardly someone who had been muzzled by the White House, which became clear when I asked if the economy has hit bottom.

"Oh, I'm confident we've hit bottom," Biden said immediately, which is not a gaffe but is a wee bit off-message as the White House cautiously tries to manage expectations about an economic recovery.

A day after the Biden interview, the president said again in his weekly radio/Internet address that unemployment is likely to get worse before it gets better, which means the economy has not really hit "bottom" yet.

But top White House officials tell me that while Biden's instinct of saying what's on his mind no matter what in public tends to get him into trouble, that same quality is what makes the president value his advice so much in private, so they're basically letting "Joe be Joe" these days.

I've been my own man for 36 years as a United States senator. I've never had a boss.
--Joe Biden
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Obama knows Biden will tell him the unvarnished truth and not try to usurp his power, something critics charge did not happen between President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney.

"There's a big difference between me giving the president my advice and having direct access to him on every major issue ... and me going out with a policy that is separate and apart from other people in the administration, which you saw with Cheney," Biden said.

Biden recalled that when Obama first approached him about the job, he rebuffed the candidate because he wanted to stay in the Senate and pressed Obama on why he wanted him to accept. "I want somebody who I think is smart and will tell me exactly what he thinks," Biden said Obama told him.

That appealed to Biden and he's doing just that, with Newsweek recently devoting a cover story to how he's "An Inconvenient Truth Teller" who is not shy about delivering difficult messages to the president and taking on difficult assignments.

While Biden was largely added to the ticket because of his national security experience as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he has influence on the domestic side as a key ambassador to Capitol Hill on health care and is the president's point person on implementing the stimulus package.

But his largest influence arguably can be seen in the major internal debate going on now over Afghanistan. Biden was pretty much standing alone back in March when he privately expressed deep skepticism about the president's decision to send 21,000 more U.S. troops to the war, but he did not undermine the administration publicly, instead keeping his powder dry until the current debate over whether to accept Gen. Stanley McChrystal's request for 40,000 more U.S. troops.

Officials familiar with the deliberations said Biden has been suggesting a smaller increase, which seems to be the direction Obama is leaning toward though a final decision has not been made.

Still, Biden admitted that his transition from the Senate has not always been easy "The one adjustment that I needed to make -- I've been my own man for 36 years as a United States senator," said the former Delaware lawmaker. "I've never had a boss."

Now he has a boss, and Biden confessed sometimes it's hard to remember that he does. Take the time when Biden called his chief of staff, Ron Klain, to tell him the news that Delaware's governor had settled on a replacement, Ted Kaufman, for his old Senate seat.

"I said, '[Ron], the governor called me to tell me he's going to appoint Ted, isn't that great?' " Biden recalled. "He said, 'Yeah did you call the president?' And I said, 'Why the hell should I call the president?' Literally that was my instinct. It's my state, why should I call the president?"

Klain explained that Biden should not let the president be blindsided if a reporter asked him about it, and Biden recognized he simply hadn't realized he needed to give the president a heads-up.

"I wasn't being a wise guy; it had nothing to do with power or being No. 2," Biden said. "It was like, you know, I didn't think that way. And so it took me about three months to get to the point where, you know, that I had to start to think about, 'OK, no matter what I say it's going to be attributed to the president.' And that was a period of adjustment."

Biden has adjusted by being a bit more careful with his tongue, which he was proud about when I asked him if the president has ever had to pull him aside and ask him to tone things down. "Fortunately, not lately -- I'm, you know, I'm sort of a gaffe-free zone right now, you know," Biden said with a laugh.

So he's trying hard to be more careful, maybe trying not to be so blunt all the time, though every now and again he can't help himself -- like when I asked him about Cheney's claim that Obama is "dithering" over his decision on Afghanistan.

"I like Dick Cheney personally, but I really don't care what Dick Cheney thinks and I'm not sure a lot of Americans do," Biden said.

"Look at the policy they left us, look at the policy of neglect they left us in Afghanistan. Look at the policy we inherited in terms of their foreign policy. Look, I think the president is doing exactly what any president should do. And by the way, the military thinks that, too."

There he goes again. Joe being Joe.