WASHINGTON (Reuters) - As President Barack Obama seeks Congress’ backing for deficit reduction and spending programs he outlined on Tuesday night, he will rely on Vice President Joe Biden, who has been playing a growing role as the White House’s emissary to Capitol Hill.
The Obama administration has been turning increasingly to Biden as its link to Capitol Hill, where he spent 36 years as a Delaware senator, since the departure of former congressman Rahm Emanuel as Obama’s chief of staff last year.
His role is expected to grow as the White House jockeys with rival Republicans over programs Obama outlined on Tuesday night in his second State of the Union address.
Biden played a central part late last year in working out a compromise extending tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans -- giving in to Republican demands -- as well as the middle-class, and extending unemployment and other benefits for the less well-off.
“The vice president has been playing a growing role in working with the Senate and it has been constructive. Our latest effort resulted in a bill that would prevent anyone from seeing a tax hike. We’ll see what’s next,” Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said.
The pact, part of a shift toward the center that the Democratic president continued on Tuesday night, helped turn around Obama’s public opinion numbers, even though it enraged many of his supporters on the left, whose backing will be essential as he gears up to seek re-election in 2012.
Biden’s legions of friends in Congress -- where he chaired the Senate Foreign Relations and Judiciary committees -- will be especially important as the White House negotiates with a new Congress, where Republicans have the majority in the House of Representatives and gained strength in the Senate.
“He’s someone who was in this institution for a long time and who has friends on both sides of the aisle. As Congress becomes more difficult as a political landscape, it’s natural the president is going to turn to Biden as an ally,” said Julian Zelizer, a historian and expert on public policy at Princeton University.
Democratic Senator John Kerry, who succeeded Biden as Foreign Relations Committee chairman, said the vice president had also been instrumental in winning support Obama’s new START arms control treaty with Russia in December.
“He understands the rhythms of this place. Don’t underestimate the fact that people like Joe,” Kerry said.
Obama will need all of Biden’s connections during what is expected to be a bitter fight over how to tackle the $1.3 trillion U.S. budget deficit, which involves difficult issues like how to cut spending and alter the tax code.
Republicans were more grudging in their praise, but said Biden, 68, was an improvement over others at the youth-dominated White House.
Appreciation for his broad experience seems to have overcome trepidation about Biden’s reputation for saying too much or speaking too openly. Obama is said to appreciate Biden’s candor -- Biden is widely reported to have been a valued skeptic about the president’s Afghan war policy.
“The president and his closest advisers have very little experience in successfully pushing through bipartisan agreements in Congress. Joe Biden has far more of a background in doing those sort of things,” one senior Republican Senate aide said, requesting anonymity in order to speak candidly.
Biden’s role is a change from his first two years in office, which were largely spent selling Obama’s unpopular $814 billion economic stimulus plan.
Biden began the new year by visiting Afghanistan and Iraq, where he assured government officials Washington would meet its schedule for withdrawing troops. In troublesome U.S. ally Pakistan, he delivered a speech that sought to dispel what he called common anti-American misperceptions.
“He’s a very gregarious guy. He likes people and he knows how to deal with them. He doesn’t have a lot of enemies and that works well for him and it works well for the administration,” said veteran political columnist Jules Witcover, whose biography of Biden, “Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption,” was published in October.
Members of Congress also compare Biden favorably to Emanuel, who was known for a confrontational style that contrasted sharply with Biden’s affability.
Republicans said they doubted Emanuel could have forged bi-partisan deals like the tax bill.
Some legislators rate Biden more highly not only than Emanuel, but also than Obama, who served less than one term in the Senate and is known for a cool personal style, in sharp contrast to Biden’s collegiality.
“They believe -- and this may sound harsh -- that Biden would be less apt to cut deals with Republicans and would be more loyal to Congress,” the Democratic aide said.
Additional reporting by Tom Ferraro and Steve Holland; Editing by Kristin Roberts and Eric Beech