Where, oh where, is Joe Biden?

Sen. Joe Biden seems to have all but disappeared and he hasn’t even been elected vice president yet. Could it mean that Sen. Barack Obama, if chosen president next week, has decided to relegate his running mate to a more traditional role than has been the case in the last two administrations?

In the old days the honor of being chosen for the second spot on the Democrat or Republican ticket at least lasted through the inauguration, after which the honoree was seldom seen or heard except for funerals and other ceremonial affairs the president didn’t want to attend. In both the administrations of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, the vice presidents had a strong policy assignment, particularly Dick Cheney whose influence has been visible almost everywhere.

But the Obama’s team’s management of Biden’s role in the campaign would indicate that he is regarded as a potential problem. He is simply out there visiting ice cream parlors and keeping his famous mouth shut except for a lick or two after a couple of somewhat embarrassing gaffes — a tendency for which he has been notorious throughout his career.

Well, so much for his heralded expertise in foreign policy as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the alleged reason he was chosen in the wake of the Georgia/Russia crisis to bolster Obama’s obvious lack of experience. In the meantime, Biden’s Republican counterpart has drawn almost as much attention as the presidential nominee, not all of it good certainly. But Sarah Palin hasn’t flinched in the face of some really tough assessments and increasingly she has moved in her own direction and away from the not always sound advice of her McCain handlers.

In fact, Sen. John McCain almost seems to revel in her presence and bask in her attractiveness, enthusiasm and vibrancy. Her new independence has led to speculation that she will be a socially conservative force in the GOP leading up to 2012, win or lose Tuesday. Actually, she has as much as said so herself. A moderate former Republican national chairman, Frank Fahrenkopf Jr., who is also co-chairman of the Commission Presidential Debates, said that despite questions about Palin’s lack of qualification to succeed to the presidency, McCain’s tenuous connection to the GOP base made her a definite asset.

"He (McCain) would have been worse off without her," he said.

Biden on the other hand clearly fits the historic standard for a vice presidential candidate — do no harm and at least be considered qualified if required to assume the office of the presidency. Otherwise as John Nance Garner, Franklin Roosevelt’s first running mate, made clear in his oft quoted assessment, "the job isn’t worth a pitcher of warm spit." That is a cleaned up version of what he actually said.

This is not to suggest that Obama doesn’t have as much respect for Biden as he once had or pretended to have. The Illinois senator, however, is a strong personality who is not likely to depend heavily on his Constitutional second in command for advice. It is a reason he took the risk of turning down those who wanted Sen. Hillary Clinton to have the spot. Her equally strong presence was seen as conflicting with his, especially with her famous husband’s shadow looming over the whole thing. Besides, his advisers felt that the first African American and only the second woman on the ticket would be a tough sell.

The question remains as to whether Biden can adapt to an obscure role following years of influence in the Senate. Observers believe that he can be subdued only so long without reverting to type as the frustration grows and his penchant for speaking his mind becomes more difficult for him to resist. Except for the fact that he is only a heartbeat away from lasting historical prominence, he may wish he were back where his voice carried some weight.



(E-mail Dan K. Thomasson, former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service, at thomassondan(at)aol.com.)