Which isn’t to say Obama ever stopped cringing at Biden’s persistent indiscipline or sporadic outright blunders, but he came grudgingly to accept them as part and parcel of Biden being Biden. Obama’s West Wing aides, however, were often less forgiving. When, this past May, the V.P. sparked a firestorm by announcing on Meet the Press that he was “absolutely comfortable” with gay marriage, forcing his boss’s hand on the issue, Obama’s people, and especially White House senior adviser David Plouffe, were livid. And they made their displeasure loudly known, internally and to the press.
Prideful and possessing no diminutive ego, Biden felt bruised by his treatment but apologized to Obama—only to find the president a great deal less bothered than his inner circle. “Look, Joe,” Obama said, according to Politico’s Glenn Thrush in his new e-book, Obama’s Last Stand, “there are people who want to divide us. You and I have to be on the same page from now on.”
In fact, the same page is where Biden and Obama usually find themselves. Over time, a sense of personal chemistry has flowered alongside professional esteem. Biden warmly recalls that when, in the spring of 2010, his son Beau suffered a stroke, Obama came racing down the hall and gave him a hug. And the president—who Biden has told friends is “more Irish than me”—values the fierce loyalty the V.P. has demonstrated. Time and again, in public and private, Biden has dressed down anyone who has dissed Obama. (At a meeting of House Democrats in late 2010, Biden upbraided Anthony Weiner so forcefully and profanely that he earned a standing ovation.) “The stories all get back to Obama,” says a White House official. “He loves them.”
Biden admits that, unlike his mother, he was uncertain that he and the president would become pals. “My son’s more like Barack than I am like Barack,” Biden tells me. “And my son and Barack have the same exact core: They’re cool, they’re cerebral, they’re straight, they keep their passion in check. They’re the modern politician.”
But Biden sees an essential similarity between himself and Obama, generational differences be damned—illustrating the point by noting that they are both popular with college kids. “I think the bottom line is, what they like about Barack is Barack doesn’t pretend to be what he’s not, and I don’t pretend to be what I’m not,” Biden says. “It only matters what he thinks, but we both think we make a pretty good team: We’re an unmatched matched pair.”
Where Biden and Obama are in perfect sync is their attitude and approach to the matched pair on the Republican ticket. A few hours after Romney unveiled his V.P. pick, on August 11, Biden phoned Ryan to congratulate him and welcome him to the race; the call was cheerful and consumed mostly with talk of family. But Biden did offer Ryan one piece of advice: that he should be enjoying this moment, reveling in it, having a ball. What Biden might have added, if he were being candid, was: I know I am.
Forty-eight hours later, Biden launches his southern tour in Durham, North Carolina. The day before, an hour away in High Point, Romney and Ryan had held a rally that drew more than 10,000 souls. The crowd this morning at the Durham Armory is less than a tenth that size, but Biden doesn’t care. After unfurling a shaggy-dog story revolving around the two brain aneurysms that nearly killed him in 1988—a tale set entirely in Delaware but ending with a punch line, attributed to his wife, Jill, that goes, “Joe, if you die, I’m moving to North Carolina!”—he tosses bouquets to a congressman (“It really is wonderful just riding along in Butterfield’s wake”), a state senator (“Floyd helped me last time”), Durham’s mayor (“one of the president’s favorite mayors”), and a local T-shirt manufacturer (“I got coffee on my shirt here, so from here on out, I’m gonna be wearing one of your T-shirts”). Apparently immune to both apocrypha and pandering, the crowd roars with delight.
Yes, Joe Biden loves the stump—and it’s a good thing, too, since the stump is where he has been living for the better part of the past six months. Far in advance of the president, and even before the GOP had settled on its nominee, it was Biden who began the process of framing the argument against the Republicans with a series of major policy speeches in the spring and then in ripping Romney as a rapacious, secretive plutocrat devoid of empathy for ordinary people. “Chicago has been eager from the very beginning,” a top Biden adviser tells me, “for him to be the sharp tip of the spear.”