WASHINGTON – For anyone expecting Vice President Joe Biden to disappear in a sea of strong-willed Cabinet heavyweights, an event at the White House on Friday morning was a signal: President Barack Obama is really interested in giving Biden a higher profile.
At a crowded ceremony in the East Wing of the White House, Obama launched a task force on the middle class – and put Biden in charge of it. Obama acknowledged that the task force comes at a moment of crisis – just as the economy is experiencing, he said, the “worst contraction in close to three decades” with the release of new data showing the economy had shrunk 3.8 percent last quarter. “This isn’t just an economic concept. This is a continuing disaster for America’s working families. As worrying as these numbers are, it’s what they mean to the American people that really matters,” Obama said.
Biden announced that his chief economic adviser, Jared Bernstein, will be the executive director of the task force – a welcome announcement to more liberal economists and the labor movement. The task force also has its own Web site – astrongmiddleclass.gov – that will not only post information but also solicit ideas, Biden said.
The first task force meeting will be Feb. 27 in Philadelphia, with a focus on green economy jobs. The group will meet monthly, with a different topic at each gathering. When Biden told the audience that it would be “fully transparent,” despite coming out of the vice president’s office, the group laughed and burst into applause – the unspoken contrast being with former Vice President Dick Cheney.
The group created on Friday directly ties Biden to the most pressing issue on Obama’s docket, the economy. And the event, timed to the release of the new economic data, capped a week of intense wrangling between the White House and Congress over an economic stimulus package. That makes whatever Biden does with the task force unusually notable. Gearing up for the day, Biden published an op-ed in USA Today arguing that “for years, we had a White House that failed to put the middle class front and center in its economic policies.”