By Anne E. Kornblut
For anyone expecting Vice President Biden to disappear in a sea of strong-willed Cabinet heavyweights, an event at the White House on Friday morning was a signal: President 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. He said that Biden will be especially suited to the task of studying the middle class and coming up with solutions, given his working-class, Scranton roots.
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, who regard Bernstein as one of their greatest allies within the administration. 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 take place on Feb. 27 in Philadelphia, to focus on green economy jobs (ones, in other words, that help revamp the infrastructure of the country to make it more environmentally sound). It 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, known for his secrecy.
To be sure, the “task force” label can sometimes indicate an issue is being swept under the rug or delayed to a later time. But 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 — part of a broad push by Obama to demonstrate that his administration is dedicated to the middle class. That makes whatever Biden does — or does not do — 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.”
“President Barack Obama has made it clear that is going to change,” Biden wrote. He described it as an “important long-term task” to make sure that middle class families feel the benefits of the economic recovery once it begins, in areas such as education and job training, business development, and the reform of childcare. Biden promised “clear, specific steps we can take to meet these concerns and others” in keeping with the administration’s promise of operating “in a fully transparent manner.”
Biden is also scheduled to make a high-profile foreign trip next week, to a security conference in Munich, on Obama’s behalf.
At the event, Obama hailed the role of organized labor, saying he had sharply disagreed with the Bush administration’s approach to the labor movement. “The American economy is not and has never been a zero sum game. When workers are prospering, they buy products” and that helps keep businesses strong, Obama said.
Obama also said he was signing three executive orders to help workers, including one that required federal contractors to inform employees of their rights under the National Labor Relations Board, and another ensuring that qualified employees keep their jobs even when a contract changes hands.