Opinion Extra

Brooks: White House of tranquillity

During the presidential campaign, Barack Obama and Joe Biden had a Felix and Oscar air about them. Obama was disciplined and professorial while Biden was tactile and approachable. Biden would make an off-color joke, while Obama would put on a contemptuous grimace. Biden would bound friskily onstage to the roar of the crowd. Obama would glide gracefully and even ask Joe to hold his coat.

It was not automatic that the two men would work well together once in office. When advisers from the Obama campaign interviewed Biden as a potential running mate and asked him why he wanted to be vice president, he told them that, in fact, he didn't want the job. He'd do it. But he didn't want it.

And, indeed, Biden's first few months on the job were not entirely happy. He went off on one of his gaffe sprees, angering White House aides. It was common to hear Democratic senators say: "Joe is miserable. He's doing this for the country, but he's miserable."

It was odd to interview him then. Normally a verbal gusher, his word rate diminished to a trickle. He paused and hemmed, like a man crossing a minefield.

But in recent months, Obama has found a way to use Biden's skills, while Biden has found ways to be of use.

A big moment came when the subject of Iraq came up at a security meeting. Obama casually asked Biden to take the lead on Iraqi policy. This was a potentially dangerous moment, in which the vice president could be tromping over ground occupied by the secretaries of state and defense. But Biden seems to know every player in Iraq down to the alderman level - and, so far, he seems to have done the job without stepping on too many toes. (Hillary Clinton's influence on this and all issues is exceptionally hard to figure out.)

Biden was also asked to oversee the stimulus spending, a job that occupies 20 percent of his time. He has spoken to 49 governors and 100 mayors, successfully policing the spending splurge and heading off potentially damaging stimulus projects, like a Napa wine train that would have shepherded tipplers from one vineyard to another.

Finally, Biden was asked to come up with a middle-class agenda. This is a surprisingly difficult job, because many of these programs - credits for college affordability and child care - fairly reek of small-bore Clintonism. This is an administration that is staffed by Clintonites but does not want to appear Clintonian in any way.

Biden, for his part, has become the country's leading Obama-ologist. Dick Cheney never spoke at meetings. Biden has his weekly presidential lunches, as Cheney did, but he does speak at meetings, depending on the president's body language.

There are times when the president is leaning back when he seems to relish Biden's interventions. During the Afghan debate, the president clearly used the vice president to push the skeptic's case.

On other occasions, when the president doesn't seem to have made up his mind, or when he is leaning forward, hunched over the table, Biden holds back, letting the arguments play.

Inside the administration, in other words, Biden doesn't have the class-clown reputation he has on the late-night comedy shows. White House aides speak of him respectfully, and regularly mention his role when decisions are made. Among other things, he has emerged as the special assistant for body English - sent to Capitol Hill, Poland and beyond - when the administration needs somebody to hold a hand and show empathy.

The surprisingly smooth relationship between the administration's top two officers is part of the broader White House culture. This is a fraught political climate. Liberals are furious. Moderates are running for their lives. Republicans believe, with much evidence, that an unprecedented wave of public rage is breaking across the land, directed at Washington. The uninformed float rumors that Rahm Emanuel is on the outs.

Yet the atmosphere in the White House appears surprisingly tranquil. Emanuel is serving as a lighting rod for the president but remains crisply confident in his role as chief of staff. It's true that several top administration officials did not want to attempt comprehensive health care reform this year. But they are not opening recrimination campaigns. It's no secret that many think the president needs to be more assertive with Congress, yet administration officials still talk about Obama in awestruck tones, even in private.

Some would say the administration is underreacting to the incredible shift in the public mood. Some would say they need more voices from the great unwashed. But no one could accuse them of panicking, or of scrambling about incoherently. In their first winter of discontent, they are offering continuity and comity. Whatever their relations with the country might be, inside they seem unruffled. The bonds of association, from the top down, seem healthy - especially for a bunch of Democrats.