GWEN IFILL: With so much focus on change underway in the Oval Office come January, less attention has been paid to another perhaps as consequential transition underway at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue as Dick Cheney, the most powerful vice president in history, hands over the reigns to Joe Biden.
The outgoing vice president has been candid and unapologetic about his role.
U.S. VICE PRESIDENT DICK CHENEY: We set out to do what we thought was necessary and essential for the country. That clearly was the guiding principle with respect to the aftermath of 9/11. I feel very good about a lot of the things we’ve done in this administration.
GWEN IFILL: And in spite of a cordial post-election meeting between the two, Biden has been critical of his predecessor.
U.S. VICE PRESIDENT-ELECT JOE BIDEN: His notion of a unitary executive, meaning that in time of war essentially all power, you know, goes to the executive, I think is dead wrong. I think it was mistaken.
I think it caused this administration, in adopting that notion, to overstep its constitutional bounds, but at a minimum to weaken our standing in the world and weaken our security.
GWEN IFILL: The two men see the vice president’s job very differently. Cheney spoke this past weekend to “Fox News Sunday.”
DICK CHENEY: Especially given the kind of conflict we’re faced with today, we find ourselves in a situation where I believe you need strong executive leadership.
What we did in this administration is to exert that kind of authority. We did it in a manner that I believe and the lawyers that we looked to for advice believed was fully consistent with the Constitution and with the laws of the land. And there’s, I say, ample precedent for it.
GWEN IFILL: Biden on ABC’s “This Week” said he leans the other way.
JOE BIDEN: I think we should restore the balance here. The role of the vice president of the United States as I see it is to give the president of the United States the best, sagest, most accurate, most insightful advice and recommendations he or she can make to a president.
CHRIS WALLACE, anchor, Fox News: Biden has said that he believes you have dangerously expansive views of executive power.
DICK CHENEY: Well, I just fundamentally disagree with him.
GWEN IFILL: On Cheney’s watch, the vice president supported harsh interrogation of detainees and a domestic wiretapping program.
JOE BIDEN: I think the recommendations, the advice that he has given to President Bush and maybe advice the president already had decided on before he got it — I’m not making that judgment — has been not healthy for our foreign policy, not healthy for our national security, and it has not been consistent with our Constitution, in my view.
DICK CHENEY: If he wants to diminish the office of vice president, that’s obviously his call.
GWEN IFILL: Biden has said he’s told the president-elect he wants to return to the role of chief presidential confidante.
JOE BIDEN: I said, “I want a commitment from you that, on every important decision you’ll make, every critical decision, economic and political, as well as foreign policy, I’ll get to be in the room.”
GWEN IFILL: It will be up to the president to decide what “being in the room” really means.
What will Biden do differently?
GWEN IFILL: For more on the ambitions and the reality of the vice presidency, we turn to Barton Gellman, author of the book "Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency," and a reporter for the Washington Post.
Ross K. Baker, professor of political science at Rutgers University.
And Roy Neel, longtime chief of staff for former Vice President Al Gore.
Professor Baker, I'd like to start with you. Knowing what we know about these two gentlemen, Dick Cheney and Joe Biden, how different do we expect the vice presidency to be now?
ROSS BAKER, Rutgers University: I don't think there are two people in public life in the United States more different in terms of personality than Dick Cheney and Joe Biden.
I think that it will be very difficult to find points of comparison between the two vice presidents. And I think it will become apparent, as time goes on, just how different a vice president Joe Biden is going to be.
GWEN IFILL: Bart Gellman, Dick Cheney is going to have a tough act to follow for anybody, but especially for a Democrat.
BARTON GELLMAN, Washington Post: Well, yes. Look, Dick Cheney had three qualities that are very seldom combined: He had quite radical ideas. He had a zealotry in advancing them. And he had almost a genius for operational skills, for understanding where the pivot points are in the bureaucracy.
And those are not Joe Biden's qualities. And apart from all that, Cheney has had a particular relationship with the president that gave him all this room for maneuver.
On the other hand, though, Joe Biden I doubt is going to want to relinquish all the influence that Cheney had. Cheney inaugurated the idea that a vice president gets to sit in on the principals meeting of the foreign policy advisers and the National Economic Council and Domestic Policy Council. I don't know that Joe Biden is going to want to relinquish that.
GWEN IFILL: Roy Neel, you've actually been there working for a former Vice President, Al Gore. How realistic is it that, when a vice president comes in and says, "I will have the presidency or I will be the most powerful vice president in the history," does it really work that way?
ROY NEEL, Former chief of staff to Vice President Al Gore: Well, all of this derives from the relationship between the president-elect and vice president-elect.
In our case, President-elect Clinton was most gracious. And Al Gore -- by the way, Bart was not exactly right. It was Al Gore and Bill Clinton that initiated that practice of having the vice president sit in on every important policy meeting.
But it all derives from that relationship, a relationship of trust. There's every reason to believe that Vice President-elect Biden is going to have not only considerable access, but considerable influence, because that's the principal role here. Whatever access and whatever influence that Dick Cheney had came right from President Bush.
Biden wants to be top adviser
GWEN IFILL: That's a good question, Ross Baker. I wonder, did Vice President Cheney seize power or was he granted power?
ROSS BAKER: Well, of course, Vice President Cheney goes back with the Bush family for many, many years. It was a personal kind of relationship, I think, that really can't be duplicated, in terms of President-elect Obama and Vice President-elect Biden.
But something very interesting happened today, and that is that it was Vice President-elect Biden who was the person who made the announcement about the contacts between the Obama campaign and Governor Blagojevich, which I think suggests that he will have a more general mandate and certainly will not be restricted to the area of foreign policy. And I think he'll be quite visible.
GWEN IFILL: Bart Gellman, look at the way that Joe Biden has so far been describing what his role would be and read between the lines for us. What does he say and what does he mean?
BARTON GELLMAN: Well, Joe Biden has made clear that there's one set of functions that Cheney performed, and also Al Gore, and even going back to Walter Mondale, that he, too, wants to perform.
He wants to be the top adviser to the president. He wants to be in on all the decision-making meetings. He wants to be right there at the moment in the Oval Office or the situation room when Barack Obama is making the hard choices.
What he's not going to have -- and he said this explicitly -- is the kind of operational role that Cheney had. Cheney was the chairman of a newly invented Budget Review Board that made final calls on budget disputes, because George Bush was uninterested in those details.
Cheney would, you know, sort of reach down and call the 19th-ranking official in the Interior Department and sort of push levers to make things happen. That's not going to be Joe Biden's role, I don't think, at all.
GWEN IFILL: Roy Neel, when you worked for Vice President Gore, one of the other things that Cheney did was he became the president's spokesperson on the Hill. He would go to these Senate policy lunches with Republicans and brief them on what the president's agenda was. This is not something that Vice President Al Gore did.
So how much of this is just something which is up to the vice president himself to do?
ROY NEEL: Well, it's really up to the president. And you have to remember, in the case of President Bush and Dick Cheney, President Bush came in to office with virtually no familiarity with the Congress, with the Senate, and virtually no familiarity with foreign policy or national security. So he just subcontracted all that activity to Dick Cheney.
Al Gore did not play that particular role. He was the most senior adviser to President Clinton. I think that's what we'll see with Joe Biden, as well.
Defining the vice president's role
GWEN IFILL: But let me ask you this, Roy Neel. Based on your experience in the White House, in the best of situations, exactly what can a vice president do? It's not very well defined what his role is in the Constitution. What can a vice president assert unto himself?
ROY NEEL: Well, the vice presidency in the Constitution only exists to sit in the Senate and break ties. But the vice president can do essentially whatever the president wants him to do, in terms of exercising authority with his cabinet, in terms of outreach to the Congress or to interest groups or so on.
The vice president serves at the pleasure of the president in this case and will be given those tasks and responsibilities that advance the president's agenda.
And so I think that we'll see them developing this as we go along. Whatever President Obama's priorities are will be the priorities that Vice President Biden will be focusing on, as well.
GWEN IFILL: Ross Baker, Joe Biden is not known as a retiring sort, and yet the description of what he has made of what he would do as being the behind-the-scenes last person to talk to, the one who sits in all the meetings, from what you know of Joe Biden's career, how does that make sense? How does that fit?
ROSS BAKER: Well, he's a very conciliatory person. I think that senators who served with him in the United States Senate would say he's a very easy man to get along with. He made lots of friends.
I don't think that he is a sort of seminal thinker. I can't imagine, for example, his coming out with a theory of the unitary presidency, as Dick Cheney did.
But I'd like to add one thing, and that is one activity we're not going to see Vice President Biden doing that was a very prominent role for Vice President Cheney is attending the Tuesday lunches, the so-called policy lunches in the Capitol, with the senators.
Senator Reid, the majority leader, is already on record as saying that that kind of activity is not going to take place during the Obama administration.
GWEN IFILL: But explain why that's significant for most people who don't know anything or care anything about Senate policy lunches?
ROSS BAKER: Right. What happens is that, every Tuesday, both -- the senators of both parties in separate rooms in the Capitol have what they call policy lunches.
And the Republican policy lunch was invariably attended by Vice President Cheney, if he was in town. He came at the invitation -- actually, originally he was invited by Senator McConnell's predecessor, Senator Frist. And so he sat on a large number of these meetings.
And while he did not take part actively in the discussions, his presence there was a very clear message that the White House was listening to what Republican senators were saying and also wanted to get the message across that Republican senators should listen to what the White House had to say.
Relationship with president evolves
GWEN IFILL: Bart Gellman, let's talk cautionary tales here. What exactly does an incoming vice president have to be aware of to guard against being sidelined by, say, a powerful chief of staff, like Rahm Emanuel?
BARTON GELLMAN: Well, that's exactly what Joe Biden needs to think about. I think Roy Neel would agree with me that the vice president's authority is at the pleasure of the president, but he can't actually be fired. What he can be is marginalized.
And there's a fascinating moment Inauguration Day 2001, when Dan Quayle comes and visits Dick Cheney, says, "Let me tell you, one vice president to another, how it's going to be. You're doing a lot of flying to funerals," and so on. And Cheney says, "I have a different understanding with the president."
And it sounds like a joke on Quayle, but Quayle had the last word there. He said, "I want you to remember that the relationship can change. The job is what the president wants it to be as time goes on."
And, in fact, there was a trajectory to the Cheney vice presidency, and he overreached, and he lost some of Bush's confidence. And toward the end, he had a lot less power than he did at the beginning.
GWEN IFILL: Is that a cautionary tale that you experienced, as well, Roy Neel?
ROY NEEL: Well, fortunately, we didn't have that particular problem, but Bart's right. And the relationship evolves. It's going to depend on what the agenda is and to what extent that Vice President Biden can play a role on any given issue.
I think the thing to remember here in comparing Vice President Cheney and Vice President Biden is, I don't think any vice president is going to want to amass the same record that Dick Cheney had going forward.
So to a certain extent, Joe Biden will create a new playbook. You break the mold every time you have a new administration. So they've got a lot of examples here to avoid going forward.
GWEN IFILL: Roy Neel, Ross Baker, and Barton Gellman, thank you all very much.