WASHINGTON — At Vice President Joe Biden’s state dinner last month for President Hassan Rouhani of Iran, Biden reportedly used the opportunity to warn Rouhani about the U.S. government’s policies on Iran.
A month later, the vice president is speaking at a forum in Israel that connects the U.S. government with the Israeli government, some of which thinks that Biden is giving aid and comfort to Rouhani.
Perhaps the biggest international policy challenge facing the White House right now is the perception by many Republicans, and by some Democrats who like Biden, that the administration has been soft on Iran. When the United States and Iran agreed to a historic nuclear deal in April, Republicans at home and abroad criticized the deal for not addressing Iran’s broader actions, and for using blanket deadlines rather than offering the United States the authority to execute a wider and different set of negotiations.
A less complicated case can be made that Biden, an unofficial surrogate for President Barack Obama, is out of step with the White House in his approach to one of the president’s top foreign policy priorities. Recent remarks by Biden, who in the past has pledged to fight for a comprehensive immigration reform bill, have caused deep frustrations within the Obama administration.
The trouble began last month, when Biden met with a group of roughly 30 mayors who wanted immigration reform passed before the end of Obama’s presidency, according to administration officials. The group went back to the White House after the meetings to inform Biden of their opposition to the immigration bill that passed in the Senate. Administration officials said the vice president told the mayors he had to remain neutral in the debate.
Later that week, after pro-immigrant groups began meeting with the vice president, Biden told The Boston Globe that legislation would pass under his watch.
“The nation’s cities will lead the way, with leadership from mayors like me, in passing the comprehensive immigration reform we so badly need to protect the integrity of our borders, move toward enforcement of our laws, and provide the tools we need to provide comprehensive relief to those who desperately want to come here for a better life,” Biden said.
That touched off a backlash from many opponents of the bill.
“It was almost comical to hear this from the vice president,” said Howard County, Md., Commissioner Diane Wehrman, who helped organize a similar meeting in Washington the week before. “He said, ‘I’m all in on this.’ It just shows that maybe he doesn’t understand the realities in Washington, D.C. and I don’t think he’s going to fix that in 2016.”
These lobbying sessions have occurred several times a year for the past few years, according to the administration officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Biden has maintained a close working relationship with the group, which includes two Democratic mayors, and has been present at the group’s meetings several times in the past year. The meetings have focused on a variety of issues but have not been organized by the White House, according to the officials.
But after Biden’s comments to the Globe, congressional Republicans were quick to point out that Biden was already on record saying immigration reform would pass, and they tried to seize on the remarks.
“The vice president seems to think that he’s smarter than all the congressional Republicans in Congress,” Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., the incoming House majority leader, said in a press conference the next day.
The Obama administration also took heat for the statement. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, called the remark “totally irresponsible.”
“It’s a ridiculous assertion, and one of the reasons that we don’t believe that comprehensive immigration reform is going to happen in this election is because people don’t believe, and the vice president doesn’t believe, that Republicans in Congress are going to do anything constructive to help improve the way we enforce our immigration laws,” McCain said.
Biden’s office wouldn’t comment about the upcoming meeting. But during the course of the immigration debate last year, Biden told an immigrant rights group in the Philippines that the immigration bill would pass under his watch, a statement that angered many conservatives.
Biden had been known to give them a nudge by encouraging reporters to repeat back to the administration when they went beyond the president’s lead, a White House official who speaks regularly with the vice president said.
But the vice president apparently went further.