Following Joe Biden’s election as the next U.S. president, we revisit a 2014 Negotiation Briefings article, “When You’re Negotiating for Someone Else, Stay in the Deal,” about the significant role Biden negotiated for himself as vice president.
As vice president to President Barack Obama from 2009 to 2017, Joe Biden worked hard to be, in his words, “in the deal”—not just a figurehead attending overseas funerals, but a valued partner and key decision maker. As reported by Evan Osnos in a 2014 New Yorker profile, Biden became a trusted presidential adviser, a lead player in major negotiations, and an advocate for his own personal agenda. In the process, he demonstrated effective leadership techniques that often go overlooked.
Effective Leadership Techniques for Getting in the Room
Leaders often negotiate as agents, representing their organization, boss, or family at the bargaining table. They face several negotiating challenges in the role of agent: Will they have the authority to explore options and opportunities? Can they keep their principal’s goals at the forefront without neglecting their own interests? How can they remain relevant and avoid overstepping?
Biden decided to emulate Walter Mondale, who as vice president positioned himself as President Jimmy Carter’s general adviser. While Mondale had moved his office from the Executive Office Building to the West Wing of the White House, Biden negotiated for a private weekly lunch with Obama. Biden also followed former vice president Dick Cheney’s practice of attending the president’s meetings with his top national security advisers.
Demonstrating the role of leadership in negotiation, Biden set the expectation that he would have a voice in high-level government negotiations. The strategy paid off: Obama assigned his VP to oversee difficult projects and talks, including the reconstruction of Iraq and the allocation of economic stimulus funds. As a long-standing member of Congress, Biden became an important arm-twister on Capitol Hill.
Negotiate your Mandate
Another effective leadership skill is to secure a strong negotiating mandate—that is, the authority to act on your principal’s behalf, according to Tufts University professor Jeswald W. Salacuse.
As vice president, Biden appeared to have had broad leeway to brainstorm options, demonstrate conflict negotiation skills, and chart his own path. After Obama charged him with overseeing Iraq in 2009, for example, Biden took steps to elevate Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki, writes Osnos in the New Yorker. When Maliki ultimately proved to be less of a friend to the United States than Biden expected, the vice president was criticized for backing him.
As this story shows, agents who secure a strong negotiating mandate face a significant risk: Their decisions can backfire on both them and their principal. To minimize this risk, discuss the critical choices you face with your principal throughout the course of the negotiation. Present both your personal recommendations and opposing views thoroughly.
Restraining the impulse to usurp your principal’s decision-making authority can be a difficult barrier to supportive leadership. Vice President Dick Cheney reportedly wielded significant power in the early years of the George W. Bush administration, but when the perception arose that Cheney was pulling the strings, Bush took steps to marginalize him.
Biden sometimes overstepped as well, as when he undercut Obama by expressing his support of gay marriage in advance of the president’s planned statement on the issue. But as vice president, he largely skirted the hazard of overreaching by conveying his loyalty and deference to Obama.
“My job is about the president,” he told Osnos. When politicians criticized Obama, Biden lashed out at them—stories that reached the president and cemented trust, writes Osnos.
Biden’s loyalty and leadership skills echoed those of James Baker during his tenure as George H. W. Bush’s secretary of state. Based on their long and close friendship, Bush gave Baker a broad negotiating mandate and trusted him implicitly. “When I went out somewhere and talked to a foreign leader, they knew I was speaking for him,” Baker said while receiving the 2012 Great Negotiator Award from the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School and the Future of Diplomacy Project at the Harvard Kennedy School. “I was seamless with my president.”
Effective Leadership Techniques for Agents
- Envision the ideal role you would like to play.
- Build trust and loyalty by securing ample face time with your principal.
- Negotiate a strong mandate from your principal to explore options at the table.
- Be proactive about aligning your financial and other interests with those you represent.
- Avoid overreaching by meeting with your principal frequently.
What other guidelines for effective leadership techniques have you developed while representing others in negotiation?