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WHEN: Today, Tuesday, April 19th
WHERE: CNBC.com's Speakeasy with John Harwood
Joe Biden has been an influential figure in American politics for more than four decades. He won a U.S. Senate seat from Delaware in 1972, and took office the following year despite losing his wife and young daughter to a post-election auto accident. Biden rose to chair the Senate Judiciary Committee, where he presided over the explosive Supreme Court confirmation fights over Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas, and later the Foreign Relations Committee. He unsuccessfully sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 1988 and again in 2008, when Barack Obama tapped him as his running mate. The 73-year-old vice president considered a third try for the presidency this year. But he bowed out of the race after losing his son Beau Biden, himself a rising Delaware politician, to brain cancer last year. He sat down with me for an interview aboard a Washington-to-Wilmington Amtrak train, part of his daily commute while serving in the Senate, to reflect on his career, the 2016 debate and the future of American politics.
A partial transcript from Speakeasy with John Harwood featuring Joe Biden follows. All references must be sourced to CNBC.com:
JOHN HARWOOD: So George H.W. Bush was weak, Dan Quayle was dumb-- Al Gore was wooden, Dick Cheney was Darth Vader. Do you feel sympathy for those guys, having done this for seven years? And are you comfortable with goofy Uncle Joe?
V.P. JOE BIDEN: No, I'm not comfortable with goofy Uncle Joe. But one of the things that's important to know and one of the reasons why, when I first got asked about this job I said no, is there is no inherent power in being vice president. And-so when the president asked me to consider this again and I said yes, he said, "What do you want?" I said, "I want to be the last guy in the room." Every assignment he's given me, I have not had to check back. I ran the Recovery Act, beginning, middle and end. I did the Iraq thing, and, by the way, the so-called goofy Uncle Joe, if you notice, I beat every Republican in every poll when they thought I was running. If you notice that my favorability was higher than anybody else's running for office in either party.
JOHN HARWOOD: As you reflect on the span of your career, both in the Senate and in the administration, what do you think of as things that you and your peers got done, succeeded at? And what do you think you haven't gotten done, left on the table?
V.P. JOE BIDEN: I think back in the '70s, we got done – we ended that damn war. That's why I ran, the Vietnam War. We really did begin to put America back together again in terms of how divided it was. We began to roll out a foreign policy that was more rational. We focused on education. We provided for more opportunity to get access to college. Maybe the biggest change was the work that I'm proud to be part of was changing circumstances for women in America.
JOHN HARWOOD: But here's one thing you guys haven't gotten done. And I don't mean you specifically.
V.P. JOE BIDEN: Yeah, no, me, too.
JOHN HARWOOD: The whole political system.
V.P. JOE BIDEN: Yeah.
JOHN HARWOOD: The stagnation of middle class incomes—
V.P. JOE BIDEN: Yes.
JOHN HARWOOD: --began shortly after you came to the Senate.
V.P. JOE BIDEN: Came to the Senate.
JOHN HARWOOD: And the failure of our political system to do that?
V.P. JOE BIDEN: I feel that. By the way, I feel that is a failure.
JOHN HARWOOD: On your side, Bernie Sanders is pointing to that stagnation in middle class income. And the argument that he's making is that you guys have done some good things, but you've been playing small ball. That we're not thinking big enough, and that we can't have fundamental change. Do you plead guilty to playing small ball in this administration?
V.P. JOE BIDEN: No. Here's what I plead guilty to. We had about eight atom bombs dropped on our desk. It took us, the auto recovery, it took us Dodd-Frank, it took us the Recovery Act, it took us all those God-awful difficult things we had to do, including raising the top rate for the wealthiest America by – so there's 600 billion more income now. It took us five years to get that done.
JOHN HARWOOD: When you hear him say, Dodd-Frank didn't go far enough, break up the banks – not just free community college, free college, bigger tax increases, bigger programs, is that just campaign talk that can't possibly be realized?
V.P. JOE BIDEN: No, it can be. It can be. But what I don't see enough of is the explanation of how to do that. But I do think that Bernie has raised a very legitimate issue that has consequences beyond the way Bernie talks about it. We have 20 – what it is, almost 24%, maybe it's 24.1% – of all the income in America earned by 1% of the people. That hasn't happened since 1922, I believe.
JOHN HARWOOD: 40 years, good times and bad, you rode this train both ways. What has it meant to your life?
V.P. JOE BIDEN: It's basically meant everything in my life in the sense that, you know, everyone from the guy at the shoe shine stand to the ticket folks, they became my friends and my family. And you look out, and I used to think, when things were tough, you'd look out at night, going home, and you'd see the, you know, you can see people, you know, in their dining rooms or in their kitchens. We used to always look out and wonder, "I wonder what they're thinking. I wonder what's going on in –" because this is sort of a middle class path. It's been my – it's been literally my lifeline between Wilmington and Washington.
BIDEN ON SUPREME COURT NOMINEE
JOHN HARWOOD: You guys are hung up on the Garland nomination right now.
V.P. JOE BIDEN: Yeah, we are.
JOHN HARWOOD: When you look – and some people say this is evidence of this nomination process being broken. Look back. Bork, Thomas. Do you feel responsible at all for helping break it?
V.P. JOE BIDEN: Not at all. What we did in Bork and Thomas, and there's a couple – because I wrote at the time, Haynsworth and Carswell before that, and when they went after – folks went after other justices. They used to always say it's on ethical grounds. I'd dig up trying to find – when they're really legitimately opposed the ideological component. Constitutional scholars, the reason why there's a federal society and another is that there are strict constructionists, and there are those who think it's a living Constitution, to oversimplify. So all I did was to say, "You can vote. The Senate has a right to vote against someone based upon if they think they're misinterpreting the Constitution." Now – but what I didn't do, and I presided over more Supreme Court nominees than anybody living. Every single person who got nominated got a hearing. Everyone got a vote in committee. Even the ones who weren't voted out of committee, which it required majority vote to get out, I insisted they go to the floor to get a vote. Liberals were mad at me at that time because they said we could block him in committee. But the Constitution says the Senate shall advise – everyone got a vote on the Senate floor, even those we could have blocked by a filibuster, because one only got 52 votes, because it says the Senate shall advise and consent and not use Senate rules to avoid the intent of the Constitution.
BIDEN ON CRIME BILL
JOHN HARWOOD: Another thing about how perspectives change over time. Bobby Rush, member of Congress, said the other day, "I'm ashamed that I voted for the '94 crime bill." You ashamed of that bill?
V.P. JOE BIDEN: Not at all. And in fact, I drafted the bill, as you remember.
JOHN HARWOOD: I know that.
V.P. JOE BIDEN: And by the way, we talk about this mostly in terms of Black Lives Matter. Black lives really do matter, but the problem institutional racism in America. That's the overarching problem that still exists. And we should be talking about it and look at it the legacy in racism in housing and in jobs and so on. So – but having said that, we take a look at the crime bill. Of the money in the crime bill, the vast majority went to reducing sentences, diverting people from going to jail for drug offenses into what I came up with the drug courts. Providing for boot camps instead of sending people to prison so you didn't relearn whatever the bad thing that, you know, got you there in the first place. Put 100,000 cops on the street.
When community policing was working, neighborhoods were not only safer but they were more harmonious. And what – when the reason why the cops originally opposed my 100,000 cops, this community policing piece, is because it's high intensive and it means they got to get out of their cars. So they literally got out of their cars and learned who owned the local drugstore, the local neighborhood bar, whatever.
And they were engaged in the neighborhood, which built confidence so that the woman – the African American woman living in a corner alone where the drug deal's going down in front of her house knows she literally used to have your phone number as a cop. She'd call you and say, "John, they're out in front of my house. But you're not going to – you're not giving me away, right, John?" "No." And he didn't. So we had enormous success. Now what's happened is we've cut the funding 85%, we've gone out there and – we're going through Baltimore now. Look at the areas we're going through here. I'll lay you eight to five, the Baltimore Police Department is considerably smaller than it was in 1985. There are things I would change. I opposed, for example, the carjacking provision that the administration wanted in. But by and large, what it really did, it restored American cities.
BIDEN ON CARRIED INTEREST
JOHN HARWOOD: You guys have tried consistently throughout the administration to tax what they call carried interest as ordinary income. Big Wall Street guy, when you started doing that, Steve Schwarzman said, "The Obama administration's like Hitler invading Poland." How do you react to criticism like that? And I would note, you guys haven't been able to get it done.
V.P. JOE BIDEN: I'd say it's like us liberating death camps. The truth of the matter is, there's no justification for a hedge fund paying at 15-17%. There's just no justification. Everyone from Warren Buffett to other – I mean, this just – anyway. But, forget Schwarzman.
JOHN HARWOOD: Why haven't you been able to get it done?
V.P. JOE BIDEN: Two reasons. One is that we haven't had the – because of, as I kid the president, I said, "Mr. President, everything's landed on your desk but locusts." We haven't had the clear space to do nothing but talk about how unfair the tax system is as it relates to the tax expenditures, loopholes we want to eliminate. And consequently what happens is a lot of people can go home, if you're a Republican, and say, "These Democrats are just going after business." Well, if I sit here and explain to everyone – I don't have to, your camera crew and everybody's really bright, and I say, "Well, let me tell you what carried interest is, this means then you're making – you're paying at 30%, they're paying at 17%, and they're making – some of them made $1 billion. 28 made $1 billion." Think that's fair? They'll say, "Well, maybe, if they do something super special with that $1 billion that makes it – that's why they should be rewarded." They're playing with other people's money, you know. What you do is you charge for – if you take a risk to start a business and you make – money, you pay less taxes, not because you took a risk. Well, that's because you used your own money.
JOHN HARWOOD: You see the next president winning on that?
V.P. JOE BIDEN: Yes, I do.
JOHN HARWOOD: Trump said he wants to get rid of it.
V.P. JOE BIDEN: Yes. I think, look, it's not going to be able to be sustainable. But, again, every time I remember, we were started to focus on our budget, we came along and we're talking about how we really want to focus on the tax side of this and-- the unfair elements of the tax expenditures. Then along comes Zika. No, I mean it literally, you know? And so we're going or – so, I think part of it is, again, it's not an excuse. My father used to have an expression, "Never complain, never explain." All right? Well, there is a context here. The context is that the first five years of this administration have been essentially just figuring out how do we get us from going over – keep us from going over the cliff? How do we get us back up and running?
BIDEN ON BROKEN POLITICS
JOHN HARWOOD: You gave a speech at Grid Iron, said politics were broken. When you look at it, do you think the politics are broken equally in both parties? Because I think if you asked President Obama, he would say, "Look at the Republican nominating process. It's more broken over there."
V.P. JOE BIDEN: I think that it has – I think both parties are responsible. But I really do think it started most on the right within the Republican Party. I won't name two senators; I'll tell you off-camera so you know I'm telling you the truth. Two Republican senators – remember when the Gingrich revolution happened, quote/unquote, and all those new guys came?
JOHN HARWOOD: Oh yeah.
V.P. JOE BIDEN: And then what happened was a lot of those guys got elected to Senate. There was – they ran against the institution. There's not – I'm not making a value judgment; they ran against the institution. Hard to make it work when you run against it. When you talk about how bad it is. And two of my Republican colleagues, very senior, said, "Well, you know –," I won't use the phrase because you could give it away, "The crazies are coming." The people who thought that the Senate role was no different than the House. They were essentially the same institution; should operate the same. But here's what has happened. Democrats and Republicans, and you saw it in the way some Democrats went after George W. Bush, who I disagree with. I learned a lesson early on when I came on the floor one day going to a meeting with the majority leader. I was there four months. Jesse Helms was excoriating, excoriating Ted Kennedy and Bob Dole for the precursor legislation to Americans with Disability Act. I walked in for my weekly meeting with the majority leader, Senator Mansfield who was basically in retrospect taking my pulse to see how I was doing. And he said, "What's the matter, Joe?" And I just ripped into Jesse Helms. I said, "He has no social redeeming value, this guy." And he looked at me and he said, my word, he said, "Joe, what would you say if I told you Jesse and Dot Helms two years ago sitting in their living room, you know, in December read an advertisement in the Raleigh paper saying – a picture of a young man in braces up to his hips, both legs, with crutches, saying, 'All I want for Christmas someone to love me and adopt me.' What would you say, Joe, if I told you they adopted that young man?" I said, "I'd feel like a jerk." He looked at me, he said, and I've never violated it since, he said, "Joe, it's always appropriate to question another man's judgment. It's never appropriate to question their motive because you don't know what it is. If I question your motive, we can never get to a compromise."
JOHN HARWOOD: Now—
V.P. JOE BIDEN: That's what's happening in American politics.
JOHN HARWOOD: One thing I think that annoys people about politicians is those who don't feel that they can say what they really think. You've not suffered from that in the past, okay?
V.P. JOE BIDEN: No, I've made a lot of mistakes.
JOHN HARWOOD: So here's the question. Hillary Clinton is opposed to the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Is it not perfectly obvious to you that she's for the Trans-Pacific Partnership and wants it to pass, but feels like she can't say that in a Democratic primary?
V.P. JOE BIDEN: I just said I'm not going to question people's motives. I'll take her at her word, she changed her mind. Or that what ended up being the TPP, she doesn't like.
BIDEN ON BOB GATES
JOHN HARWOOD: Bob Gates. How much did it sting when he said, "Joe Biden's been wrong about everything for four years"?
V.P. JOE BIDEN: Oh, it didn't sting at all because if you read what he had said beforehand about Joe Biden and working with Joe Biden and my integrity and I joked with Bob later and by the way, he sent me the most incredibly thoughtful letter when my son died, which really mattered. But anyway, what I said to Bob, I said, "Bob, I'm delighted to debate you. I was right about Gorbachev, you were wrong. I was right about Vietnam, you were wrong. I was right about it. We just happen to disagree."
JOHN HARWOOD: What did he say in that—
V.P. JOE BIDEN: But that was substance.
JOHN HARWOOD: What did he say in that note to you?
V.P. JOE BIDEN: He talked about what kind of father he thought I was. He talked about the sacrifice Beau had made when he knew he didn't have to go to Iraq. And he talked about Beau's – what kind of man Beau was. And it was he knew him. It was, you know, sometimes people – everybody wants to be nice, and they were. But this was so pointed and personal that I called him and wrote him. And matter of fact, I wrote him another letter not long ago when I was going over some mail, just to tell him how much it meant. So I have great respect for Bob. But, you know, I'm delighted to debate Bob on who was right and wrong.
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