PANAMA CANAL ZONE — During a recent tour of the historic locks here, Vice President Joe Biden helped an operator flip the switches to open the gates and then stepped out onto a balcony to watch a gargantuan vessel pass through.
A hundred yards across the waterway, a crowd of Americans recognized the silver-haired man in shirt sleeves, the sun glinting off his aviator glasses, and began waving and shouting his name.
"We love you, Joe!" yelled one man in a blue football jersey.
"We love Panama!" Biden called back. "Are you from Delaware?"
The conversation petered out after that, as no one in the crowd could actually make out what the vice president was saying. Only journalists standing near the lock on a stretch of pavement between the two groups could hear both sides of the exchange, which concluded with Biden flashing a confident smile and waving victoriously.
Waving, smiling and staying far enough away from current controversies that he would need a megaphone to be heard — that pretty well describes how Biden has positioned himself these days.
Back at the White House, President Obama's staff fights slumping approval ratings and the slow-motion nightmare that the rollout of the president's healthcare law has become.
Republican operatives are working double time to make sure nobody in the administration walks away clean from the healthcare mess. The Republican National Committee this week reminded reporters of Biden's comment three years ago that passing the healthcare overhaul was a "big ... deal."
But GOP partisans also grudgingly give Biden credit for political instincts on how to avoid trouble.
"Joe Biden has been around long enough to know when something is unpopular," said Republican strategist Ari Fleischer, former spokesman for President George W. Bush. "He knows when to hide."
The week of his 71st birthday, in a two-day trip to Houston and Panama City, Biden was hardly hiding. He toured the Houston port, walked a stretch of the Panama Canal, met with Panama's president and squeezed in meetings with opposition candidates and elected officials when he wasn't making calls to foreign leaders from Air Force 2.
But at the same time, he was conspicuously avoiding the healthcare spotlight that has been glaring on the president, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and other senior officials.
Biden did discuss healthcare at some events. In Houston, he talked with volunteers seeking to sign people up for coverage, meeting with them for more than an hour and reassuring them that healthcare.gov would get back on track.
"The truth is, we're going to fix it," he said.
But more often, he stuck to a portfolio focused on jobs, economic development and trade.
Biden is supposed to lead the administration's second-term outreach to Latin America and Asia and oversee the trade issues that go along with those two parts of the world.
White House officials say the vice president will also take a lead role in selling Obama's foreign policy initiatives on Capitol Hill, including any deal the administration may craft with Iran to slow down its nuclear program.
In public, Biden sounds a constant message of job creation and economic growth. His remarks this fall, aimed at middle-class audiences, focus on how American ports, rails and roads must be improved to get ready for expanded commerce.
All that serves the president, who in coming weeks also will try to focus more on signs of economic recovery and less on healthcare. But the emphasis also works for Biden's long-shot hope that he might yet be the Democratic Party's presidential nominee in 2016.
Biden won't talk about whatever presidential ambitions he may harbor, and he brushes off the question when it inevitably arises.
In the official welcoming ceremony in Panama City this week, the first thing Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli said was, "You're going to be running next time."
"Oh, we'll talk about that," Biden said with a double handshake and a grin.
Foreign leaders aren't the only ones who see electoral politics at play.
"It's obvious that he still yearns for the top prize," Republican strategist Kevin Madden said. "The second-place job hasn't done anything to change that."
For the White House, keeping Biden focused on pocketbook issues and middle-class audiences makes sense, said Paul Begala, a veteran Democratic strategist and former top Clinton administration aide.
"What makes Vice President Biden so indispensable is that he speaks American," Begala said. "He talks like the son of a salesman from Scranton [Pa.], which he is.
"When Joe is talking jobs, he is connecting with the heart of the middle class."
Biden was in fine form in Houston, where he addressed a crowd of port workers in a makeshift arena formed by an arc of rail cargo containers.
After realizing he had mispronounced the name of one of the longshoremen, Biden corrected himself and then joked that the man could call him "Bidden."
"We have the most productive workers in the world," Biden told the crowd of union leaders, workers and community leaders. "Our workers are three times as efficient."
New manufacturing will come to American cities, he said, but not "if we don't have 21st century infrastructure."
Over the last few weeks, Biden's infrastructure tour has taken him to Ohio, South Carolina, Texas and Florida. Officials from Pennsylvania and Florida joined his traveling delegation this week.
Back in Washington on Thursday, as the White House raced against a Nov. 30 deadline to have the healthcare website's problems largely solved, Biden's next public appearance was a midday sandwich run.
He took an entourage of Delaware natives for lunch at Capriotti's, a Delaware-based Italian hoagie chain that was opening a store in Washington. Joking with Capriotti's executives, he said he had big things to settle back at the White House.
"This is going to settle once and for all — the best sandwich in America is out of Wilmington, Del.," Biden announced at the restaurant. "I'm bringing one back for the president. No more of this stuff about Chicago and Philly and New York. This settles it."
He worked the room and then slipped on his aviators for the sunny walk back to the White House.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times