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.
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.