TYPICALLY AT this point on the political calendar, a sitting vice president scrupulously downplays his interest in ascending to the top job. The thought of course consumes him, but actually discussing it strikes him as breathtakingly gauche. Vice presidents as varied as Walter Mondale, George H.W. Bush, and Al Gore all gamely hewed to this script.
And then there is Joe Biden. Given his age (he would be 74 on Inauguration Day 2017), his Rodney Dangerfield reputation among Democrats, and the icon status of presumed front-runner Hillary Clinton, few political observers seem confident he’ll even contest the next race. Except, that is, for Biden himself, who has been anything but bashful about his intentions for 2016. When asked by CNN late last year if he was “closing that door” on another attempt at the White House, a slightly offended Biden insisted he was “not closing anything.” He elaborated: “I wouldn’t have run for president in the first place—and I don’t think the president would have picked me—unless he thought I’d be good at the job.”
This wasn’t a case of Biden winging it on national television, as is his wont. His brain trust, too, has been gaming out a final run at the highest office. In a not-for-attribution conversation, one longtime Biden adviser who doesn’t currently work for the vice president, but would play a key role in a 2016 campaign, sketched out a surprisingly detailed strategy.
First, Biden is going to extravagant lengths to ensure his boss’s reelection while putting his own ambitions on hold, in the hope that the Obama brass will reward this selflessness when the time comes. There is, quite simply, no speech Biden won’t deliver if it advances the White House cause, no attack on Mitt Romney he won’t wage, no annual convention of Pacific Islander flight attendants he won’t attend on the president’s behalf. “To some extent, he’s put himself in a challenging position [for 2016] by playing by the rules of the Obama political operation and not doing a lot of the prep work, particularly around fund-raising, you would ordinarily be doing by now,” says the adviser.
But Biden’s inner circle believes the strategy will position him to inherit key players on President Obama’s political team. The adviser notes, for example, that Jim Messina, the president’s 2012 campaign manager, is a huge Biden fan who could play a leading role in a future campaign: “Jim and the vice president have built up a nice relationship these past four years.” Likewise, Rufus Gifford, the Obama campaign’s chief fund-raiser, could give Biden entrée to deep-pocketed donors (who have eluded him thus far) in Hollywood, Silicon Valley, and the financial sector. “I know [Gifford] felt the vice president has done a great job. He could be instrumental in pulling together money for this,” the adviser explains.
Step two of the master plan is leveraging Biden’s deep ties to traditional Democratic constituencies, such as labor, trial lawyers, and African American, Jewish, and gay groups and donors, the last of which were thrilled by his plug for same-sex marriage this May. The vice president cultivated some of these ties for decades as a senator, but has strengthened them significantly during his punishing tour of Holiday Inn ballrooms over the past four years. “Biden has a special call on a lot of people’s loyalties, starting with the president,” says the adviser. “That’s why you’ve got to take him seriously. And he’s serious.”
All of which makes it unsurprising that Biden considers himself, if not the 800-pound gorilla of the 2016 field, then certainly a big-boned primate. “Other than Hillary, he doesn’t consider any of the names lurking beneath the surface as competitors,” says the adviser. But even if we allow that Biden’s chances are far better in 2016 than they were in 2008, does that make them, you know, good?
“I’VE GOT A BETTER SHOT at being president than him,” groused one Obama fund-raiser when I first floated the idea. Then something curious happened. The longer we spoke, the more this person convinced himself that Biden did have a real shot, at least without Clinton in the race. “This guy has done everything the president asked him to do,” said the fund-raiser. “Even if he wasn’t going to win ... I’m writing him checks, raising money as a thank you.” The source estimated that, when this “thank-you money” was combined with what should be solid early poll numbers in Iowa and New Hampshire, Biden would be a bona fide contender.
Of course, the Clinton network will also have much to say about the next Democratic nominee—and here, too, Biden’s prospects are surprisingly promising if Hillary takes a pass. Last winter, Biden hired a counselor named Steve Ricchetti, a deputy chief of staff in the Clinton White House, partly to help nail down Hillary’s political handlers, according to the Biden adviser. One such target is Nick Clemons, the man who captained Clinton’s dramatic comeback in the 2008 New Hampshire primary. “Nick is probably the number one grab choice in 2016,” the adviser predicts. “I would think Nick would be with us.” A top Clinton aide from 2008 found this to be entirely plausible: “I think there’s a chance for [Biden] to sort of get a large number of the operatives.”
It’s enough to make you start dropping Biden’s name into aimless August political conversations. (Trust me, I’ve done it.) That is, until you talk to some more seasoned Obama alumni and the grand vision all comes crashing down. At this point, you realize the problem isn’t that Biden can’t mount a credible campaign. The problem is that, even after his highly successful, expectations-beating vice presidency, too many Democrats still regard him as distinctly un-presidential.
One Obama operative from 2008 turned slightly frigid when asked if Biden had a chance to inherit the president’s Iowa apparatus: “I don’t think so. Obama’s world is so unique, and it’s uniquely Obama. I don’t think it necessarily translates to anyone.”
Another Obama veteran argues that Democratic primaries these days are more about inspiring the base than cashing in chits. Of all the potential 2016 contenders—Clinton, Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo—the second operative says Biden is worst positioned to do that: “Biden’s story is thirty years past due. He was a young hotshot in 1988.” It’s not that rank-and-file Democrats don’t love Biden—they do. But they love the image of him soaping up his Trans Am in the White House driveway, clad in nothing but jean shorts—as The Onion famously spoofed him—not the image of him manning the Oval Office controls.
The people on top of Obama Inc. share this affection, but have their own Biden hang-ups. “They think he talks too much,” says a senior administration official. “He’s a nice guy, but I don’t think they think he’s the [future] president.” While there was no truth behind the recent chatter that Obama would relegate him to the State Department and enlist Clinton as his running mate—Biden’s status on the 2012 ticket has always been secure—it’s not hard to imagine Chicago pining for a more on-message veep.
Biden is, after all, the man who once waxed optimistic about then-Senator Obama’s future by testifying to his hygiene (“articulate and bright and clean,” in his trademark locution). He is the off-the-cuff geostrategist who, within three weeks of the 2008 election, predicted that America’s enemies would test Obama during his first six months as president. Earlier this month, Biden stood before a mixed-race crowd in Virginia and accused Romney of wanting to “unchain Wall Street” and put “you all back in chains,” marking what must be the first time in a century that one major campaign has accused the other of pro-slavery sympathies.
Still, perhaps the real problem with Biden’s college-roommate-at-a-weddingreception sense of tact isn’t the damage it inflicts on Obama, which is minimal. It’s the damage it inflicts on Biden himself. According to Team Biden’s own plan, one of the few tasks he had to complete this year was to appear entirely focused on the president’s reelection. And yet his gay-marriage indiscretion this spring had all the trappings of presidential maneuvering and had White House aides fuming. Call it the paradox of Joe Biden: The vice president has always been compelling enough to send Democratic strategists daydreaming. But, no matter how good the strategy, Biden always finds a way to step on Biden in the end.