ABOARD AMTRAK ACELA #2166 — 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 CNBC's John Harwood 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.
What follows is a condensed, edited transcript of the conversation.
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?
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've 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. You notice that my favorability was higher than anybody that's running for office in either party.
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?
BIDEN: Back in the '70s, 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. And maybe the biggest change was the work that I'm proud to be part of (in) changing the circumstances for women in America.
HARWOOD: But here's one thing you guys haven't gotten done. And I don't mean you specifically, the whole political system. The stagnation of middle class incomes began shortly after you came to the Senate. How do you feel about the failure of our political system to do that?
BIDEN: I feel that is a failure.
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?
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 Americas so there's $600 billion more income now — it took us five years to get that done.
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