Biden 2016 Is a Surprise — Even to Joe Biden

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By Perry Bacon Jr.

At the start of the Obama administration, almost no one thought Joe Biden would be running for president in 2016. Including Joe Biden.

At the end of a long October 2008 piece on how Biden had decided to become Barack Obama’s running mate, New Yorker political correspondent Ryan Lizza wrote, “during conversations with Obama, Biden, who will be seventy-four by Inauguration Day, 2017, ruled out the possibility of another presidential run.”

Lizza did not reach this conclusion at random; he had quoted Biden and his aides extensively in his article. That January, on the eve of his swearing-in as vice-president, the New York Times wrote, “Mr. Biden said he had no plans to run for president in 2016, when he would be turning 74 years old, meaning he will be free to structure his operation to serve Mr. Obama’s ambitions rather than his own.”

“That is not my intention,” Biden told the Times of a 2016 run. “This is in all probability, and hopefully, a worthy capstone in my career.”

Over the last month, Biden, in interviews, has repeatedly indicated that he is open to a 2016 campaign, while his supporters and allies have orchestrated a “Draft Biden” movement the vice-president has done nothing to stop. A politician changing his or her mind is not unusual. Biden’s late son Beau, who passed away in May, had before his death urged his father to make a third run for the presidency, and the controversy surrounding Clinton’s use of a private e-mail account as secretary of state is in part driving the efforts by some Democrats to get Biden into the race.

If Biden opts to run, he will be an unusual kind of vice-presidential candidate seeking the top job. Unlike Al Gore, who started his 2000 campaign as the obvious heir apparent, Biden’s early aversion to running has allowed Hillary Clinton to become the front-runner for the Democratic nomination, with most of the party’s top operatives and fundraisers aligned with her campaign.

But Biden’s lack of obvious ambition for the Oval Office has helped him in some key ways. From the moment Gore became Bill Clinton’s running mate in 1992, the media, Republicans, fellow administration staffers and Clinton all viewed the Tennessean as a man likely to run for president in 2000. Gore’s every move was interpreted through electoral politics, as were Hillary Clinton’s during her time as secretary of state.

On the other hand, Biden has been at the center of nearly every decision in Washington for seven years without being heavily scrutinized. Republican leaders on Capitol Hill, perhaps not expecting to see the former Delaware senator as a candidate on the presidential ballot in 2016, have praised him as a man interested in compromise, while blasting Obama as overly partisan.

The vice-president has built extensive ties with African-Americans, gay rights leaders and labor unions, key constituencies for a Democratic presidential candidate, without the suspicion he was taking actions largely for his own political benefit. If Biden had been an obvious 2016 candidate, his decision to embrace same-sex marriage during the 2012 campaign could have been viewed as a political ploy to align himself with the party’s liberal base.

Instead, progressives hailed Biden for taking a bold position that Obama then followed.

“Vice-President Biden’s own uncertainty about entering the race has meant that, until now, his actions haven’t been seen through the lens of ambition, because they really weren’t about ambition at all,” said Jeff Nussbaum, who was Biden’s speechwriter during the 2008 campaign. “Until now, Joe Biden has been able to be, simultaneously, totally visible, above politics and under the radar.”

The lack of clarity about Biden’s intentions seems to extend to the top of the Obama administration. In early 2013, as Clinton was leaving the State Department, Obama did an unusual joint interview on “60 Minutes” with her, calling Clinton “one of the finest secretary of states” in American history. It was, if not an endorsement of Clinton’s 2016 candidacy, a clear signal Obama was very comfortable with her as his potential successor.

To be sure, Biden has long hinted that had not completely closed the door to a presidential run. In March 2009, Biden’s spokesman at the time, Jay Carney, said, “We’re not ruling anything in or out” in regards to 2016.

During the 2012 campaign, according to the book “Double Down” by Bloomberg political writers Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, the vice-president sought to have meetings with key party donors in California at which he could hint to them that he might be running for president in 2016. Obama senior aide David Plouffe told Biden he should not have those meetings, according to Halperin and Heileman, and the vice-president did not.

On Election Day in 2012, Biden, while voting in Delaware, was asked if this would be the last time he voted for himself.

“No, I don't think so,” the vice-president said, grinning as he knew the implications of his remark.

Not closing the door to running for another office is a common tactic for politicians, both leaving options open and making sure people don’t view them as a lame-duck.

But Biden’s actions in office have largely not been those of a person preparing a presidential run. His official government staff, unlike that of many senators, governors and past vice-presidents, was not a campaign team-in-waiting.

His top communications advisers for much of his time in office, Carney and then Shailagh Murray, had no experience working on presidential campaigns and left Biden’s office to take senior jobs with Obama. Many of the people who played key roles for Biden, such as his ex-chief of staff Bruce Reed and former national security adviser Jake Sullivan, had longstanding ties to either Bill or Hillary Clinton and were not likely to work for Biden if Hillary Clinton ran in 2016.

These aides seemed picked to enhance Biden’s role as key adviser on policy to Obama and often worked closely with the president’s official staff on major issues.

Sullivan, who was heavily involved in the negotiations with Iran on its nuclear program, is now one of Clinton’s top campaign policy advisers.

“I worked for both of them [Biden and Obama]. It was a very blended staff and White House team,” said Sarah Bianchi, who served as a policy adviser for Obama and director of domestic and economic policy for Biden from 2011-2014. “What he was doing was being vice-president.”

For aides who worked on Obama’s staff, Biden’s approach was comforting. They viewed him as a person pursuing the same goals as the president and not his own political future.

“He wasn’t viewed warily by internal folks these past six years as a future candidate,” said one White House aide. “Was never really an active part of interacting with him or his team. He’s been very loyal. … There was never really a sense of him having his own politics all these years. His own relationships, for sure. His own politics, no.”

If Biden opts to run, his approach the last seven years will create an awkward campaign. Some of the people who have long considered him an ally will have to confront him as an opponent.

At a recent briefing with reporters, Jennifer Palmieri, a former senior Obama aide who is now Clinton’s director of communications, and Sullivan were asked about a potential Biden candidacy.

“We love Vice-President Biden in a very sincere way and have so much respect for him,” Palmieri said.

“Amen,” Sullivan added.