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Vice President Joe Biden officially decided not to run for president.
But in many ways, it wasn’t his choice: the power brokers in the Democratic Party unified around former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, not the sitting vice president, leaving Biden the options of either not running or facing a campaign with long odds of victory.
Only a few months after President Obama was sworn in for a second term, a bloc of party activists started “Ready for Hillary,” encouraging Clinton to run for president. In 2013 and 2014, a number of Democratic lawmakers, such as Missouri U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, urged Clinton to run and endorsed the former secretary of state well before her campaign started, bypassing Biden.
The liberal group Emily’s List, very influential in Democratic Party circles, started a “Madam President” campaign around making sure the 2016 Democratic nominee was a woman, another move that obviously benefited Clinton.
At the start of this year, even as Obama himself stayed neutral, two of his top aides, senior adviser John Podesta and communications chief Jennifer Palmieri, left to join Clinton’s campaign.
Democratic donors gave her more than $75 million over the last six months. In recent weeks, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, who officially work with Biden in Washington, also backed Clinton.
And even in two blocs of the party where Biden is strong, big-city mayors and African Americans, Clinton was showing strength. She rolled out a long list of endorsements from black mayors on Tuesday, while South Carolina U.S. Rep. James Clyburn, a longtime ally of Biden and critic of the Clintons, said the vice-president should not run.
And by not announcing his candidacy earlier, Biden had also lost the obvious path to run as the single Clinton alternative. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has galvanized the left wing of the Democratic Party, picking up support from unions, some liberal members of Congress and many voters in Iowa and New Hampshire.
If he opted to run, Biden risked finishing not just second, but third in the Democratic primary.
The vice president’s plight was in some ways what former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney faced earlier this year. Romney, like Biden, had twice unsuccessfully run for president and was considering a third run. But Romney was effectively discouraged from running by top officials in the GOP, many of whom opted instead for former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a decision that in hindsight looks unwise.
Clinton though is much stronger than Jeb Bush. While Sanders is threatening her in Iowa and New Hampshire, the Vermont senator has struggled to build support among more moderate Democrats and people of color. If those patterns continue, Clinton will be a heavy favorite to win primaries in the South and in regions outside of the Northeast.
Clinton had also boxed out Biden in two other ways: positioning herself as an heir to Obama, and campaigning on the middle-class issues where Biden is strongest.
In his speech announcing he would not run, Biden said he hoped the Democrats in the race focused on helping the middle class and fighting income inequality. Clinton and Sanders talk about those issues often, and it’s not clear Biden could distinguish himself from those candidates in talking about the economy.
Clinton has repeatedly praised Obama on the campaign trail and said she would follow his model on issues like making community college free and looking to reduce prison sentences for people who commit non-violent drug crimes.
Biden did point out issues where Clinton is distinct from Obama.
The vice president said Democrats should be more cautious about intervening in conflicts abroad and ready to work with Republicans whenever possible. Clinton has been more eager for the U.S. to confront Russia and Syria and described Republicans as her “enemies.”
But Clinton’s move to cast herself as an heir to Obama has been helped by another key figure: the president himself.
Obama appointed Clinton as secretary of state in 2009, giving her a position with a stature that is close to that of the vice presidency and seeming to suggest that any bitterness from the 2008 primary campaign was gone. When Clinton was leaving the State Department in 2013, he did a joint interview on “60 Minutes” lavishly praising Clinton. He has continually suggested Clinton would be an excellent president, while saying Biden would be as well.
Obama did not chose Clinton to be his successor. But Clinton, from her campaigns with her husband and her own strong 2008 run, was the rare person better positioned than their party’s own vice president for a White House run. And Obama did nothing to slow Clinton or give any indication he preferred Biden.
The president seems to have left it to the Democratic Party. And it opted for Clinton.