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The Irresistible, Ineffable, Occasionally Exhausting Power of Joe Biden
Joe Biden has been absolutely everywhere this fall. But the big question remains: Will he run?
It was a late summer Saturday night in Washington, D.C., and Joe Biden was in fine form. Tanned, remarkably creaseless, wearing a trim tuxedo, smiling his radiant Joe Biden smile — the former 47th vice president of the United States took the stage with his wife Jill at the annual Human Rights Campaign dinner, where he was keynote speaker.
“My name is Joe Biden,” he said, needlessly introducing himself in what has become a standard, self-deprecating laugh line at the start of his speeches.
The cheers and applause that followed are also standard.
“Run, Joe, run!” a voice in crowd shouted.
“Run!” came another.
“We love you Joe!”
It was the second time Biden had addressed the HRC dinner, which has become a perennial favorite with politicians since Bill Clinton became the first sitting president to headline in 1997. Biden became something of a hero to the gay rights movement after openly stating his support for same-sex marriage in May 2012, forcing President Obama’s hand and leading him to make what was then considered a risky endorsement of the idea in the middle of a presidential election year.
It’s often like this for Biden when he speaks — the cheers, the cries, the sheer warmth — and he’s been getting a lot of it this fall, as he tours the country stumping for Democratic candidates and peddling his ideas for how to change America.
At a campaign kick-off event for New Jersey House candidate Mikie Sherrill, he was thronged by starry-eyed college students who said they see in him a rare authentic and trustworthy politician in a world of charlatans. Other times he is more quietly accepted as the longtime Washington hand he is, driving himself to a Century Foundation event where he will deliver a wonky speech and then slipping out quietly, snagging a bag of chips as he leaves.
But everywhere he goes, wherever he is, whatever the audience or the occasion, there’s always the same question: Is he going to run for president?
“I don’t think he’s playing games with people.”
Ask people in Biden world, from his core brain trust to his expanded world of advisers and former and current aides, and they will all tell you the same thing: Biden hasn’t decided yet. But he’ll decide soon enough: He’s given himself a deadline of January, which is traditionally when presidential candidates begin to announce their campaigns.
It’s too soon to even talk about it, says his former chief of staff Ron Klain.
“I don’t think he’s playing games with people,” says Jared Bernstein, his former chief economist. “I think his equivocation is real. I just think he hasn’t decided.”
“His words speak for themselves,” says Greg Schultz, who runs Biden’s political action committee.
“He’s been extremely consistent publicly and privately since at least the beginning of this year,” observed another close aide. “He hasn’t made a decision yet and end of the year is essentially his time frame for it.”
But nearly two years after the last election, with the clock ticking toward decision day, Biden has kept busy, cultivating exactly the kind of good will necessary to position himself for either one final bid for office — or for being one of the most consequential former vice presidents to leave the White House without becoming president.
There are very few models for an activist former vice president over the past half century. Vice presidents have either become presidents themselves, or largely receded from public life.
George H.W. Bush and Gerald Ford became presidents. Dick Cheney and the others did not. Cheney left office with a 13 percent approval rating, wrote a memoir, criticized Obama, and was an early GOP backer of gay marriage. Dan Quayle moved to Arizona, wrote three books, briefly ran for president in 2000, and joined a private equity firm. Walter Mondale ran for president and lost in 1984, then opted for a quieter life at a major law firm. He would go on to serve as ambassador to Japan under Clinton, and briefly and unsuccessfully sought to return to office in 2002.
Al Gore, on the other hand, ran to succeed Bill Clinton, won the popular vote, lost the Florida recount, then became a leader in the fight against climate change, winning a Nobel Prize in 2007 and remaining a complicated and high-profile figure on the international scene.
In a recent poll, 84 percent of Democrats supported the idea of a Biden presidential bid.
Biden’s post-vice presidency thus far is shaping up to be more like Gore’s, minus the great gales of public mockery — earth tones, that beard — that Democrats for some reason insist on heaping on their failed presidential candidates. It took Mondale 10 years after leaving office to set up the Mondale Policy Forum; Biden launched his policy shops (plural) the year after leaving office.
Obama has called Biden “the best vice president America has ever had,” and there’s no question he was one of the most consequential, along with Cheney. But unlike Cheney, support for Biden didn’t crater. His favorable-unfavorable rating was closely divided during much of his tenure, then improved in his final year in the White House. It’s only gone up since, and a March 2018 CNN poll found 84 percent of Democratic and Democrat-leaning potential primary voters supported the idea of a Biden presidential bid.
Bidenworld today is as sprawling as the lifelong policy interests of the 75 year old. The Biden Foundation has focused on issues of longstanding importance to his family — military families, violence against women — and on one where they have become more active in the past decade: LGBTQ equality.
The Biden Institute at the University of Delaware is soliciting ideas on how to revitalize the middle class and looking at workforce development issues like education, wages, and worker productivity. The Biden Cancer Initiative is working to speed developments in cancer prevention and treatment, continuing the cancer moonshot efforts Obama launched in the wake of the death of Biden’s son Beau in 2015 from brain cancer.
And then there is the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement at the University of Pennsylvania, which acts as a home to an array of former Obama-Biden foreign policy officials and is a draw for placing Biden in public conversations.
And those are just the think tanks.
In the political realm, Biden in June 2017 launched the American Possibilities PAC, which has fundraised for candidates from the U.S. Senate to state senates, as well as Jason Kander’s Let America Vote group, which is fighting back against laws making it harder to vote.
“Since 1974, Joe Biden has been somewhere in the country campaigning on behalf of some candidate,” says Schultz, the executive director of American Possibilities. “This is who he is. This is what he’s done every midterm for 40-plus years now.”
Biden’s PAC — which is a regular PAC, not a super PAC, and so has lower contribution and disbursement limits — has donated $1.6 million to candidates this cycle. But for a PAC run on behalf of a popular former vice president, direct contributions are only a small part of what the principal brings to the table.
“He’s a great validator,” says Schultz. “Some of these candidates are talking infrastructure, a lot of them are talking middle class, and you can’t get a much better validator on some of those kitchen-table issues than Joe Biden.”
He’s able to elevate races, draw additional media to candidate events, galvanize volunteers, and act as a national seal of approval for candidates new to the national stage. And he’s able to do this anywhere in the country — showing a knack for bridging worlds that other prominent members of his party famously lack.
The endorsements and campaign appearances and fundraising efforts, meanwhile, put him in touch with a whole new generation of Democrats. More than three quarters of the candidates he’s endorsed are non-incumbents. He can help lift them up in a way few others in the party can. Any chamber being in the hands of Democrats would help set-back the Trump agenda — and preserve the Obama-Biden legacy, to boot. And if in some not too distant future Biden needs to reach out to them, well, that’s politics.
On a Wednesday in early September, Biden and congressional candidate Mikie Sherrill packed a ballroom in the center of campus at Montclair State University in Northern New Jersey. One of the first of the candidates Biden endorsed for 2018, Sherrill is a former Navy helicopter pilot, federal prosecutor, and mother of four.
Biden endorsed her last April, before she’d won her primary. Now he was helping her kick off her fall campaign, along with Governor Phil Murphy and state Democratic Chairman John Currie, at what was her biggest rally all year.
“[Civil rights crusader Fannie Lou Hamer] used to say, I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired. Well I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired of what’s going on in this country today!” Biden said to applause at the campaign kick-off. “I’ve had it up to here! This is not who we are! This is not the America I know! … We are a generous people. We are an honorable people. We are an inclusive people. That’s who we are. And I want to tell you something. This is going to be the most important election that any of us have voted in thus far. … I mean this sincerely, we must, we must reestablish American values.”
It’s an argument he’s been making since August 2017, when, in the wake of the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, he ended his post-White House silence and outlined his outrage in an Atlantic magazine piece.
After his speech in New Jersey, he stayed and posed for pictures with students and campaign volunteers. CNN polling has shown that Biden, like Bernie Sanders, draws strong support among the notoriously elusive under-35 crowd.
“That speech — that was a presidential speech,” said Bridget Dodge, 19, a political science major at the college working as a volunteer on the Sherrill campaign.
“I trust him,” said Lisa Devereaux, 22. “And I don’t really trust anyone in politics right now.”
As I exited the building, I spotted another young volunteer. She was Instagramming a picture of Biden overwritten, in white and purple, with “He touched my HAND YASSS.”
But older people have long memories, and have watched Biden for decades. “I love him too much to see him have to go through all of that,” said Elly Urciuoli, 72, asked whether he should run for president.
If Biden were to run for president in 2020, it would be his third presidential bid. In 1987, he withdrew from the contest over now largely forgotten plagiarism charges. In 2008, he withdrew after the Iowa caucuses after coming in fifth in balloting and failing to register a single percentage point of support in the caucuses.
Presidential campaigning in Iowa has all the intimacy of a city council bid, but with unique traditions and rituals. During his last run, Biden swept floors and sat atop a ladder to change a lightbulb as part of a union-backed walk-a-day-in-their-shoes effort the candidates participated in. Biden shadowed, and did the work of a school janitor.
If he runs in 2020, he will have to do it all over again. The boiled corn, mashed potato and fried steak dinners. The pork chops on a stick and hay bale speeches and media circus of the Iowa State Fair. And despite his status and popularity, he would not be able to clear the field or keep other candidates from running.
Even Hillary Clinton, with all her connections and decades of ties in the party, her near-incumbent status, was not able to clear the field, her bruising, divisive fight with Sen. Bernie Sanders weakening her in the general election and creating party tensions that linger to this day. And Sanders seems poised to run again. So might a new crop of candidates (Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, and Kirsten Gillibrand among them) who, like Obama in 2008, don’t want to wait for another elder statesman of the party to have their shot at the top of the ticket.
And then there is the memory of the Anita Hill hearing, which he oversaw as Judiciary Committee chair. It’s not a controversy at the level of Bill Clinton’s actions, which Trump repeatedly threw in Hillary Clinton’s face in 2016. But it will come up. Already Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell has tweeted out a Biden clip from the Clarence Thomas hearing to justify his own handling of Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation. Biden has spoken out about the process, telling NBC’s Today, “Anita Hill was vilified when she came forward by a lot of my colleagues… I wish I could’ve done more to prevent those questions.”
Liberal and feminist writers seized on the moment to voice their displeasure with Biden’s record. Tweeted Lydia Polgreen, editor-in-chief of HuffPost, after the Christine Blasey Ford hearing: “The one possibly positive outcome of this process for Democrats: there is no [way] Joe Biden will be the nominee.”
Will this history matter in 2020, when it is nearly 30 years old? Or will Democrats, faced with whatever America looks like after another year-and-a-half of Trump, be consumed with the urgency of whatever fresh controversies are dominating that moment?
As he assesses the scene, Biden can afford to take things more slowly than most. He has 100 percent name recognition within the voting base of the party. He has been part of two successful national presidential campaigns. He knows the drill.
The risks to his reputation are high. We will see the return of “Joe Being Joe.” There are YouTube compilations of his greatest gaffes. There will probably be more. As the beloved former vice president, those slips are shrugged off. As a candidate for the presidency, every fresh statement would be held to account. If he loses, he will not have another almost-decade in the White House to rebuild his stature, his base of support.
But there is no platform like a presidential campaign for waging a fight for the soul of the country.
Mondale reshaped the vice presidency and Gore re-envisioned what it means to be a former vice president. Should he choose not to run, Biden has an opportunity before him to have no less of an impact, continuing to expand and grow the robust roles he’s taken on. But can he stand to sit out this fight?