Joe Biden has the nation's political class teetering on the edge of its seat, waiting to find out whether he'll challenge Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders for the Democratic presidential nomination. While his final decision isn't yet clear, the rationale for a campaign is.
The vice president is the natural heir to, and most ardent defender of, President Barack Obama's legacy. In a time of polarization and Republican control of Congress, he's the Democrat with the best record of working with Republicans on Capitol Hill. And he may be the only Democrat who could be a viable alternative — and viable threat — to Clinton, whose poll numbers against potential Republican nominees have been falling.
Couple those factors with the rise of Bernie Sanders, which has exposed some of Clinton's vulnerabilities, and the odds of Biden giving Clinton a serious run for her money are better than nil. Both of his sons, Beau and Hunter Biden, encouraged him to run before Beau died in May, the Wall Street Journal reported in June. In August, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd reported that Beau Biden had told his father the country needed Biden values, not Clinton values.
Biden has been publicly flirting with a run since then, including discussing the possibility in an emotional interview with Stephen Colbert on CBS's The Late Show. His longtime adviser, former Sen. Ted Kaufman, has been camped out at the White House like a full-time staffer, according to a senior administration official. On Monday, Biden trotted out lines of attack against Clinton and Sanders.
Playing on Clinton calling Republicans her enemies during an October debate, Biden said, "I don't consider Republicans enemies. They're friends." He needled Sanders by saying he doesn't want to demonize the rich and powerful. "They’re not a problem," he said. "But everyone has to do their part, man."
Biden hasn't said whether he'll run, and sources close to him profess not to know whether or when he will make an announcement. But there is an appetite among some Democrats to see him make a third bid for the presidency.
"I have to believe that he will look at this race, see what the electorate is clamoring for, and see that he has as good a path," one of Biden's 2008 presidential campaign aides told Vox this summer.
And Biden is clearly hearing about the interest as he weighs whether to run.
"We have had conversations about the possibility of him running," said Joseph Darby, a high-ranking official in the African Methodist Episcopal church who is close to some of South Carolina's most powerful politicians, including Rep. Jim Clyburn.
Darby said a Biden candidacy "would play well" with South Carolina Democrats.
Clinton still has massive advantages: a campaign stocked with many of the top operatives in the business, a fundraising head start of more than $75 million, an endless donor list, and polling that shows a strong plurality of Democrats still prefer her to the rest of the party's field of contenders — including Biden.
But the Sanders surge shows that Democratic activists want an alternative to Clinton. How else to explain the $15 million he raised in his first fundraising quarter, the massive crowds at his rallies, and his climb in the polls in Iowa and New Hampshire? Sanders has captured the hearts of some liberal white elites. That's enough to draw a little blood from the Clinton campaign but not enough to win the presidential primary of a party built on a diverse coalition. It would take someone with broader appeal to actually beat her. Someone, perhaps, like Biden.
"It’s less about her, and it’s more about what a lot of Democratic primary voters want, which is somebody who is authentic, unabashedly progressive, and a fighter," the former Biden campaign aide said. "Joe Biden ought to scare the Clinton folks."
The case for Biden
In any normal election cycle, Biden would be the hands-down favorite to win the Democratic nomination to succeed Obama. No vice president who has sought his party's nomination after a two-term presidency has ever lost it. In the handful of cases in which a vice president didn't seek a presidential nomination after serving a two-term boss, it was usually because of a major rift in the party — such as when John C. Calhoun, the vice president to Andrew Jackson, returned to the Senate to push for nullification and ultimately South Carolina's secession from the Union.
But there is no such divide in today's Democratic Party. Biden has become a beloved figure among Democrats for his loyal defense of Obama's agenda and his propensity to say what the constraints of the presidency prevent Obama from saying.
As vice president, Biden has been Obama's right-hand man for almost seven years. He's run point for Obama on major foreign and domestic policy matters — the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the 2009 stimulus law, the auto bailout, gun control, and budget deals with Senate Republicans who would rather dive from the Capitol dome than shake hands with Obama in public. He even put the exclamation point on enactment of the Affordable Care Act with a salty observation that endeared him to fellow Democrats.
Biden's rare breaks with the president now look, in retrospect, like key contributions to Obama's story. Biden announced, in the throes of the 2012 reelection campaign, that he supported same-sex marriage, a position to which Obama had not yet "evolved" and that Clinton wouldn't publicly embrace until 2013. But just last month, Obama celebrated the Supreme Court's decision to legalize same-sex marriage across the country.
Biden's also a safer bet than Clinton to focus on preserving Obama's legacy — a matter of great concern to Obama now — because he shared in building it in both terms and served only one president.
"His tenure as vice president is certainly a huge positive for Obama supporters everywhere," said Angela Rye, a Democratic strategist and former executive director of the Congressional Black Caucus.
Yet Biden would start a candidacy as a clear underdog to Clinton. In the latest national NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, Clinton led Sanders 49 percent to 29 percent, with Biden checking in at 15 percent. His national name recognition and work as vice president should open up some fundraising doors, but buckraking has never been a political strength for him.
Polls are a snapshot in time, and Biden would surely be able to attract enough money and attention to make his case to the Democratic Party. In late September, an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found him running closer to Clinton and Sanders than he is nationally. Biden got 22 percent, compared with 33 percent for Clinton and 28 percent for Sanders. He could reshape fundamental assumptions about the race, said one adviser to a 2016 Democratic campaign.
"If he gets in, it shows that her inevitability aura has faded, and it frees up donors and key political groups to not fall in line behind Hillary," this adviser said. "There is a herd mentality with political groups, elected officials, and a large swath of donors — they have been told so many times that Hillary will be the nominee and that they will be frozen out if she's elected that they don't want to cross her. If the sitting vice president gets in, that changes."
Still, he'd have to pull an inside straight to beat Clinton.
One of the biggest knocks against Obama — one that often comes from within his own party — is that he would have gotten more accomplished if only he'd had better relationships with Republicans, and Democrats, on Capitol Hill.
It's an attractive idea. Voters are fed up with dysfunction in Congress, and they keep electing presidents — George W. Bush and Obama, to name two — who promise they'll come to Washington and end the gridlock. Maybe Clinton could do better than Obama in reaching across the aisle, or in forcing Republicans to vote with her. But it's likelier that Republicans would have the same partisan reaction to her as president that they did when she was first lady. Fear of the grinding partisanship of a President Hillary Clinton is part of what got Obama elected in the first place.
But Biden has an actual record of working with congressional Republicans from the White House. He may be the last remaining Democrat who really knows the art of the bipartisan deal. He came to the Senate in 1973, an era before hyperpartisanship devoured Congress. When Obama needed to cut a deal with Republican leaders on the Hill, he sent Biden. That wasn't always a great move for Democratic priorities — one Biden agreement permanently locked in most of the expiring Bush tax cuts — but it worked to avert a fiscal cliff. (Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid was so infuriated with Biden's dealmaking that he at one point insisted the vice president be cut out of budget talks).
Eric Cantor, the former Republican House majority leader, told Time magazine last year that Biden was a much better negotiating partner than Obama.
"Unquestionably, the vice president knows how to negotiate. He understands people," Cantor said. "I’m certainly not one who agrees with Joe Biden on all things — we probably disagree more than we agree — but from a human and relationship standpoint, the guy’s awesome."
The key to Biden's deals is those deep relationships. He was asked to deliver a eulogy at Republican Sen. Strom Thurmond's funeral, even after he and Thurmond clashed over decades' worth of issues on the Judiciary Committee.
And South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham — a Republican presidential candidate who speaks frequently with Biden — recently choked up talking about him.
While there are Republican senators who say they like to work with Clinton, it's hard to see any of them becoming deeply emotional about their history with her — particularly now that she's identified their party as the enemy.
Contrasts in substance and style
Those familiar with the thinking of Biden's circle say he would try to run a campaign framed around himself, not Clinton. Obama proved in 2008 that Democrats are receptive to messages that highlight differences without going negative. "Change we can believe in" was a slogan that, subtly enough, pointed to Clinton's emphasis on her experience and Democrats' doubts about her honesty.
On style, the contours of a positively framed Biden contrast with Clinton are easy to see. He's endeared himself to Democratic voters — not to mention late-night comedians — with an unvarnished style that makes him seem all too human. It could prove a powerful trait against Clinton, who is stiff on the campaign trail and in television interviews. Biden's backslapping candor — a double-edged sword that often gets him in trouble — is more reminiscent of Bill Clinton's charismatic style.
"Joe has a wonderful ability to connect with people," Darby said. "They both have a feel for the needs of America in general and minority communities in particular. I think Joe’s demeanor makes you feel that he has a deeper understanding of that."
More important, perhaps, is the substantive difference between Clinton and Biden on foreign policy, where the former Delaware senator often took a dovish line in internal debates in the White House and Clinton was usually on the side of using military force. Clinton wanted to add troops in Afghanistan when Biden didn't, recommended executing the raid on Osama bin Laden as Biden recommended against it, and pushed for the US intervention in Libya in 2011, which Biden opposed.
While there's no political gain in having been on the wrong side of the bin Laden debate, many Democrats — particularly the kind of activists who show up at Iowa caucuses — are wary of Clinton's more hawkish leanings. Biden's preference for drawing down from Afghanistan and his opposition to the Libya intervention — which, to this point, has been a disaster — are pluses with Democratic primary voters.
And the very feature of a Biden candidacy that Republicans would jump on in a general election — his loyal support for Obama's agenda — would be a tremendous boon for the vice president in a primary.
For Biden, South Carolina would be the proving ground
Clinton has done a good job of positioning herself with the various Democratic constituencies, and that's reflected in the fact that a majority of Democrats support her in the primary. Sanders's camp believes that Clinton is vulnerable with working-class white Democrats, who are a group that Biden — born near the coal mines of Lackawanna County, Pennsylvania — has a natural ease with. And Sanders's surge in Iowa and New Hampshire demonstrates that Clinton already has a fight on her hands in those states.
But her connection with Hispanic voters remains strong. They backed her against Obama overwhelmingly, and if there's one Democratic-leaning group that has been most consistently dissatisfied with Obama, it's been Latinos. For the most part, Biden would have to look elsewhere to build his coalition.
That's why South Carolina, where he's advocated for federal involvement in dredging the Port of Charleston and where he has visited repeatedly in the wake of the murder of nine black worshipers at "Mother Emanuel," provides such a fascinating crucible for Biden. He almost certainly would have to win over a significant portion of the nation's black voters to compete with Clinton, and South Carolina is the first state on the primary calendar with a significant black population. In fact, the majority of voters in Democratic primaries in South Carolina are black, and Clinton received only 26.5 percent of the vote there — against Obama and a reeling John Edwards — in 2008.
A Biden coalition would necessarily follow the path that Obama took, though it seems highly unlikely to replicate Obama's success with black voters. The key would be to combine enough support from elite whites, working-class whites, and African Americans to win delegates in states he would lose to Clinton and run up the delegate score in smaller-population states. Sound familiar?
None of that is to say that Biden would beat Clinton in the primary. But in conversations I've had with Clinton allies, there's a recognition that he might run and that he could force her to compete harder for votes she might otherwise have locked up easily. Biden's team is tight-lipped right now. Smart politicians don't telegraph their intentions any earlier than they feel that they have to. But the case for Biden is waiting for him to make it.