In the lead-up to the 1980 presidential election, a small group of Democratic strategists quietly traveled to Joe Biden’s Delaware home to urge him to run for president. He needed convincing.
"I remember thinking: I have no business making a run for president,” he would later recall, daunted by the prospect of challenging his party’s sitting president, Jimmy Carter. “I was 37 years old. I still had nights when I was brought up short by my life ... Holy God, I'd think, is this me? Have I made a mistake here? Am I flying too close to the sun? Tempting fate? And now we were talking about making a run at the White House?"
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Biden decided against a run that year, but the self-doubt vanished and he ran in 1988 and then again 2008, when he wrote a campaign memoir recalling how he overcame his early reservations. “I can [now] picture myself sitting in the Oval Office. I can picture who I'd pick up the phone and call to help me run the government. I can picture the first decisions I’d make,” he wrote.
Six years later, the bitter irony for Biden, as he ponders a third presidential run he is almost certainly not going to make, is that he can picture himself in the Oval Office now more than ever, thanks to the vantage point from his office just down the hall.
Interviews with more than a dozen people close to the vice president paint a picture of a politician torn between a decades-long aspiration for the presidency, a deep commitment his family and a recognition of a political reality tilted against him.
For reasons both bigger and smaller than Hillary Clinton, Biden will not achieve the dream to which he’s now come so close. But he refuses to rule himself out completely and will keep a presidential pilot light burning as long as possible. If nothing else, the fiercely loyal Biden will use these next two years to defend the legacy of the Obama administration and his role in it.
While Biden has been largely left out of Washington chatter about 2016, he has forced himself into the conversation whenever possible. He recently made a series of visits to promote the White House agenda to early voting states including Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. Biden frequently appears in the same city the same week as Clinton does. And he readily tells interviewers he's taking a serious look at a run.
"Regardless of when he would chose to make a decision, someone who is the sitting vice president is not someone to be underestimated."'
“It stands to reason that a man who has run for president twice on his own, the vice president who stands a heartbeat away from the presidency, and someone who has contributed to the success thereof certainly wants to be president and certainly feels that he would be a good president,” said Luis Navarro, who managed Biden’s 2008 campaign. “Regardless of when he would chose to make a decision, someone who is the sitting vice president is not someone to be underestimated."
But what Biden has not yet done is take the substantive steps necessary behind the scenes to prepare for presidential run.
Biden allies contacted several top Democratic strategists in Iowa last month to inquire about filing deadlines and the logistics behind setting up a campaign in the state, several operatives in the state said. But one person who received a call and asked not to be named said “it was all very hypothetical and kind of cryptic,” not to mention tardy in a state where Clinton operatives have been on the ground for more than a year.
There has been no formal outreach to donors, no systematic contact with activists and elected officials on the ground, no super PAC nor political operation, no shadow campaign team waiting in the wings and no staffers laying the groundwork in key states.
Chris Koerner, who led fundraising operations for Biden’s 2008 presidential campaign, said she has heard "not a peep” about re-assembling a finance council of donors. “They had talked about a reunion in the summer but nothing since then,” she said. Others involved in Biden’s previous fundraising efforts concurred.
And while Biden campaigned for Democrats in marquee races last year, and used the opportunity to a hold handful of fundraisers for other Democrats in key states, it did not appear to be a systematic effort to curry favor with local power brokers.
For instance, Biden boosted Iowa congressional candidate Jim Mowrer, who is now the vice chairman of the state Democratic Party. But Mowrer said Biden’s help had more to with the fact that he worked for Biden and served with the vice president’s son in Iraq. “I don't necessarily believe it had anything to do with me being in Iowa,” Mowrer said.
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The slow start doesn’t necessarily mean Biden is not running, allies say. A campaign will either come together all at once or not at all. “Big nations can’t bluff,” Biden is fond of saying about international relations. In Democratic politics, Biden is a big nation.
But for now, Biden is not running and is waiting to see how the Democratic field shakes out until the summer, when he has said he will make a decision.
“Any smart politician keeps his options open,” said Washington-based Democratic strategist Jim Manley, who is fond of Biden. “Despite his occasional so-called gaffes, I think he's been a great vice president and if he wants to run, I think he deserves due consideration.”
Maybe Clinton will stumble out of the gate. Maybe Democrats will want a real competition and be unsatisfied with their choices. Or maybe a force majeure will suddenly boost Biden’s stock. Politics can be unpredictable and Biden wants to be ready, just in case.
“He's got 100% name recognition. He doesn't need to explain who he is,” said Dick Harpootlian, a South Carolina lawyer and Democratic power broker who supports the vice president. “He could announce in the fall and still be competitive in the early states.”
In speeches, Biden often ruminates on his age -- he turned 72 last November -- and friends say it will be difficult for someone who has spent almost all of his adult life in politics to quit now. “He genuinely loves campaigning,” said John Marttila, a longtime former adviser to the vice president who said it’s what Biden knows how to do best.
A warning shot
Even if Biden continues to stay on the sidelines of the presidential contest, advisers say he feels he has an important role to play in 2016 in shoring up the Obama administration’s legacy. By traveling to early states to tout the White House's record on the economy, health care and the environment, Biden is planting a rhetorical marker for any candidates who might try to stray too far from Obama.
“I know that we’ve been a political heavy load to carry,” Biden told House Democrats at their retreat in Philadelphia in late January, before calling on those lawmakers to “double down” on Obama’s success. “Let’s not make any apologies for what we did. Explain why what we did worked ... Stick with it. Own it.”
It’s a message Biden has often repeated lately, and especially in early voting states where he said: “Some say that would amount to a third term of the president. I call it sticking with what works.”
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“I know he thinks it's important for him to have the narrative of the Obama-Biden administration out in these early caucus and primary states because I know they want to continue that work,” said Teri Goodman, a Democratic activist in northeast Iowa who is a personal friend of Biden’s.
Clinton, Obama's former secretary of state, has hewed close to the White House thus far. But she will inevitably distance herself from some Obama policies and possibly the man himself, as she seeks avoid notions that she represents a third term for the president.
For Biden, the “Obama third term” message is not an obvious path to victory. When CNN recently asked Americans to dream up their ideal candidate, just 41% said they want someone who “would continue most of the policies of the Obama administration.”
It may be the message of a politician near the end of his career looking to preserve his legacy.
Politics has always been “a family personal decision” for Biden, as he said last month when asked about a run.
While every politician gives some version of that answer, it could not be more true for Biden, those who know him say. More than Hillary Clinton, the polls or even the voters, his family brain trust will determine Biden's future plans.
Biden's sister Valerie managed his Senate campaigns and remains one of his closest advisers, along with his children and especially his eldest son, Beau, the attorney general of Delaware and the party’s presumptive nominee for governor in 2016.
Among people without the last name Biden, three of his closest advisers are Ted Kaufman, who took over Biden’s Senate seat when he became vice president; Ron Klain, his former chief of staff and President Obama’s onetime “Ebola czar”; and Mike Donilon, who has advised the vice president in some capacity since 1981.
Some Democrats privately wonder if Biden may have some immediate personal concerns. In August 2013, Beau Biden was hospitalized at a cancer center in Texas, where doctors removed a lesion from his brain.
The family says Biden is “doing great,” but the vice president has kept a low profile in his home state since, raising continued questions about his health. Biden’s other son, Hunter, was discharged from the Navy Reserves after testing positive for cocaine in October.
'She appears to be unstoppable'
Biden is hardly blind to the difficulty of running against Clinton. He spent 120 days campaigning in Iowa in 2008, but ended up winning less than 1% support in the Democratic caucuses that year.
The vice president is well liked by Iowa Democrats, with 78% of likely caucus goers holding a favorable view of him, according to January’s Des Moines Register Iowa poll. And it’s the state where Clinton also struggled most last time. But the same poll showed only 9% chose Biden as their top pick, compared to 56% for Clinton.
“She appears to be unstoppable,” said Goodman, the Biden ally from Dubuque, Iowa. “The Iowa poll is pretty accurate, and if you look at the Iowa poll, the contest is over.”
One of the vice president's biggest challenges would be fundraising. He hails from a small, reliably Democratic state where he didn’t need to raise much money to win six elections in a row. He faced only token opposition in his last Senate race, and raised and spent about $4 million in the race before that in 2002, which was less than the average winning Senate candidate that year.
And it's well below the $50 million or more he would need to raise to mount a credible presidential primary campaign, let alone the $1 billion needed in a general election. Clinton raised more than $100 million in 2007 alone.
Still, as Biden’s friends note, he ran against Clinton even when she was considered “inevitable” eight years ago.
"He’s a very bright guy, very good values ... But he just -- he can’t keep his mouth shut or his hands to himself."'
Another challenge for Biden is his image as a loose cannon, prone to foot-in-mouth disease. “Joe is his own worst enemy,” former Democratic Rep. Barney Frank told interviewer Larry King on Ora.tv this week. “He’s a very bright guy, very good values ... But he just -- he can’t keep his mouth shut or his hands to himself.”
While Biden’s allies do worry he can sometimes seem unserious or non-presidential, most also see Biden's easygoing nature as something of an asset. “He's an elected official who's down to earth, sort of like us, here in Iowa,” said Dale Todd, a former Cedar Rapids city councilman who organized one of the Obama’s first events in Iowa in 2008, and recently visited the Naval Observatory.
Clinton’s “ultimate challenge,” Todd said, is “how well she connects with regular voters” -- and Biden can best her there.
A new group hoping to convince Biden to join the race entered the fray this week.
Will Pierce, who runs the Draft Biden campaign, said it came together when a group of former Obama campaign veterans and volunteers wanted to find an alternative to Clinton. “They love HIllary Clinton, but Hillary Clinton is not for them,” Pierce said. “Biden was at the top of the group’s list.”
The group’s goal to build a readymade grassroots infrastructure for Biden, in case he gets in. Its part-time staff so far include two communications operatives, one field coordinator, one operations manager, one fundraiser and three state directors, but it’s expanding rapidly.
Pierce acknowledged “it’s a little bit of a late start,” but said Biden supporters have been flocking to the group.
“People who were Biden supporters were kind of hiding in a closet,” he said.