What Is Joe Biden Up To?

The vice president seems to be exploring his options, but with the prospect of a Clinton campaign for the nomination in 2016, Democrats aren't eager to see an intraparty fight.

Associated Press

Vice President Joe Biden's speech to the Democratic National Committee on Thursday included a paean to long shots and lost causes. "Everything I've ever done in my career that I consider worthwhile—from the Violence Against Women Act to the crime bill to helping get us out of Iraq—it took time," he said. "If we didn't start when we started ... it would have never happened."

It seemed an apt metaphor for Biden's political predicament. Most people believe that the 71-year-old vice president, who has twice unsuccessfully sought the presidency, has little chance of becoming the Democratic nominee in 2016. But Biden believes you don't know what you can accomplish until you try. As he said on Thursday—the ostensible topic was improving the economy through infrastructure: "I don't want to hear people telling me that we can't get that done now."

In recent weeks, Biden has been off the leash. On Monday, he was a guest on Seth Meyers' Late Night hosting debut; Amy Poehler sat on his lap and called him a "gorgeous charm monster," and Biden teased about a "major announcement" that he'd decided not to make just yet. On Tuesday, schmoozing the ladies of The View, Biden touted his accomplishments, said he considered himself "uniquely qualified," and gave this answer about a potential run: "I absolutely have not said no."

What is Biden up to? For one, he is casting off the shackles of the Obama team's attempts to control and box him in, as Glenn Thrush reports in a rich and delightful profile in Politico Magazine this week. Thrush's piece is, among other things, a detailed account of the litany of humiliations Biden has had to endure at the hands of an administration that has never taken him as seriously as he felt he deserved. The Democratic base has reason to love Biden beyond his goofy "Uncle Joe" image. As vice president, he has often been the point man for progressive causes, from forcing Obama to come out in favor of gay marriage to carrying the administration's gun-control agenda. But the Obamans have seriously restricted his ability to lay 2016 groundwork, and some—including 2012 Obama campaign manager Jim Messina—have already lent support to the Hillary Clinton campaign-in-waiting.

"Everybody wants to talk about 2016. That's lifetimes away," Biden proclaimed Thursday. But in the timetable of politics, it's not far off at all. Clinton has said she will decide whether to run sometime this year. The Republicans angling for their party's nomination have stepped up their jostling. With Clinton's plans still unknown, it would seem that if a Biden-for-president trial balloon is to catch a sudden fluke of an updraft, now would be the time.

There's no doubt that Biden wants to be president—he's wanted it basically his entire life—or that 2016 would be his last, best chance, based on his age and his current position. Whether he will run is a different question. A New York Times/CBS News poll this week found an overwhelming 82 percent of Democrats want Clinton to run. Biden came in second, with 42 percent. But compare those numbers with the fluid and fractured Republican field: The potential candidacy Republicans most want to see, that of former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, is sought by just 41 percent of GOP voters.

Democrats really like Joe Biden. They just like Hillary Clinton better. And though they note that 2008's divisive Obama-Clinton primary didn't hurt the party that November, there seems to be little appetite for an intraparty fight in 2016. The Democratic Party leaders from around the country who gathered for this week's DNC meeting received Biden with deep enthusiasm for his message about mobilizing for this year's congressional elections, lifting up the middle class, and drawing a stark contrast with Republican proposals. But they stopped short of saying they'd put him ahead of Clinton for the nomination.

"I absolutely love Joe Biden," Mame Reiley, a committee member from Virginia, told me. "But if Hillary wants it, it's her time. If she wants to do it, I'm going to support her." If Clinton decides against it, on the other hand, Biden is busy making sure he's well positioned to capitalize.