You can't help but feel for Vice President Joe Biden. After a State of the Union where he dutifully played the Ed McMahon sidekick role to a tee, clapping and grinning at President Obama's best lines, he spent Wednesday morning keeping alive the possibility that he could still run for president of the United States. "There's a chance," Biden said on ABC's Good Morning America after being asked whether he would challenge Hillary Clinton. He added that he won't have to make a decision until the summer.
To borrow a Bidenism, that's a bunch of malarkey. The veep has done absolutely nothing to staff up for a prospective campaign—a necessity against a well-prepared, well-funded Clinton operation. At 72, he'd be the oldest future president in history. As vice president, he brings all the baggage that comes with serving under a polarizing president but carries none of the same excitement from the base. His approval numbers are weaker than Obama's, and in his two past runs for president, he's fallen far short of expectations. He trails Clinton by nearly 60 points—66 percent to 8 percent—in the latest CNN/ORC survey, conducted last month. A Biden campaign would be a bigger long shot than even Mitt Romney running a third time.
Even if he wanted to run, the changing forces within the Democratic Party would make it very difficult for him to make an impact. The chances these days of a 70-something white male capturing the excitement of a diversifying Democratic Party—even if he's vice president—are long. Gender and racial politics play an outsize role in the modern Democratic Party. There's a reason lesser-known candidates, from former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley to former Sen. Jim Webb—have failed to get any traction as potential candidates, while the Democratic base still pines for Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
"He's still a prominent figure in the party, but it's just one of the most unique situations where you have a sitting vice president who's a credible threat but isn't a top dog in the party. I don't think we've seen anything like it in history," said Democratic strategist John Rowley. "But why would he totally close the door until he's 100 percent sure she's running? He's keeping his options open."
Another likely reason Biden isn't ruling out a run is about ego and desiring more respect. Vice presidents throughout history are usually the next-in-line to run when a president is term-limited or steps down. But Obama has shown little interest in promoting his No. 2. After winning reelection, Obama sat down with Clinton on 60 Minutes and effusively praised her record as secretary of State. No such attention was showered on Biden. When the public hears about Biden, it's usually after the president is frustrated over something he did—whether it's being out in front of Obama on legalizing gay marriage or over the all-too-frequent gaffes he's made. And while he shows no ill will over the good-natured mockery, the former Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman can't be happy becoming a caricature of himself.
Indeed, Biden's biggest political asset—his unmistakable authenticity—is less of a benefit in today's rapid-response media environment than in the past. Politicians are more stage-managed than ever before, relying on scripted talking points and limited access to the media. The pollster-consultant industrial complex, as author Joe Klein wrote about in Politics Lost, makes presidential campaigns more like an elaborate Kabuki play. Biden, who launched his political career in the 1970s, is a refreshing departure from that modern template. But where has that gotten him? He's the Democrat who's teased on the late-night shows, and lovably tweaked by even ardent supporters. His authenticity has gotten him nowhere.
The irony is that Obama could use a vice president like Biden with serious political interests of his own. As Obama continues to lurch leftward in his final years in office, he's not getting much internal pushback from his own administration. Someone like Biden could be playing that role as an in-house voice of moderation, especially given his skills negotiating with Congress. If Biden truly had national ambitions, he'd probably be urging Obama to take a tougher line on the Iranian negotiations and to support construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. He'd want Obama to sound a bit more conciliatory toward Republicans in his economic proposals. Clinton has similar political interests, but she has little influence, having been out of the White House for the last three years.
Instead, Biden has become the administration's reliable surrogate to the working class—a thankless job connecting with a constituency that the current president struggles with. His interest in expanding his political portfolio in preparation for a presidential run—like connecting with potential 2016 donors—was blocked by the image-conscious Obama campaign in 2012. Despite his foreign policy experience, he plays only a secondary role in the administration's foreign policy strategy. He didn't even get dispatched to Paris as the administration's representative in the wake of the terrorist attacks in France.
"Half the time you'd be frustrated you're not considered the front-runner. But half the time you're relieved you're not in the crossfire of the right-wing media complex," Rowley said. "You're at least out of the line of fire."
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.