Joe Biden's Political Moment

For the first time, the vice president looks like a more electable Democrat than Hillary Clinton.

For Democratic leaders, the political logic of having Hillary Clinton as the party's standard bearer in 2016 was, at least for a while, undeniable. President Obama could maintain middling approval ratings, but Clinton's distance from political life as secretary of State gave her ample distance from the president's most controversial policies. Voters may be looking for change, but Clinton's bid to become the first female president gave her campaign a historic sheen that few others could provide. Most significantly, Clinton's independent brand (and record of opposing certain presidential decisions) would allow her to triangulate: distance herself from the White House when necessary, while also supporting Obama on other core issues.

It's the main reason Obama personally praised Clinton when she left the Cabinet, and has never offered any similar political shout-out to his loyal vice president, Joe Biden. Even if he wanted to run, Biden would have trouble broadening his support beyond Obama's coalition, and as an older white man, would probably face challenges exciting the core of nonwhite voters who make up the base of Obama's support. Clinton, thanks to her husband, held more of a political track record on that front—and had the capability of maximizing the gender gap in the Democrats' favor.

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But a funny thing happened on the way to the coronation. Throughout the summer, Clinton has been hammered over using a secret, personal email server as secretary of State—one that government officials believe may have compromised the country's national security and allowed her to conceal (and delete) email correspondence. Meanwhile, as she faces energetic opposition from her party's progressive base, she's decided to tack to the left, offering little to disaffected swing voters dissatisfied with Obama. Her campaign operatives believe it's worth mobilizing the Democratic Party's ascendant constituencies without offering much to the (shrinking) number of voters in the middle.

In the process, however, her favorable ratings have hit all-time lows, with clear majorities of Americans saying they don't like her and have trouble believing she's trustworthy. In the critical swing states of New Hampshire, Iowa, Colorado, and Virginia, reputable new polls show her favorability ratings not much better than Donald Trump's—with unfavorable ratings nearing 60 percent. Quinnipiac's swing-state polling found her losing in Colorado, Iowa, and Virginia to all three leading GOP candidates (Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and Scott Walker), while NBC News/Marist polling found her favorability ratings to be just as dismal in Iowa and New Hampshire. National polling doesn't put her in much better shape, with her favorability still upside-down in CNN/ORC's new poll (45/48, among all adults). Gallup found her overall favorability at 43/46, her worst net showing since their November 2007 survey. Her numbers aren't any better than Obama's, and many polls are finding them in worse shape.

Suddenly, if you're Joe Biden, running for president makes a lot more political sense.

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If Obama's former campaign strategists truly believe that a Democratic candidate only needs to mobilize and microtarget the base to win the presidency, who better to do that than Obama's unfailingly loyal No. 2? Biden, after all, pushed the president to come out for gay marriage against his best political instincts. He led the administration's uphill fight for gun control in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre, heading its task force on the subject. He's helped with the administration's lobbying effort for its Iran deal, pitched wary Democrats on the benefits of fast-track trade, and stood by the president's side when he praised the Supreme Court's ruling upholding Obamacare subsidies.

And at a time when authenticity is a highly valued asset—for better or worse—Biden boasts the natural political skill set that Clinton clearly lacks. He's a happy warrior who enjoys campaigning and isn't constrained by talking points or rope lines. He's able to ham it up with union rank-and-file, while also giving a stem-winding speech blasting Republicans in Congress. His all-too-frequent malapropisms are endearing at a time when voters are cynical about scripted politicians.

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His drawbacks are also clear: He's getting old, hasn't prepared for a presidential campaign, and wouldn't have the financial resources to compete with Clinton. His presidential campaign track record (1988, 2008) is abysmal. But his most significant liability was that he carried Obama's political baggage at a time when the president's job approval numbers were weak. For all the hype about Biden's ability to woo working-class voters, the reality is that Obama's policies have been so unpopular with white blue-collar voters that it's hard to win them back. Clinton, on the other hand, enjoyed high favorability ratings in her post-Cabinet career (for a while) and, on paper, boasted the ability to rally women to her side.

But Clinton has squandered so many promising opportunities that she started with at the beginning of the campaign. Instead of distancing herself from Obama's biggest weakness—foreign policy—she's either openly or tacitly supported his most controversial policies (Iran nuclear deal, Cuba outreach, strategy against ISIS). That's a tactical shift from last year, when she gave a lengthy interview to The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg, in which she criticized Obama's decision not to intervene in Syria and struck a hard line on Iran's nuclear demands. With a campaign team in place, she's apparently calculated that the risk of alienating some Obama supporters was greater than underscoring her independence.

On domestic policy, too, her reticence to forge her own campaign path from the president is awfully telling. Like Obama, she hasn't taken a position on construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, even though the review she initiated at State concluded it would cause no significant environmental harm. She awkwardly avoided taking a position on the president's fast-track trade-authority legislation, not wanting to alienate Obama or the party's activist base.

For Obama supporters, the case for Biden should be an easy one to make: He's a liberal loyalist for this president who doesn't shade his views with excessive nuance. With Biden, there wouldn't be mealy-mouthed hedging. He'd be an unequivocal champion of the president and his agenda. And with Obama's job approval stabilizing—it's been within one point of 46 percent in nearly every week this year—there's a logical, if challenging, path for an unapologetic Obama cheerleader to win the presidency.

First, however, Biden would have to win the nomination, and that's where things get tricky. From the White House's perspective, it's probably not worth provoking a family feud between two candidates claiming the Obama legacy. Indeed, the White House has privately discouraged Biden from running—"nearly every move to expand his political team was blocked by Obama's sharp-elbowed protectors," Politico's Glenn Thrush wrote in his seminal Biden profile—and publicly offered him no support for another presidential campaign. Clinton's email scandal would probably have to reach disastrous levels for "no drama" Obama administration officials to panic, and for Biden to consider jumping in the race.

This could end up being one of the administration's biggest political miscalculations: going all in on Hillary Clinton while neglecting the obvious appeal of the vice president. If voters really want a third term of Obama's policies, why not back the candidate who unabashedly represents his vision?