Joe Biden’s Endless Rumination About Running for President

The former vice president is hearing mixed messages from Democrats about whether he should jump into the race.

John Minchillo / AP

Joe Biden has entered another long season of indecision. In London this week, he teased that he’s not a presidential candidate “at this point.” In March, he told a university audience, “I have to be able to … look in the mirror and know that if I don’t run, it’s not because I’m afraid of losing, it’s not because I don’t want to take on the responsibility.” In February, he mused to Andrea Mitchell, “Is this right for me to do?” And last November, he told Vanity Fair: “I haven’t decided to run, but I’ve decided I’m not going to decide not to run.”

It’s a veritable callback to 2015, when Biden grappled at length with ambition and grief. The death of his son Beau that year weighed heavily; at the same time, his dream of being president—which he announced as a teenager—still burned incandescently. He went public with his rumination, at one point telling Stephen Colbert, “I don’t think any man or woman should run for president unless [they can say to voters] ‘You have my whole heart, my whole soul, my energy, and my passion to do this.’ And I’d be lying if I said that I knew I was there.” A month later, he announced he wouldn’t run in 2016. Three months after that, he second-guessed his decision and said, “I regret it every day.”

Now, it’s happening again—Hamlet meets Groundhog Day—and it’s tough to tell what Biden is planning. He’s campaigning intensely for a Democratic Congress, and close aides have been gaming out bold scenarios for a 2020 bid, like pledging to serve only one term or announcing a young running mate at the starting gate. But he reportedly doesn’t want the dozen-plus Democratic aspirants to wait for him to make up his mind.

In Democratic circles, the common nickname for Biden is “Uncle Joe.” But it cuts two ways. On the one hand, it connotes the kind of familiarity and affection that comes with his longtime presence in the capital, and his tenure as the loyal sidekick to a president who’s still popular with the party base. Grassroots Democrats say he’s their top choice for 2020, as evidenced this year in a series of polls.

But a sizable share of Democrats believe that there comes a time when even a beloved uncle should be put out to pasture. Their feeling is that he’s too encumbered by the weight of decades of political baggage—and that, as a man in his mid-70s, he isn’t likely to take the plunge knowing that the odds of winning the nomination aren’t guaranteed in his favor.

The age factor is major—Biden will be 78 in 2021—and most Democrats are loathe to mention it on the record. But privately, they say that the party won’t galvanize Millennials unless it touts new, younger faces (Senator Kamala Harris, say, or Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti). The last thing the party needs, they say—because it’s so often perceived as sclerotic—is Biden as the butt of ageist jokes. (When John McCain ran at age 71, David Letterman called him “the kind of guy who picks up the TV remote when the phone rings.”)

Biden’s skeptics aren’t bedazzled by his current standing atop the polls, in part because his stellar rating is probably a function of his universal name ID and affiliation with former President Barack Obama. Indeed, early polls have rarely proved prescient in presidential elections. In the run-up to the 1972 primary, Democrats wanted Edward Kennedy, and the eventual nominee, George McGovern, was a blip. Before Michael Dukakis secured the nomination in 1988, the top-rated guy was Gary Hart. That same year, Biden flamed out as a candidate—2008 was his second flameout—after the press discovered that some of his speech rhetoric was eerily similar to that of a British politician.

Ed Kilgore, a longtime political commentator and the former policy director for the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, is one such Democrat who has doubts about Biden 2020. He should “give it a pass … unless the field is gridlocked and he is the object of a genuine draft,” Kilgore told me. “The revival of memories of his chairmanship of the [Senate] Judiciary Committee—with such lowlights as the committee’s treatment of Anita Hill, and Biden’s own championship of the [1994] crime bill—makes me feel even more strongly that it’s not his time. I also think Democrats would be wise to run someone younger than Trump.”

Kilgore put his finger on perhaps the biggest pieces of Biden baggage going into 2020.

In the wake of #MeToo and the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, he’d face an energized female electorate that would perhaps not look kindly on his tenure during the Hill hearings. Older women might remember that he refused to seat a panel of sexual-harassment experts, and that he allowed Clarence Thomas to speak twice, before and after Hill’s testimony. Younger women might not know the full history, but Biden’s female competitors would be likely to fill in the gaps. And John Zogby, a veteran pollster who believes that Biden would be a strong candidate, nevertheless concedes that, given current cultural attitudes, Biden “likes to rub women’s shoulders a bit uncomfortably.”

Given how important voters of color are in Democratic primaries, Biden’s rivals would almost certainly bring up the Clinton-era crime bill that he shepherded through the Senate. (He referred to it at the time as the “1994 Biden Crime Bill.”) The crime rate was far higher back then, and Democrats were determined to erase the perception that they were soft on crime. But today that law is widely blamed for exacerbating an era of mass incarceration that disproportionately hurt racial minorities. Hillary Clinton distanced herself from the law during the 2016 campaign, but Biden, as vice president, said he had no second thoughts, “not at all.”

Progressives, stoked in part by Sanders-Warren populism, also vote heavily in Democratic primaries, and Biden’s rivals could resurrect some of his past ties to credit-card companies, some of which were his constituents in corporate-friendly Delaware. In 2005, he supported a bill, later signed by President Bush, that made it harder for broke consumers to file for bankruptcy; he’d voted for similar legislation four years earlier, too. His competitors could similarly force him to defend his son Hunter’s consulting fees from a major banking company, MBNA Corporation, during the same years that those bankruptcy bills were in play.

One former Biden campaign aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, summed up his weaknesses this way: “What I’m thinking is this: ‘Joe, you were always a bad candidate and now you’re too old and too white and too male, but I love you as a happy warrior.’”

Biden still has his boosters, however, and that’s likely a big reason why he still nurtures his lifelong dream. The skeptics question whether he can reassemble the winning Obama coalition: women, minorities, young people, upscale professionals. But some of his defenders believe that the kid from hardscrabble Scranton can recapture voters that Democrats have left behind. The party strategist Tom Lindenfeld tells me: “For [Democrats] to regain our electoral advantage, we must appeal to the white working-class voters we lost in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and elsewhere. ... Biden’s authenticity and working-class roots might be just what we need to broaden our appeal and win the essential swing Rust Belt states.”

Lindenfeld says that Biden “has the ability to accept his mistakes” and “learn from them.” And it’s true that Biden earlier this year said he owes Hill an apology, and that three years after the Hill hearings, he sponsored the Violence Against Women Act, which strengthened the investigation and prosecution of such crimes. And even Biden’s most fervent detractors privately believe that if he were to face Trump in debates, he’d be the antithesis of “Sleepy Joe,” the nickname the president has affixed to his would-be rival.

Yet still, Biden hesitates to decide. In that, he bears little resemblance to the younger version of himself that Richard Ben Cramer described in his famous book on politics, What It Takes. Cramer wrote:

Joey was always quick, with a grace born of self-possession … Once Joey set his mind, it was like he didn’t think at all—he just did. That’s why you didn’t want to fight him. Most guys who got into a fight, they’d square off, there’d be a minute or two of circling around, while they jockeyed for position. Joey didn’t do that. He decided to fight—BANGO, he’d punch the guy in the face … So Joey got into fights, and BANG—it was over quick. What he was, was tough from the neck up. He knew what he wanted to do and he did it.

If only the life of a battle-scarred septuagenarian were that simple.