When Vice President Biden arrives in South Carolina on Friday to headline a sold-out dinner for state Democrats, here’s what you can expect to go down:
Biden will stoke speculation that he wants to run for president in 2016 by pressing the flesh in the first-in-the-South primary state. He will show himself to be on a first-name basis with many of the local politicians and county activists who will line up to greet him. They will gush over his attributes — genuine, down-to-earth, rock solid on the issues. As Dick Harpootlian, the state party chairman, put it, “We’re tickled pink to have him.”
Yet by the time he leaves, the reality of being Joe Biden will sink in: A promotion to the top job is a long shot, at best.
For Biden, who, his family and advisers say, is weighing whether to run in 2016, several paradoxes are at work. He is beloved by grass-roots Democrats, but mainly as the avuncular No. 2 to Barack Obama. From the South Carolina Lowcountry to the Iowa heartland, there are no signs — none yet, at least — of a “Draft Joe” movement. “There just isn’t,” said Sue Dvorsky, a former head of the Iowa Democratic Party.
Biden clearly has the experience and gravitas to ascend to the presidency, but many Democrats say he may have been in Washington too long (since 1973) to win an election. He is President Obama’s governing partner yet is rarely seen as Obama’s heir apparent. For that mantle, and for the nomination, he is likely to face stiff competition in the form of Hillary Rodham Clinton, the former secretary of state and, according to most everyone, the 2016 front-runner.
“Because she’s a Democrat, I can’t say she’s the elephant in the room, but she’s certainly the dominant donkey,” said Robert Shrum, a veteran Democratic presidential campaign strategist. “If she decides to run, it’ll be almost impossible to prevent her from being the nominee. If she doesn’t run, I think Biden’s the odds-on favorite.”
Yet even then, “he will not have it easy,” said Donald Fowler, a former Democratic National Committee chairman and South Carolina native who is close to the Clintons.
Biden remains a distant presence in the 2016 field. One Democratic politician who is considering a presidential run has focused his deliberations with advisers entirely on how, or even whether, to challenge Clinton. According to one of the advisers, Biden has not entered into the equation.
At some point, Biden will be making some calculations of his own.
“It’s like five-dimensional chess,” said Ted Kaufman, a longtime confidant of Biden’s who was appointed to succeed Biden in the Senate after he was elected vice president in 2008. “You can sit around and think about it and dream about it, but really, it’ll get decided later, and that’s when it’ll get serious.”
People close to Biden laid out several considerations on his mind, starting with fundamental political concerns: Would the country effectively turn backward by picking a baby-boomer white man to succeed a youthful black president? Will the Obama administration three years from now be considered a success, particularly on the economy?
And there’s the matter of whether Clinton runs. This, Kaufman said, is a “major consideration” because “he and Hillary are actually friends.”
The best scenario for a Biden candidacy would be if Clinton stays out of the race, the economy is going gangbusters and voters want a third Obama term. But Biden cannot control these determinants. So, confidants said, he is thinking about more personal factors, including his decades-long presidential aspirations.
Biden, a spry 70, keeps a travel schedule that would exhaust most men half his age. But he will be 73 when the next election rolls around, and those close to him said he knows his age would be an issue.
For Biden, who has been running for office since his 20s, not running would feel unnatural — especially if his vice presidency is deemed successful, those close to him say.
But not running also offers him a chance to make serious money for the first time in his life. Biden, who ranked among the poorest senators, could rake in millions of dollars in short order by hitting the speaking circuit, publishing a memoir or serving on corporate boards. Biden finds the prospect of building a financial cushion for his family particularly alluring, confidants said.
Sometime in the next two years, advisers said, Biden will sit down with his wife, Jill, three children and the rest of their family to decide whether to launch another national campaign. (Biden declined through an aide to be interviewed for this article.)
“I don’t think it’s any real secret that it’s something that he’s going to think about,” said Biden’s eldest son, Beau, the attorney general of Delaware. “I want him to give it real thought. I think he’d make a great president.”