Joe Biden’s other campaign

He’s fighting for Barack Obama like his political future depends on it – and it does

Topics: Joe Biden, Democratic National Convention, Joe Biden speech, 2012 Elections, Barack Obama,

Joe Biden’s other campaign (Credit: Reuters/Jason Reed)

Joe Biden’s acceptance speech Wednesday night was aimed squarely at reelecting Barack Obama this fall. But while pitching in toward that goal, the vice president is also helping to position himself for the post-Obama future.

No matter what happens this fall, the 2016 Democratic nomination will be open, and Biden has been making it clear he wants his name in the mix. Technically, he’ll be free to run under any circumstance, but realistically his viability depends on being part of a winning ticket with Obama in November.

Under that scenario, Biden could spend a second Obama term using the relevance, visibility and political tools that come with the vice presidency to put a real campaign together. And if Obama were to emerge as a more broadly popular leader in a second term, Biden might be able to sell himself to Democrats as the candidate of continuity: Things are going well, we’ve got a good thing going – let’s stick with it!

But while winning reelection with Obama is necessary for Biden to make a serious ’16 play, it may not by itself be sufficient. The problem is that even a reelected Vice President Biden wouldn’t be Obama’s most obvious heir apparent. Hillary Clinton would be.

While Biden was struggling to break 1 percent in Iowa in 2008, Clinton won dozens of states and racked up 18 million votes, the best showing ever of any candidate in either party not to actually win the nomination. And since dropping out in June ’08, Clinton’s standing has only improved, for three reasons: 1) She became a close Obama ally and won an appointment as his secretary of state, healing whatever intraparty wounds there were; 2) that appointment removed Clinton from the day-to-day partisan wars of the U.S. Senate while burnishing her credentials as a world leader; and 3) Republicans stopped vilifying her and started treating her as a sympathetic figure – a “good” Democrat who’d been steamrolled by the evil Obama. So while the last four years have certainly boosted Biden’s long-term political prospects, they’ve done a lot more for Clinton’s.

This is reflected in the ’16 polling that’s been conducted so far. In a national PPP poll back in April, Biden lagged 43 points behind the secretary of state, 57 to 14 percent. (All of the other prospects were back in single digits.) An Iowa survey this summer put Clinton up 60-18 percent on Biden in that state, and a Florida poll this week gave her a 67-11 edge. As I wrote Thursday, Clinton looms over the ’16 Democratic field as a front-runner like we’ve never before seen. It’s very, very hard to believe that Biden would even try to run against her if she jumps in.

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But if she sits out, things start to look different. At that point, Biden would be the biggest fish in the pond, at least to start. His biggest initial threat would come from Andrew Cuomo, who benefits from the (somewhat surprising) residual power of his family’s name and his status as an overwhelmingly popular governor of a large state that contains the media capital of the world. Beyond Cuomo, every other Democratic prospect would begin with limited name recognition and support.

This, too, is reflected in polling. In a Clinton-less race, that same April national poll gave Biden a 32-18 percent lead over Cuomo, with Elizabeth Warren a distant third at 8 percent. (And Warren’s ’16 viability depends on winning her Massachusetts race this fall, something that – for now, at least – seems unlikely.) Similarly, Biden led Cuomo 38-14 percent in a Clinton-less Iowa race, and 31-21 percent in Florida.

This suggests that if Clinton takes a pass, Biden would become the early front-runner for ’16. But he’d be a weak one, as sitting vice presidents go, vulnerable both to a Cuomo challenge and to a surge by any of the lesser-known potential candidates. At this point, Biden’s biggest obstacle would probably be his age – 73 on Election Day 2016. There would be plenty of room for his opponents to portray him as a tired retread, a man who first sought the presidency in 1988 — 28 years before the ’16 race. Biden would face real skepticism over whether he’s the right leader to take the party into the future, and his penchant for “gaffes” probably wouldn’t help either. Like Alben Barkley, who at 74 years old badly wanted to succeed Harry Truman as the Democratic nominee in 1952, Biden might get vetoed by his party because of age.

In a way, though, Biden is playing with house money. He seemed destined to finish up his career in the Senate when his 2008 White House bid failed. It’s only because Obama picked him as a running mate months later that anyone thinks he might have a chance to be president someday. But he does have a chance – even if he’ll need to catch some real big breaks.

Steve Kornacki
Steve Kornacki writes about politics for Salon. Reach him by email at SKornacki@salon.com and follow him on Twitter @SteveKornacki

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