In considering what role Joe Biden will play in the Obama White House, the most important question hasn’t yet been answered: Does Biden, a veteran of two unsuccessful presidential bids, still want to serve as president someday? The answer to this question will shape every facet of his vice presidency profoundly.
In modern times, the main appeal of the vice presidency, an office with little official responsibility beyond presiding over the Senate and occupying the first spot in the presidential line of succession, has been its stepping-stone potential.
True, most vice presidents since World War II have not actually gone on to become president (the three who have are Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson and George H.W. Bush), but the high visibility and instant access to powerful party leaders in every corner of the country that come with the office give its occupant a powerful leg up that he would otherwise never enjoy. Without their stints as vice president, Al Gore, Walter Mondale, and Hubert Humphrey would all probably never have secured the Democratic presidential nomination. In all, six of the 11 post-war vice presidents have at least gone on to win their party’s presidential nominations.
With the last two administrations, we have learned just how dramatic the differences can be between vice presidents who have presidential designs and those who don’t.
In 1992, Al Gore was elected as Bill Clinton’s partner, a fellow Southern baby-boomer who would bring fresh energy and new ideas to Washington. Gore had already sought the presidency once (making a splash in the South in the 1988 Democratic primaries, but failing to catch on anywhere else), and at 44, it was obvious that he’d be running again someday. Clinton understood this and, as his presidency evolved, he embraced Gore’s ambition as a part of his legacy; Gore’s election in 2000, he concluded, would be interpreted by historians as a yearning by Americans for a third Clinton term.
Gore was given high-profile, image-enhancing assignments. In Clinton’s first term, he showed up on David Letterman’s show to skewer various wasteful government programs and initiatives – part of his “reinventing government” agenda. When the Nafta debate took center-stage in the fall of 1993, Gore was dispatched to debate Ross Perot on CNN. The program generated record ratings, and Gore’s performance was so powerful that Perot’s political career, in ascent since his strong Election Day showing in 1992, was essentially squashed on the spot. At the 1996 Democratic convention, Clinton created a new tradition to boost Gore, allowing him to deliver his acceptance speech on the convention’s third night – a departure from past custom, which called for the V.P. and presidential nominees to speak back-to-back on the final night, and a clear effort to raise Gore’s profile.
The eight-year strategy paid off in some ways. Only one Democrat, Bill Bradley, dared to challenge Gore in the 2000 primaries (during which Clinton conveniently scheduled his State of the Union address for a few nights before the New Hampshire primary, meaning that virtually every New Hampshire voter saw Gore right behind the president as Clinton delivered a forceful and upbeat speech extolling his various achievements) and Gore beat Bradley in every single primary and caucus. The general election, of course, was a different story, but the Gore model still stands as testament to the potential of the vice presidency for ambitious politicians. Without it, he might still be in the Senate today.
Gore’s successor, Dick Cheney, has created a different model. Once in his life, he’d craved the presidency. Upon stepping down as Defense Secretary after George H.W. Bush’s ‘92 defeat, Cheney readied himself for bid for the ’96 G.O.P nomination. But he abandoned it in 1995 (daughter Mary’s sexuality, then not public knowledge, was supposedly a concern) and then spent the next five years making a fortune at Halliburton.
When he emerged, at age 59, from the private sector to serve as George W. Bush’s running-mate in 2000, Cheney’s White House aspirations were nonexistent. He told associates of an “understanding” he’d reached with Bush, hinting that he’d have far more power and influence than most vice presidents. This, obviously, has been the case. Cheney never seriously considered trying to succeed Bush, satisfied instead to exercise unprecedented authority within the White House. In a way, he realized, he could have the power of the top job without having to run for it.
So, on the spectrum between Gore and Cheney, where does Biden fall?
Unless something has changed in the last few months, it’s likely that he still wants to be president. He began positioning himself for the office 25 years ago, when he nearly plunged into the 1984 Democratic race (he backed off Christmas week in 1983). In 1987, he jumped all the way in, and watched his stock rise thanks to impressive early fund-raising and a series of inspiring speeches. Scandal forced him out in September ’87. But Biden wasn’t done. In the summer of 2000, as Gore was about to be nominated in Los Angeles, Biden declared himself once again interested in the White House – and ready to run the next time the nomination was open. He toyed with a 2004 campaign, again dawdling and backing out at the last minute, months after John Kerry’s defeat made it clear that he’d be a candidate in 2008.
Biden’s failed primary bid this year illustrated the deleterious effect that long service in Washington can have on presidential ambitions. His debate performances were widely praised, but voters instinctively dismissed him as stale and outdated. There was no way to break through.
The vice presidency, at least in theory, would give him a chance to overcome all of that in 2016. Given Obama’s star power, Biden may not be as visible as past vice presidents, but eight years on the job could still do wonders for his profile – just as it would give him plenty of chances to rack up favors and IOU’s with party leaders and activists.
But even if he does still want the presidency, there’s the matter of age. Biden was born in December 1942, meaning that he’d be 73 years old during the 2016 campaign and would turn 74 between the November election and Inauguration Day. This would make him the oldest president ever inaugurated (a few months older than Ronald Reagan when he was sworn in for the second time), but as a septuagenarian presidential nominee, he’d have plenty of recent company: John McCain was 72 this year, Bob Dole was 73 in 1996, Reagan was 73 in 1984 (and 69 in 1980), and George H.W. Bush was 68 in 1992 (not literally a septuagenarian, but close enough).
Age isn’t the limitation it once was. Back in 1952, Vice President Alben Barkley, age 74, badly wanted to succeed Harry Truman as president. But party leaders told him no, that he was simply too old to attract widespread support, and his candidacy ended two weeks after it began. (Barkley ended up dying in 1956, before his presidential term would have expired.) What is ‘too old’ today, though? If Biden remains vibrant and healthy, age alone probably wouldn’t rule him out as a 2016 candidate.
It’s clear that Obama-Biden is not the second coming of Clinton-Gore. But that doesn’t automatically mean that Biden will be Obama’s Cheney. There’s plenty of room between the Gore and Cheney models – enough, at least theoretically, for Biden to build the foundation for a credible presidential campaign in 2016.