Granted, one can only spend so much time analyzing a campaign that probably won't formally unfold until 2015 and 2016. At the same time, it would be foolish to believe that thoughts about 2015 and 2016 don't regularly occur to every nationally ambitious Democratic politician—and shape their present-day posturing.
With that in mind, Sunday's thorough New York Times piece about Joe Biden's role within the Obama administration offered a few clues about the jockeying within the Democratic Party to succeed Obama some day.
The unofficial race to succeed Obama is unique because, for the first time in decades, his vice president's intentions are impossible to read. Unlike Al Gore, George H. W. Bush, Walter Mondale and others, Biden has not been using his office as an explicit campaign vehicle for a future presidential bid. At the same time, Biden hasn't, through his words or actions, ruled out the idea, unlike Dick Cheney and Nelson Rockefeller, who knew early on that their political careers would take them—barring a tragedy—no farther than the vice presidency.
"I can't believe that he won't think about (2016)," Ted Kaufman, Delaware's appointed senator and Biden's former chief of staff, told The Times. Biden's spokesman, for his part, said that "we're not ruling anything in or out."
The best historical precedent for Biden's situation can probably be found in Alben Barkley, Harry Truman's vice president from 1949 to 1953. When Truman added him to his ticket in 1948, Barkley had the same deep Congressional experience (36 years—14 in the House and 22 in the Senate) that Biden had when Obama tapped him last summer. Because of his age (71 when he was sworn-in), Barkley was regarded as an unlikely successor to Truman in 1952, even though he badly wanted to claim the mantle. In the end, Barkley launched an effort to secure the Democratic nomination weeks before the '52 convention, but it fell apart when key party leaders refused to back him, mainly because of his age.
It's hard not to believe that Biden, who has two presidential campaigns under his belt (and who seriously considered running in two other years), doesn't share Barkley's ultimate ambition. But, as with Barkley, age is a hindrance, or at least a perceived one: Biden would be 73 during the '16 campaign and 74 by the inauguration. Still, it's not an automatic disqualifier: Ronald Reagan was 73 when he won a second term in 1984, and two other major party presidential nominees in the last two decades—Bob Dole in 1996 and John McCain last year—have been over 70.
So Biden's predicament seems clear: He would like to have a chance to succeed Obama, but because of his age, he isn't automatically treated—by the media or by his own party—as the heir apparent. But taking active steps to reverse that perception would destroy his standing within the administration—and, in particular, with Obama, who praised Biden to The Times for not using his office as "a stepping stone." The best Biden can do is to profess indecision about the future while hoping that his work as vice president generates momentum by itself for another presidential run.
But even this could eventually get awkward, because it seems just as clear that Hillary Clinton, who will be 69 in 2016, is equally interested in following Obama as the leader of the Democratic Party, and the nation. And Clinton and Biden, at least to this point, enjoy a strong professional and personal relationship—the kind that could be undermined if their ambitions were ever to clash. (Yes, Biden technically opposed Clinton in last year's primaries, but she—and the press—never saw his candidacy as a serious threat and he pointedly refrained from attacking her on the trail—and, after dropping out, from endorsing Obama, even as Obama became the clear front-runner.)
It's worth remembering that Clinton—and her husband—seemed to warm up to Obama last summer in part because of his selection of Biden as a running mate. Mostly, this was for personal reasons: Biden was their staunch ally throughout the 1990s and was among the most friendly and welcoming faces Hillary encountered when she joined the Senate. "I love Joe Biden," Bill Clinton declared when he spoke at last August's Democratic convention.
But, at some level, there was probably another factor in the Clintons' glee: with Biden—and not Tim Kaine or Kathleen Sebelius or Evan Bayh—teaming up with Obama, it would be much easier for Clinton to position herself for '16, with the press not automatically treating the vice president as the logical front-runner, the major obstacle in Clinton's way. Biden's selection meant there would still be room for Clinton to emerge, even without the vice presidency, as her party's heir apparent.
And, from that perspective, her stint as secretary of state has so far been a clear success, earning her a less partisan reputation, boosting her poll numbers across the board and removing her from the polarizing food fights of the Senate. Assuming Biden isn't in the picture, there's every reason to believe Clinton is on course to win the next open Democratic nomination.
Biden could complicate her coronation if he were to run as well. Whether he could beat her is anyone's guess, but a sitting vice president is always going to be a formidable presidential candidate; Biden would probably loom larger than any other Democratic opponent Clinton could face.
For now, Biden and Clinton remain good friends. The Times story noted that Biden's office made Clinton available to comment on the vice president. (She said nice things.) And it may stay this way forever. Who knows what will happen over the next few years; maybe Clinton and Biden will both end up not running. But if, when the time comes, Clinton starts gearing up for a run and Biden does, too, the warmth will probably vanish overnight. Vice President Biden would make a far more serious challenger to Clinton in 2016 than Senator Biden did in 2008.