Not since President Bush declined to pardon Scooter Libby has Washington chatter projected so much disappointment onto the vice president. But it was hard not to sympathize with Joe Biden—and his inchoate 2016 campaign—after the president’s hagiographic joint appearance on 60 Minutes with outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Biden, of course, made nothing of it. For the cameras, he is voluble and spry, trotting across Pennsylvania Avenue to mug and shake hands during the inaugural parade. The man who came on board as ballot ballast (wizened, steeped in foreign policy, noticeably white) has become an odd and perhaps enviable creature in the political firmament: a pop-culture totem and a sitcom punch line, yet somehow a senior statesman, too. But inside the White House, Biden is playing a quieter game, nudging into place the pieces he would need should he decide to run in 2016—Steve Kroft be damned.
Biden’s friends and advisers caution that the effort is nascent and informal, that no ultimate decision has been made. The effort, however, is unmistakable. And signs of it range from Biden’s strategic guest-list compilation for inaugural-week festivities to plans for firmer control of the Democratic Party machinery. “They’re leaving all their options open,” says one longtime friend who spoke on condition of anonymity so as not to jeopardize the friendship. “They just want to make sure they’re very viable, because Hillary might not run.”
Defined in the strictest terms, “they” are Biden’s family, a group that doubles as his political brain trust. Biden has long relied on the counsel of his sister, Valerie Biden Owens, and has come to lean on his sons, Hunter and Beau. Biden advisers universally name-check the family before mentioning other key figures.
Larry Rasky, who was Biden’s communications director in 1988 and 2008 and remains a friend and adviser, says, “There’s absolutely no reason why, given his service to the party, given his role campaigning around the country and his role in 2014—when he’s going to be a good surrogate—that he won’t be in a good spot. He’s got a lot of cards to play.”
Those cards include chits Biden has accrued during four decades in national politics, and the executive-level and progressive credentials he has burnished as vice president. In a move many observers considered a classic bit of personal positioning, he preempted Obama in supporting gay marriage. He formulated the administration’s response to calls for stepped-up gun control.
And Biden already has a stable of long-serving horses ready to harness. Outside the family, the next circle includes veterans of his 2008 campaign, his Senate office, and, like Rasky, his 1988 run. Pollster John Martilla, also close to Secretary of State John Kerry, managed Biden’s 1972 Senate campaign and remains a top adviser.
Necessarily, much of the power is concentrated within Biden’s office, helmed by Chief of Staff Bruce Reed, who was chief domestic policy adviser to President Clinton. Insiders describe strategist Mike Donilon as the first among equals. His brother, Tom, is Obama’s national security adviser (and a former Biden hand himself). Mike’s sister-in-law, Catherine Russell, is Jill Biden’s chief of staff.
The vice president’s former chief of staff, Ron Klain, worked for him on the Senate Judiciary Committee during Clarence Thomas’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings, and Klain’s near-miss candidacy to be Obama’s chief of staff was viewed as emblematic of Biden’s growing influence in the administration. Tony Blinken’s elevation to deputy national security adviser reinforced the notion; Blinken worked for Biden on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
On the ascent in the inner circle, people close to Biden say, is Steve Ricchetti, a Clinton White House deputy chief of staff brought in despite controversy over his lobbying career. Another relatively new addition to the upper ranks is Sheila Nix, Biden’s campaign chief of staff last year. Ted Kaufman, who worked on Biden’s 1972 effort and succeeded him in the upper chamber, remains close, as does Alan Hoffman, the deputy chief of staff who left the vice president’s office late last year to work for PepsiCo and is expected to help with financing. Also on tap for fundraising muscle is Dennis Toner, a former top aide from the Senate days who handled much of the money side during the 2008 campaign.
Trip King, a longtime home-state power broker for Democratic former Sen. Fritz Hollings of South Carolina, was the vice president’s political director during the reelection campaign. King helped arrange the inaugural festivities, inviting what one attendee called the “crème de la crème” of Democratic politics—with an emphasis on early-voting states. Another former Judiciary Committee staffer, Mark Gitenstein, has just returned from serving as ambassador to Romania.
Recent arrivals and longtime denizens of the Biden orbit all say they are clear-eyed about his hurdles, among them the recently departed secretary of State. And, always now, there is the matter of age. At 74, Biden would be the oldest newly inaugurated president. “Is the country used to ... a younger president? Is late 60s, early 70s too old now?” the longtime friend asks.
Martilla, though, says Biden “is probably in the best shape of his political life” and describes meetings of the veep’s high command as laughing, jocular affairs, with Biden spinning trademark yarns. “It’s a fun operation,” Martilla says. “It’s fun to be inside.” As Biden himself knows. Which is why the softball-batting-practice Obama/Clinton interview may not have sat well with the vice president. It’s better to be in the camera shot than outside it—better to be ready to go than not.
This article appears in the Feb. 2, 2013, edition of National Journal as Ready to Go.