While President Obama was putting the finishing touches on a speech to announce a series of surveillance reforms, his vice president, Joe Biden, did what vice presidents do.
He went to the auto show.
Granted, it wasn't any auto show. It was in Detroit, and the goal was to highlight the comeback of the domestic automotive industry—a comeback, the administration would argue, that could not have been possible without the government's help. Earlier that same week, Biden had been in Israel, attending the funeral of Ariel Sharon.
Attending state funerals in the president's place is another thing that vice presidents do. And for five years now, Biden, with his garrulous personality and common touch, has not only been a winning surrogate for Obama, he's also been a steadying force in a White House that has needed his feel for the Washington inside game. By all accounts, he has been both a loyal soldier and an able partner, one upon whom the president has relied on a daily basis, with a portfolio that has stretched from Capitol Hill to Afghanistan.
That's why the political predicament that both Obama and Biden are in is so vexing.
In a normal world, this White House would be subtly preparing to pass the baton to Biden in a bid to preserve and extend the president's legacy. But this cycle is anything but normal. Instead, Democratic Party observers say, there is little sign, internally or externally, that the administration's political machine is being retooled to support a 2016 Biden run.
One reason is that Obama's strategists still need to get the president himself upright, as he remains mired below a 50 percent approval rating heading into the congressional midterms. But another, of course, is Hillary Clinton.
The shadow she has already cast over the next presidential campaign is unprecedented. Since Lyndon Johnson, the line of succession has been evidently clear: Johnson opened the door for Hubert Humphrey, Ronald Reagan for George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton for Al Gore. The main reason Dick Cheney wasn't prepped to take over for George W. Bush was because he didn't want the job.
Clinton's potential candidacy scrambles those calculations. Tad Devine, a Democratic strategist who advised Gore's 2000 campaign, says the challenge for a vice president typically is to step out of the president's shadow and define himself as his own man. "I don't think that's Biden's problem," he says. Clinton "is as strong as an incumbent president."
The political dynamic has put the Obama White House in a delicate position. It can't be viewed as going all out to promote Biden as the heir apparent when it's more than possible that Clinton will be the one to inherit the Obama legacy. Moreover, Clinton's formidability as a candidate, her political machine, and her fundraising network could well mean that Biden will never try to take her on. Nor can Obama and his network risk being seen as snubbing Clinton, a former Cabinet member—and, by extension, her husband—by favoring Biden.
That means it makes little sense, Democratic insiders say, for Obama to use his political capital now or later to support his vice president's future political aspirations. And should Biden decide to run against Clinton, the president likely will have to remain above the fray, Devine says. "If I were in there advising him, I'd say, 'Listen, you have to stay out of this.' " (It would be returning a favor: Although Biden ultimately became Obama's running mate, the then-senator never endorsed Obama over Clinton in the 2008 Democratic primary.)
In the short term, Clinton's shadow means that the Obama White House can't do what the Reagan and Clinton administrations did before it: Establish an inside political operation designed to promote the veep's ascension. By this time during Clinton's second term, says one former Gore hand, the White House's political shop was dominated by the vice president's loyalists. And Craig Fuller, who served as George H.W. Bush's chief of staff as Bush readied his run, says the Reagan White House ensured that Bush stayed highly visible, both with his political travel schedule during the 1986 midterm elections and his 1988 itinerary.
But that model isn't playing out in Obama- world. Instead, Jim Messina, who ran Obama's 2012 campaign, is taking over the super PAC Priorities USA as it is reconfigured to support Clinton, The New York Times reported Thursday. And two other Obama strategists, Mitch Stewart and Jeremy Bird, have joined another pro-Clinton super PAC.
In the White House's defense, though, it isn't clear at all that Biden wants to run. He hasn't made up his mind, according to longtime friends who stress that he isn't worried about his political profile even as Clinton soaks up media attention. "His job as VP is not to be out there," says Ted Kaufman, the former senator from Delaware. "If he runs, it will be very easy for him to explain what he has done [with Obama]."
"He's got a very good personal relationship with the president," adds Mark Gitenstein, a former aide to Biden in the Senate. "He would feel obligated to help the president get the job done." Allies of the vice president also point to how quick the White House was to rebut former Defense Secretary Robert Gates's scathing criticism of Biden as evidence of the administration's support.
If Biden ends up facing off against Clinton, it will put his boss, the president, in an unenviable spot. Still, he can probably expect better treatment than Dwight Eisenhower gave his vice president, Richard Nixon. Pressed to detail a major decision influenced by Nixon, the president was stymied. "If you give me a week," he famously said, "I might think of one."
This article appears in the January 25, 2014 edition of National Journal Magazine as Adding Insult to Injury.