Why the White House Won’t Help Joe Biden Be President

Normally, the incumbent tees up his veep to succeed him. This time, it’s not Obama’s call.

US Vice President Joe Biden attends a meeting between US President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, September 30, 2013. 
AFP/Getty Images
James Oliphant
Jan. 23, 2014, 4 p.m.

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.

{{ BIZOBJ (video: 4681) }}

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.”

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