AGAINST THE GRAIN

Joe Biden’s Political Moment

For the first time, the vice president looks like a more electable Democrat than Hillary Clinton.

US Vice President Joe Biden gives two thumbs-up prior to US President Barack Obama delivering the State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress on January 28, 2014 at the US Capitol in Washington.  
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
Josh Kraushaar
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Josh Kraushaar
July 28, 2015, 4 p.m.

For Demo­crat­ic lead­ers, the polit­ic­al lo­gic of hav­ing Hil­lary Clin­ton as the party’s stand­ard bear­er in 2016 was, at least for a while, un­deni­able. Pres­id­ent Obama could main­tain mid­dling ap­prov­al rat­ings, but Clin­ton’s dis­tance from polit­ic­al life as sec­ret­ary of State gave her ample dis­tance from the pres­id­ent’s most con­tro­ver­sial policies. Voters may be look­ing for change, but Clin­ton’s bid to be­come the first fe­male pres­id­ent gave her cam­paign a his­tor­ic sheen that few oth­ers could provide. Most sig­ni­fic­antly, Clin­ton’s in­de­pend­ent brand (and re­cord of op­pos­ing cer­tain pres­id­en­tial de­cisions) would al­low her to tri­an­gu­late: dis­tance her­self from the White House when ne­ces­sary, while also sup­port­ing Obama on oth­er core is­sues.

It’s the main reas­on Obama per­son­ally praised Clin­ton when she left the Cab­in­et, and has nev­er offered any sim­il­ar polit­ic­al shout-out to his loy­al vice pres­id­ent, Joe Biden. Even if he wanted to run, Biden would have trouble broad­en­ing his sup­port bey­ond Obama’s co­ali­tion, and as an older white man, would prob­ably face chal­lenges ex­cit­ing the core of non­white voters who make up the base of Obama’s sup­port. Clin­ton, thanks to her hus­band, held more of a polit­ic­al track re­cord on that front — and had the cap­ab­il­ity of max­im­iz­ing the gender gap in the Demo­crats’ fa­vor.

(RE­LATED: The Draft Biden Move­ment)

But a funny thing happened on the way to the coron­a­tion. Throughout the sum­mer, Clin­ton has been hammered over us­ing a secret, per­son­al email serv­er as sec­ret­ary of State — one that gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials be­lieve may have com­prom­ised the coun­try’s na­tion­al se­cur­ity and al­lowed her to con­ceal (and de­lete) email cor­res­pond­ence. Mean­while, as she faces en­er­get­ic op­pos­i­tion from her party’s pro­gress­ive base, she’s de­cided to tack to the left, of­fer­ing little to dis­af­fected swing voters dis­sat­is­fied with Obama. Her cam­paign op­er­at­ives be­lieve it’s worth mo­bil­iz­ing the Demo­crat­ic Party’s as­cend­ant con­stitu­en­cies without of­fer­ing much to the (shrink­ing) num­ber of voters in the middle.

In the pro­cess, however, her fa­vor­able rat­ings have hit all-time lows, with clear ma­jor­it­ies of Amer­ic­ans say­ing they don’t like her and have trouble be­liev­ing she’s trust­worthy. In the crit­ic­al swing states of New Hamp­shire, Iowa, Col­or­ado, and Vir­gin­ia, reput­able new polls show her fa­vor­ab­il­ity rat­ings not much bet­ter than Don­ald Trump’s — with un­fa­vor­able rat­ings near­ing 60 per­cent. Quin­nipi­ac’s swing-state polling found her los­ing in Col­or­ado, Iowa, and Vir­gin­ia to all three lead­ing GOP can­did­ates (Jeb Bush, Marco Ru­bio, and Scott Walk­er), while NBC News/Mar­ist polling found her fa­vor­ab­il­ity rat­ings to be just as dis­mal in Iowa and New Hamp­shire. Na­tion­al polling doesn’t put her in much bet­ter shape, with her fa­vor­ab­il­ity still up­side-down in CNN/ORC’s new poll (45/48, among all adults). Gal­lup found her over­all fa­vor­ab­il­ity at 43/46, her worst net show­ing since their Novem­ber 2007 sur­vey. Her num­bers aren’t any bet­ter than Obama’s, and many polls are find­ing them in worse shape.

Sud­denly, if you’re Joe Biden, run­ning for pres­id­ent makes a lot more polit­ic­al sense.

(RE­LATED: Should Joe Biden Chase His Dream?)

If Obama’s former cam­paign strategists truly be­lieve that a Demo­crat­ic can­did­ate only needs to mo­bil­ize and mi­crotar­get the base to win the pres­id­ency, who bet­ter to do that than Obama’s un­fail­ingly loy­al No. 2? Biden, after all, pushed the pres­id­ent to come out for gay mar­riage against his best polit­ic­al in­stincts. He led the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s up­hill fight for gun con­trol in the wake of the Sandy Hook mas­sacre, head­ing its task force on the sub­ject. He’s helped with the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s lob­by­ing ef­fort for its Ir­an deal, pitched wary Demo­crats on the be­ne­fits of fast-track trade, and stood by the pres­id­ent’s side when he praised the Su­preme Court’s rul­ing up­hold­ing Obama­care sub­sidies.

And at a time when au­then­ti­city is a highly val­ued as­set — for bet­ter or worse — Biden boasts the nat­ur­al polit­ic­al skill set that Clin­ton clearly lacks. He’s a happy war­ri­or who en­joys cam­paign­ing and isn’t con­strained by talk­ing points or rope lines. He’s able to ham it up with uni­on rank-and-file, while also giv­ing a stem-wind­ing speech blast­ing Re­pub­lic­ans in Con­gress. His all-too-fre­quent mal­aprop­isms are en­dear­ing at a time when voters are cyn­ic­al about scrip­ted politi­cians.

(RE­LATED: Joe Biden’s New Mis­sion: Selling the Ir­an Deal)

His draw­backs are also clear: He’s get­ting old, hasn’t pre­pared for a pres­id­en­tial cam­paign, and wouldn’t have the fin­an­cial re­sources to com­pete with Clin­ton. His pres­id­en­tial cam­paign track re­cord (1988, 2008) is abysmal. But his most sig­ni­fic­ant li­ab­il­ity was that he car­ried Obama’s polit­ic­al bag­gage at a time when the pres­id­ent’s job ap­prov­al num­bers were weak. For all the hype about Biden’s abil­ity to woo work­ing-class voters, the real­ity is that Obama’s policies have been so un­pop­u­lar with white blue-col­lar voters that it’s hard to win them back. Clin­ton, on the oth­er hand, en­joyed high fa­vor­ab­il­ity rat­ings in her post-Cab­in­et ca­reer (for a while) and, on pa­per, boas­ted the abil­ity to rally wo­men to her side.

But Clin­ton has squandered so many prom­ising op­por­tun­it­ies that she star­ted with at the be­gin­ning of the cam­paign. In­stead of dis­tan­cing her­self from Obama’s biggest weak­ness — for­eign policy — she’s either openly or ta­citly sup­por­ted his most con­tro­ver­sial policies (Ir­an nuc­le­ar deal, Cuba out­reach, strategy against IS­IS). That’s a tac­tic­al shift from last year, when she gave a lengthy in­ter­view to The At­lantic‘s Jef­frey Gold­berg, in which she cri­ti­cized Obama’s de­cision not to in­ter­vene in Syr­ia and struck a hard line on Ir­an’s nuc­le­ar de­mands. With a cam­paign team in place, she’s ap­par­ently cal­cu­lated that the risk of ali­en­at­ing some Obama sup­port­ers was great­er than un­der­scor­ing her in­de­pend­ence.

On do­mest­ic policy, too, her reti­cence to forge her own cam­paign path from the pres­id­ent is aw­fully telling. Like Obama, she hasn’t taken a po­s­i­tion on con­struc­tion of the Key­stone XL pipeline, even though the re­view she ini­ti­ated at State con­cluded it would cause no sig­ni­fic­ant en­vir­on­ment­al harm. She awk­wardly avoided tak­ing a po­s­i­tion on the pres­id­ent’s fast-track trade-au­thor­ity le­gis­la­tion, not want­ing to ali­en­ate Obama or the party’s act­iv­ist base.

For Obama sup­port­ers, the case for Biden should be an easy one to make: He’s a lib­er­al loy­al­ist for this pres­id­ent who doesn’t shade his views with ex­cess­ive nu­ance. With Biden, there wouldn’t be mealy-mouthed hedging. He’d be an un­equi­voc­al cham­pi­on of the pres­id­ent and his agenda. And with Obama’s job ap­prov­al sta­bil­iz­ing — it’s been with­in one point of 46 per­cent in nearly every week this year — there’s a lo­gic­al, if chal­len­ging, path for an un­apo­lo­get­ic Obama cheer­lead­er to win the pres­id­ency.

First, however, Biden would have to win the nom­in­a­tion, and that’s where things get tricky. From the White House’s per­spect­ive, it’s prob­ably not worth pro­vok­ing a fam­ily feud between two can­did­ates claim­ing the Obama leg­acy. In­deed, the White House has privately dis­cour­aged Biden from run­ning — “nearly every move to ex­pand his polit­ic­al team was blocked by Obama’s sharp-el­bowed pro­tect­ors,” Politico‘s Glenn Thrush wrote in his sem­in­al Biden pro­file — and pub­licly offered him no sup­port for an­oth­er pres­id­en­tial cam­paign. Clin­ton’s email scan­dal would prob­ably have to reach dis­astrous levels for “no drama” Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials to pan­ic, and for Biden to con­sider jump­ing in the race.

This could end up be­ing one of the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s biggest polit­ic­al mis­cal­cu­la­tions: go­ing all in on Hil­lary Clin­ton while neg­lect­ing the ob­vi­ous ap­peal of the vice pres­id­ent. If voters really want a third term of Obama’s policies, why not back the can­did­ate who un­abashedly rep­res­ents his vis­ion?

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