Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. is pledging to remain engaged in his “moonshot” effort to cure cancer after he leaves office -- but insiders say it’s too early to say whether he will focus exclusively on the disease.
Biden took his high-profile initiative on the road last week, telling an audience of oncologists, public health officials, nurses and patient groups at Duke University that fighting cancer will be a “major component of what I do for the rest of my life.”
His participation, fueled in large part by his son Beau’s death to the disease last year, brings to the fight a notable figure whose work as a prominent politician and Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman give him a myriad of powerful contacts -- many of whom have deep pockets and global influence.
That means when he leaves the vice president's office next January, Biden will be in position to do all sorts of things on all sorts of issues.
“It's too early for me to say anything about the VP's plans post-administration,” one Biden aide told Roll Call. “But he has said that he will continue to be committed to ending cancer as we know it.”
Sources close to Biden say Beau’s battle with cancer and subsequent death in May occupied much of his time last year. Then he had to quickly decide whether or not to run for president.
“There was no time during 2015 because of what was going on in his life to think about what he was going to do in the future, really until the end of the year,” said former Sen. Ted Kaufman, a fellow Delaware Democrat and longtime Biden aide who filled his Senate seat in 2009.
The 47th vice president ultimately decided against a third White House bid, saying during a late-October Rose Garden statement that the window to do the many things to run for president “has closed.”
That decision left Biden with a blank slate for the first time in decades. That’s because, as one source put it, “he had a plan -- and that was to run for president.”
Though his name still pops up in cable news speculation about the Democratic presidential nomination race, another run seems unlikely. So the search for a post-government career is underway.
“He’s just now starting that process,” Kaufman said. “But I definitely think cancer will be one of the top issues for him.”
Kaufman said his former boss is “uniquely positioned” to play a big role in the quest for cancer cures.
“I’ve never seen anyone else who’s so able to go into any room and find out where the common ground is,” he said. “Then he gets everyone working together. … He will bang heads together inside the government to kill stovepipes. The same goes for the medical community and academia.”
At the start of the Durham event, for instance, Biden greeted Dr. Niklaus Steiner, a University of North Carolina professor who lost his teenage daughter to cancer, with a hug. He could be heard telling Steiner “sorry, sorry, sorry” as the room fell silent. And during the event, Biden recalled how Beau responded positively to various treatments when his doctors and nurses shared information.
Beyond his interest in cancer, Biden was a longtime member of the Foreign Relations Committee, and was its chairman three times. He often was mentioned as a potential secretary of state after he dropped out of the 2008 presidential race.
“There’s not a world leader he doesn’t know,” Kaufman said.
Those contacts would come in very handy as a private citizen helping in the cancer fight, said Jon Retzlaff, policy director for the American Association for Cancer Research.
“He could play an unlimited role. Maybe a 'cancer czar' on the outside,” Retzlaff said during a telephone interview. “He’s a respected and admired leader who could serve as an ambassador and a unifying force … who could bring everyone together.”
“Everyone” includes medical researchers, doctors, hospitals, the federal government, patient advocacy groups, pharmaceutical companies and others.
Biden has said getting those groups to collaborate and share information could be the key to making a “quantum leap toward a cure.” The science, he assessed at Duke, already “is there.”
But sources expect whatever Biden chooses to do will not be limited to fighting the disease that took his 46-year-old son, whom many political pundits said had a bright future after already serving as Delaware’s attorney general.
During his long Washington career, which began in 1973, Joe Biden has been involved in issues ranging from foreign policy matters to criminal justice to economic and budget issues.
He provided a bit of a preview of the issues which might join cancer on his post-vice presidency agenda during that October Rose Garden statement.
He talked about pushing policies that help America’s middle class, combating economic inequality, making a college education more affordable and tripling the child care tax credit. Also on the list were campaign finance changes, with Biden saying then that “the wealthiest families control the process.”
Still, the cancer community is hopeful.
“The vice president is, worldwide, respected and admired,” Retzlaff said. “Someone like Joe Biden would propel this work and advocate for us like no one else.
"The cause needs funding, but it also needs sustained advocacy. With Joe Biden saying he’ll be there beyond one year is incredibly important … because this is a long-term effort.”
Contact Bennett at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @BennettJohnT. Related: Amid Testimonials, Biden Tamps Down ‘Moonshot’ Expectations See photos, follies, HOH Hits and Misses and more at Roll Call's new video site. NEW! Download the Roll Call app for the best coverage of people, politics and personalities of Capitol Hill.