Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s bona fides as the ultimate Capitol Hill creature have gotten a significant boost since the November elections, first in the fiscal cliff negotiations and now via the gun violence task force he’s leading.
But Biden’s close association with a legislative body that is viewed less favorably than cockroaches presents a conundrum as he forms his role in President Barack Obama’s second term and looks ahead to a possible 2016 presidential bid.
In the first Obama administration, the former 36-year senator played the integral role of negotiator and deal-maker between the White House and Congress. In the next four years, he must balance the administration’s needs with his own ambitions.
A decade ago, Biden’s Senate tenure, plus his two terms as vice president, would make him the instant frontrunner in the national primary. But in 2016? They make him the “inside-the-Beltway” candidate, albeit one with an increasingly well-received “regular Joe” shtick.
“Making legislative sausage makes it more difficult,” said Jef Pollock, a prominent Democratic pollster. “Biden’s longevity means there’s more to pick apart.”
Biden kicked off 2013 basking in the spotlight on Capitol Hill after brokering a deal with Senate Republicans to avoid the fiscal cliff — a package not all Hill Democrats were happy with. Last week, Biden continued his role as the public face of the commission on gun violence assembled after the shooting in Newtown, Conn. In between, he charmed the families of incoming and returning senators on swearing-in day, achieving Internet meme status with his one-liners.
Through these and other duties, Biden continues to tie his fate to Congress, a political body with approval ratings that sink lower every election cycle. In the meantime, the vice president and his allies have been coy about his presidential prospects in 2016.
On Election Day, Biden smiled big as he was asked whether it marked the last time he would have the chance to vote for himself. “No, I don’t think so,” he said then.
“I have suggested that he take a hard look at 2016,” said Ted Kaufman, Biden’s appointed Senate successor and longtime top aide. “I think he’s been a very good vice president, he knows about running for president and he should take a look at it.”
Republicans have a better track record of nominating senate veterans as presidential nominees, such as Kansas Sen. Bob Dole in 1996 and Arizona Sen. John McCain in 2008.
It’s different for Democrats, even though the party nominated senators in 2004 and 2008. Although Obama and New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton served in the Senate in 2008, neither were longtime members of that chamber. More notably, Obama’s “change” message centered on running against Washington, D.C. — and Congress.
Biden will never be able to co-opt that kind of message, even against former colleagues, possibly Clinton. Every preliminary poll of the 2016 Democratic field shows the outgoing secretary of State far ahead of the pack if she wants to run again.
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