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.
Governors comprise much of the rest of the field, such as New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo or Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley. Democrats also mention Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Mark Warner of Virginia as potential national candidates. But their Senate tenure represents one-ninth of Biden’s time there.
“It’s in everyone’s interest for Biden to keep floating his name now,” one seasoned national Democratic operative said. “It averts the spotlight from [Clinton], plus it keeps him relevant.”
In any permutation of the 2016 field, Biden plays the consummate Washington insider running on experience. And with experience comes age.
Biden’s detractors cite that as one reason the 70-year-old might avoid another national campaign. He would be the same age as Dole when he accepted his party’s nomination in 1996.
There’s also his very chummy personality and his proclivity to speak off the cuff — something that’s come to be known as the gaffe factor — two traits that are seen as impediments for Biden in 2016.
Yet, those traits are what make Biden excel at retail politiking, a skill he honed over the years in his small home state.
“A sizeable population actually meets you,” said J.J. Balaban, a Democratic consultant who works in Delaware. “You have to develop a certain amount of retail politics skills. In Pennsylvania and other mega-states, you can be a mass media candidate.”
Biden built on that reputation during the presidential campaign, leading rally after rally focused on blue-collar voters.
In other ways, Democrats say Biden has evolved since he moved to Observatory Circle. It’s another reason why a 2016 Biden campaign would be completely different from his failed 1988 and 2008 White House bids.
“They’re going to see him as the vice president of the United States, which is a position that oddly enough straddles both worlds,”said Luis Navarro, Biden’s campaign manager in 2008.
In his first attempt, Biden struggled to balance his national campaign with his role as Judiciary chairman during Robert L. Bork’s Supreme Court hearings. He dropped out before the Iowa caucuses.
In 2008, Biden — then Senate Foreign Relations chairman — billed himself as the only candidate with a plan for the war in Iraq. He received less than 1 percent in the Iowa caucuses and withdrew from the race.
In both cases, his home base of Delaware proved to be a problem. He struggled to raise money from the First State, while Obama and Clinton brought in big bucks from their respective national donor bases.
Delaware did not provide Biden much practice for tough campaigns, either. He only had one competitive contest out of seven senate elections: He won his first race in 1976 with 51 percent.
After 2008 and 2012, he knows what it’s like to be in a tough race. He also knows what it’s like to be a GOP target and a regular punch line.
But four years is a long time — and that’s both good and bad for the vice president. It’s hard to envision the political taint of Washington will subside by 2016 — but it’s possible.
More important for Biden is the state of the economy. A robust recovery will cement his boss’s legacy and give him his best shot at the White House.
Once the economy is truly rebounding, voters might even find an inside-the-Beltway candidate more palatable.
“Who the hell says someone is running against Washington in 2016?” Pollock added. “These things run in cycles. If Joe Biden has the chance to do this thing, it’s on the back of economic recovery.”
Vice President Joe Biden waits to conduct a mock swearing-in ceremony with Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, in the Capitol's Old Senate Chamber, December 2, 2014. Schatz was sworn in to serve the remainder of his term since he was appointed to the seat after Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, passed away.