It’s hard to be unreasonable when one has been vice president of the greatest world power for seven years and a U.S. senator for 36. Is the promise of being the oldest of the candidates, and the oldest of all U.S. presidents at the beginning of their first term, really worth it? And why risk ending an exemplary career with a defeat?
Joseph Robinette Biden rehashed these questions for days and weeks but ended up deciding against the risk, the danger and the uncertainty when he announced on Wednesday, Oct. 21 that he will not run for the Democratic nomination in the 2016 presidential election.
Outside the White House, in the presence of his wife and Barack Obama, Biden said that the grief over his son, dead this year from cancer at 46 years old, weighed in his decision not to run. “Unfortunately, I believe we’re out of time, the time necessary to mount a winning campaign for the nomination,” he said.
‘Isn’t that a Bitch?’
Washington has long believed that the vice president maintained suspense out of vanity, so as not to be seen weighing the profits and losses before the end of Obama’s second term. His hesitation revived interest in the occupant of a position whose thankless nature was reinforced by the amount of power concentrated on the president. Before being selected as vice president, Biden had already summarized the position in a joke: It is the story of two brothers, one who goes off to sea and one who becomes vice president. And neither is heard from again.
Seven years later, in October 2014, he dropped one of the “Bidenisms” that have made his reputation, though not necessarily the one he has sought. The remark came at Harvard, after a question from a student who was introduced as vice president of an association. “Isn’t that a bitch,” Biden blurted about the vice presidency before saying, of course, that he was joking and that accepting the offer made to him was, of course, the best decision of his life.
Ah, Joe’s gaffes … They have been the object of many attempts to compile all the remarks, and their author’s biting irony draws obvious sympathy from much of the press, who appreciates so much candor and involuntary inventiveness. He could not be fundamentally evil, the man who can say: “I never had an interest in being a mayor ‘cause that’s a real job … That’s why I was able to be a senator for 36 years.” Or: “The No. 1 job facing the middle class … happens to be, as Barack says, a three-letter word, jobs. J-O-B-S.” Or this one: “Folks, I can tell you I’ve known eight presidents, three of them intimately.”
Family Wounds and Refusing a Dynasty
The magnanimity that has often benefited the vice president doesn’t just come from his impeccable credentials. It also generates from a scarred life of personal trials. It was in the chapel of a hospital that Biden was sworn in, in December 1972, only a few weeks after having been elected senator from Delaware, at 30 years old. He was watching over his two sons, Beau and Hunter, hurt in a car accident that cost the lives of his wife Neilia and their daughter Naomi. And it was that older son that the vice president buried in May, vanquished by cancer at 46 years old.
Beau Biden represented all that a father could hope for in a son. “He was better than me in almost every way,” the vice president told Stephen Colbert, celebrity host of “The Late Show” on CBS, whose family was also decimated in a plane crash.
Attending the same schools and university that his father did in Pennsylvania, the home state of this modest family of Irish origin, and in Syracuse, New York, Beau Biden was a lawyer like the vice president. He had been elected attorney general of Delaware, and served in Iraq as a major of the National Guard of the same state. After his father’s departure from the Senate, which occurred when he was elected to the vice presidency, Beau Biden refused to succeed him. Too dynastic. Democratic and Catholic, like his father, he was preparing his campaign for the governorship of Delaware when a brain tumor suddenly interrupted his plans.
At the beginning of August, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd reported a poignant scene among the last moments of this son’s life, imploring his father to run for the Democratic nomination; a factor that likely tormented the vice president and led him to hesitate beyond the deadline that he had fixed for himself, the end of the summer.
At the beginning of September, the vice president described to host Colbert on CBS the new task that would befall him, earning the respect of the entire country. At the time, the confession had many convinced that Joe Biden wasn’t ready for the shock of a campaign, which has been compared to a manhunt or a boxing match, and he repeated this on Wednesday.
Joe Biden Represents Everything Hillary Clinton Is Not
A man who has given everything to politics for more than 40 years is in the best position to seize the occasion of this race to the presidency. The role that seemed promised to Hillary Clinton was a bit more in dispute once revelations accumulated about the use of a personal email address and server during her time at Foggy Bottom, headquarters of the U.S. State Department. These revelations wiped out years of persistent work by the former first lady to clean her image of scandals linked to the most controversial aspects of the two terms of her husband, Bill Clinton, and her own failed campaign in 2008. And the independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, who is also running for president, defends positions that are probably too “leftist,” in U.S. policy terms, to become a strong alternative figure.
In the electoral campaign, Biden represents everything that Hillary Clinton isn’t. A contact marathoner, reassuring, accessible and direct, but a poor fundraiser; a seasoned expert from six senatorial campaigns, two presidential primaries and re-election to the White House, capable of dominating during traditional debates between other vice presidential candidates as awkward as the former governor of Alaska Sarah Palin and the budget expert Paul Ryan from Wisconsin.
Son of a car salesman, Biden fought victoriously as a child against stuttering. After defeating a Republican senator in 1972 in a surprise upset, supported by his best political adviser, his sister, he threw himself into congressional work without neglecting his family, which was restructured after a second marriage. He returned each evening to his town of Wilmington on the last Amtrak train, and legend says that the conductor sometimes accommodated his schedule in order to enable his most loyal passenger to board. An initial campaign for the presidency in 1988 was torpedoed by charges of plagiarism (revealed by the same columnist Maureen Dowd) concerning a portion of a speech from British Labour politician Neil Kinnock. Dowd did not stop his rise in the Senate, however, where he presided successfully over the Judiciary Committee (which notably supervises Supreme Court nominations), as well as the prestigious Foreign Relations Committee.
Contrary to his initial fears, the “vice president next door” has derived the maximum benefit from the seven years he has spent at Barack Obama’s side, during which time he maintained some of the best foreign policy contacts in Washington. Certainly, he did not have as much weight as he would have liked on these matters, which concerned one of his areas of expertise. We know that he advised the president to delay the assault against the building that housed Osama bin Laden in 2011. At the same time, his knowledge of Congress did not allow him to compensate for Obama’s inability to establish ties with the moderate wing of the Republican camp before Democrats lost control of the House of Representatives, as well as the Senate. But his loyalty was never questioned, in contrast to the last Democratic vice president before him, Al Gore, who gave the impression of preparing above all else for his own campaign during Bill Clinton’s presidency, from the moment Gore moved to Pennsylvania Avenue.
The “homo politicus” that is the vice president is, however, as old as his arteries. He is one of the American baby boomers, a generation to which he narrowly belongs, having been born in 1942. It was an America of “blue collars” and unions, that of the Rust Belt that took aim at the old industrial states of the Northeast. An America left behind by globalization and relocations. An America destabilized today by an energetic transition that drives the miners of West Virginia, a former Democratic stronghold, into the arms of Republicans, as the culture war of gay marriage and abortion has converted the old Democratic South into Republican territory.
In Biden’s America, the most famous Ted in Congress was a Kennedy from Massachusetts, a Democratic champion of [making] deals with the other side. Today, it’s a senator from Texas with an incendiary vocabulary, Ted Cruz, also a candidate for the Republican nomination. This Ted does not count political success in terms of compromises, but rather in zero-sum battles in which only one winner is crowned.
This angry and begrudging America is not interested in the nostalgia that might be embodied in Joe Biden. His opponents will not have to denigrate a man of the past. Biden will have plenty of time to appreciate in full the next presidential battle; his last train for Wilmington leaves Jan. 20, 2017.
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