Commentary Magazine


Prime Minister Biden on the Upswing

Among the big winners of the resolution of the congressional fiscal cliff debacle was Vice President Joe Biden. Rather than being relegated to funeral duty by a president who initially had little use for him, Biden’s decades of experience on the Hill have proven to be an invaluable resource in this administration. Since neither the president nor his top aides have any talent for or even interest in serious deal-making with Congress and with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid similarly sidelined by his own bull-headed manner, Biden has emerged as a key player in a time of DC gridlock.

Biden’s ability to craft a deal with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell made it clear that he, rather than the president or even Reid, has become an important Washington player in his own right. In effect, he is positioned to be the prime minister of a second Obama administration. That status will likely be reinforced by Biden’s lead role in pushing forward a new gun control initiative in the coming months. This should keep him in a spotlight that is brighter than is usual for a vice president even in an era when veeps are no longer the political equivalent of the missing persons bureau. And though 2016 is a long way off, these developments can only feed Biden’s still burning ambition to be president himself one day.

Most serious observers initially laughed off the rumors first floated last year about Biden thinking about 2016. Biden was too old, too much a product of the country’s political past and a human gaffe machine. But Biden’s strong showing at the Democratic National Convention illustrated just how well his rabble-rousing style appeals to his party activists. While most Americans may have been turned off by his contemptuous attitude and weird grinning during the vice presidential debate with Paul Ryan, that was exactly what the liberal base wanted. When you figure in the fact that Biden’s prime ministerial relations with Congress will allow him to solidify alliances and do favors for influential party members, it’s hard to dismiss the possibility that he actually stands a fair chance of being the Democratic nominee to succeed Obama.

Part of the plausibility of the Biden 2016 scenario lies in the fact that, at least at present, there aren’t many viable alternatives for Democrats. Hillary Clinton is an obvious choice but her recent health problems and the fallout from the Benghazi disaster make any assumptions about her inevitability seem less certain. Outside of her there are no real big league prospects for the Democrats. Though that may change (in 2005 no one believed the then-freshman senator from Illinois would be elected president), Biden is justified in not being afraid of any possible rival.

It remains to be seen whether Biden will be able to spend the next four years taking credit for administration legislative successes and dodging blame for the inevitable second term failures. Biden has, after all, been wrong on virtually every major foreign policy stand he has taken and his populist style grates on many. Biden’s propensity for mistakes and long-winded speechifying will also make him a perfect target for opponents. He could well talk himself out of the race long before he enters it.

Nevertheless, Biden bears watching in the coming weeks and months. Rather than needing to strike out on his own, the best thing Biden can do to strengthen his standing among Democrats is to be Barack Obama’s loyal soldier. Though Republicans may be salivating at the thought of having to face Biden in 2016 after being beaten by the far more popular Obama the last two cycles, the vice president’s growing importance has made his long-cherished dream of the presidency a bit less fantastic.