Commentary Magazine


Ambition Always Gets a Vote

When Barack Obama announced the selection of Joe Biden to be his running mate in 2008, the New York Times, echoing the conventional wisdom at the time, included among Biden’s attributes the following: “it appears unlikely that Mr. Biden would be in a position to run for president should Mr. Obama win and serve two terms. Shorn of any remaining ambition to run for president on his own, he could find himself in a less complex political relationship with Mr. Obama than most vice presidents have with their presidents.”

That was a widely held view and reportedly something the Obama team considered a significant mark in Biden’s favor. And it was sensible of them to do so. Sharing the White House with Hillary Clinton, for example, or a popular moderate Democrat like then-Senator Evan Bayh, would have almost surely meant nominating his successor who would want an agenda and to perhaps even share in the credit for Obama’s legacy. So instead Obama nominated Biden to be his vice president and Hillary Clinton to be his secretary of state. And wouldn’t you know it, they may both run for president anyway, touting their respective legacies and sharing in the glory of Obama’s own legislative victories. The only difference–and what might be the source of endless future headaches for Obama–is that he has a clear preference for Clinton over his own vice president, the latter now launching his own possible bid from the White House and simultaneously in need of restraining.

So what did Obama miss when he nominated this pair of Washington insiders? He forgot about something he really shouldn’t have: the natural ambition of politicians and the way access to the White House only magnifies it. And it’s what makes stories like this National Journal piece arguing against the likelihood of either Clinton or Biden running in 2016 less than convincing:

Her most famous speech as first lady catalogued abuses against women and hammered home the message: “Human rights are women’s rights, and women’s rights are human rights.” As notable as what she said was where she said it — a United Nations women’s conference in Beijing. It is easy to imagine her setting up her own organization, or a branch of her husband’s Clinton Global Initiative, to focus full-time on issues affecting women.

It’s more difficult to envision a post-politics role for Biden, who has spent his life inside the Beltway as a senator and as vice president. But he has proven such a valuable White House asset on such a range of issues, and such a constructive bipartisan negotiator, that future presidents of either party would likely press him into service to help solve knotty problems at home and abroad.

Which leads to the next reason neither Biden nor Clinton will run. Their reputations will never be better than they are now.

Rarely does a politician get near the top of the world and proclaim to be satisfied. “Dayenu” (the refrain from the Passover Hagaddah in which Jews proclaim “it would have been enough”) is not in the political lexicon. And voters reading those paragraphs above can be forgiven for interpreting them as Clinton’s record of global leadership and Biden’s record of getting things done when no one else could. Jill Lawrence, the author of the piece, makes other, more compelling arguments as well. Both Biden and Clinton would be in their 70s early in a hypothetical first term–Biden would be 74 on inauguration day if he won the election. And both have a history of some health issues. But Biden looks as energetic as ever, and Clinton’s health didn’t stop her from logging close to a million miles in four years.

Additionally, it’s hard to escape the notion that both are explicitly laying the groundwork for their candidacies. For Clinton, carefully chosen on-the-record speeches and interviews, plus an obvious desire to perpetuate the idea she is running, have spurred some activists into being confident enough to set up a Hillary 2016 PAC. And as for Biden, Obama and his advisors have found that the veep’s attention span is almost totally consumed by 2016 calculations. As Politico reported:

Officials working on the Obama-Biden campaign last year were struck by how the vice president always seemed to have one eye on a run, including aggressively courting the president’s donors. Obama aides at times had to actively steer Biden to places where he was needed — like Pennsylvania — because he kept asking to be deployed to Iowa, New Hampshire and other early states.

“He wasn’t just doing fundraising the campaign assigned to him,” said a campaign adviser. “He was inviting people to the mansion to hang out and have dinner.” Biden was way more into the donors than Obama was. “He embraced it with a tirelessness and a gusto that even the president didn’t,” another campaign official said.

We can and should keep in mind how much the political landscape is likely to change in three years. But they want people to think they’re running, and it won’t go unnoticed that even the cases against the two of them running for president seem to borrow liberally from the arguments in their favor.

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