Zen Master Joe Biden Runs And Does Not Run For White House

07/16/2014 05:45 pm ET | Updated Jul 16, 2014
AP Photo/Luis Soto

WASHINGTON -- It's a tough time for presidential wannabe Joe Biden.

Jokingly but obviously, Hillary Clinton all but declared her competing candidacy on "The Daily Show" Tuesday night, telling host Jon Stewart that she likes to work at home and prefers an office with no corners -- say, an oval one.

As if waiting for Hillary weren't hard enough, the new darling of the Democrats' progressive-populist wing, Elizabeth Warren, just passed Biden in a recent poll. The Massachusetts senator now holds the dubious honor of running a distant second to Clinton in the early stages of the race for the party's 2016 nomination.

What's more, Warren -- who is the object of a nascent, but presumably not accidental, draft movement -- occupies the same political niche as Biden. Both tout their downscale roots and their little-guy appeal.

Once the good news was that Barack Obama chose Biden to be vice president. The bad news now is that Biden is the first veep in decades who isn't automatically the frontrunner to succeed his two-term boss.

At the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner this spring, the president told jokes based on the assumption that Clinton would be his successor. The idea was so ho-hum that no one noticed.

To deal with his melancholy predicament, Biden has become the Zen master of politics, holding two contradictory campaign notions in his head simultaneously and believing them both.

One says: You want to be president, you can beat all comers, and you are ready to run in 2016 if Hillary does not.

"He thinks he can beat everybody and win the whole thing," said one former staffer in his veep office. "He really does."

The other says: Clinton is obviously getting in the race, which means you can forget it, especially since you're 71 and a two-time loser in Democratic nomination runs. If Warren goes for it, too, there will be even less room for you.

"Joe's nothing if not a realist," said one of his closest longtime friends in the U.S. Senate. "It doesn't take an expert to know that if Hillary runs, he has no chance. He accepts that." (Both observers spoke anonymously so they could talk frankly about a man they admire.)

To avoid the humiliation of standing down if/when Clinton declares, Biden is making no obvious move to prepare for 2016 -- even as he refuses to publicly, or privately, rule it out.

It's a delicate and -- if you're Joe Biden -- bittersweet fandango.

For Biden's aides, the trick is to schedule him at political events that would be useful should he run in 2016, but that can be explained for other reasons. In 2014, that means events to help Democratic candidates in their congressional midterm and gubernatorial campaigns.

Biden is traveling the summer state convention and picnic circuit -- yes, there are key races this year in Iowa and New Hampshire. Ever the garrulous sort, he is inclined to accept all invitations.

"His favorite word is yes," said a member of his inner circle with a laugh.

The vice president hasn't had much time to talk with his former Senate colleagues recently; he's been busy on calls with foreign leaders. But when he picks up the phone domestically, the topic tends to be the 2014 races and fundraising for them.

Biden held a conference call this month with friends and Democratic Party insiders. Some in Washington saw it as a way for Biden to touch base with his own proto-campaign; it was actually a party-sponsored event to discuss the midterm elections.

On Wednesday, he rallied young progressives at the annual gathering of Generation Progress. On Thursday, the veep will skew both young and digital in Detroit, where he will keynote the progressive bloggers' annual Netroots Nation. Some might interpret that as another move to keep the pilot light on for a 2016 campaign, but it is also true that Obama had been scheduled to deliver the keynote address -- until he canceled two weeks ago due to crises around the world.

As vice president, Biden is having the time of his life. He loves the job, loves the walk-in access to the Oval Office and loves the sprawling Queen Anne-style official residence at the Naval Observatory.

He loved being a senator, too -- loved it so much that he stayed in the Senate for 36 years, piling up seniority, friendships and leading roles in judicial matters and foreign affairs.

It's the running-for-president part that has been a problem. His campaigns in 1988 and 2008 were noble but embarrassing non-starters, over almost before they began. It's quite possible that his last real chance to run for the Oval Office -- from the perch of the vice presidency, no less -- will die before it gets a chance to be born.

And yet it wouldn't be wise of Biden -- "wouldn't be prudent," in the words of President George H.W. Bush -- to let go entirely unless and until Clinton officially declares her candidacy.

So the Zen master soldiers on, with considerable grace and class.

At a picnic for the children of the White House press corps last month, Biden presided with glee over a raucous water-gun fight on the wide lawn of the vice presidential home. His clothing was as drenched as those of the squealing kids.

"I think I'm having more fun than they are," he said. And he clearly meant it.

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