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Stewart J. Lawrence

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Replacing Joe Biden: Time for President Obama to Bite the Bullet?

Posted: 10/14/11 12:57 PM ET

It's still just a loud whispering campaign. But with President Obama tanking in the polls, and House Republicans running roughshod over what's left of his liberal agenda, there are persistent calls for Obama to do something dramatic to salvage his presidency. And with no one willing to challenge Obama for the nomination -- not with his near-dominance of the party, and the decent odds he still has of winning in 2012 -- talk of "change at the top" has shifted to the vice presidency.

Should Joe Biden, for the good of the party, stand down, and allow a younger, more dynamic candidate with a real presidential future -- Biden's about to turn 69 -- take his place?

The new rumor campaign surrounding the future of Team Obama is quite different from the one that erupted in the aftermath of last November's mid-terms, when there was talk that Biden would take the State department slot, and its current occupant, Hillary Clinton, who'd always wanted the vice presidency, would resign and take his place. Clinton, it was argued, could help the struggling Obama shore up his sagging poll numbers with women, Latinos, and seniors, and also help him better defend health care reform, a Clinton bailiwick.

The White House and Clinton shot those rumors down, of course, but no one's quite given up on the idea. Witness the renewed speculation that occurred after Biden's high-level trip to China six weeks ago. Some described it as a possible trial balloon -- or even a warm-up -- for his eventual transition to State. But the trip was quickly marred by an early basketball controversy, and Biden's well-known penchant for a gaffe -- incredibly, he seemed to be endorsing China's one-child policy. For now, that's probably dashed whatever lingering hope there still was among Clintonistas for a fabled "switcheroo" with Hillary.

But apparently, it's also made discussions of Biden's departure more urgent than ever. A number of influential Democrats, and even some top Republican Democrat-watchers, say they're seeing real movement. One of those Democrats is Willie Brown, the former powerful head of the California State Assembly and Mayor of San Francisco, who's considered a major party insider. Brown, and now others, say that Obama is considering replacing Biden with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a liberal firebrand, and the state's former attorney general, who demolished a Tea party candidate last November, and who's now one of the most popular state chief executives in the country, with just 19% of New York voters saying they disapprove of his leadership, according to a recent poll.

Cuomo , who served as President Clinton's HUD secretary, and whose father Mario was once a popular NY governor and a leading presidential aspirant himself has emerged as a mediator of sorts in the rabid deficit-cutting, anti-union frenzy that's sweeping the nation and embroiling GOP governors in huge controversies elsewhere -- most notably, in Wisconsin and Ohio, battleground states that Obama won in 2008 and can't afford to lose next year. By successfully concluding a deal with the unions that averted a showdown, but demonstrating real fiscal "toughness," Cuomo seems like just the kind of man Obama needs at his side to brave the storm of what promises to be a fiercely ideological re-election battle with the right that leaves the all-important indies, who want nothing more than effective bipartisan problem-solving, trapped on a see-saw.

Cuomo, unlike his Republican counterparts, didn't threaten to take away the collective bargaining rights of his state's public sector unions, but he did play tough, threatening massive lay-offs unless the unions came to the table. And once there, he managed to convince them to increase their percentage contribution to their health care and retirement plans while receiving virtually no pay increases for the next five years. After testy exchanges, and a near breakdown in the talks, both sides ended up concluding a deal, and Cuomo has come out smelling like a rose.

And the polls speak loud: while a large and growing number of Republican governors have approval ratings in the 30s -- Rick Scott's approval in Florida has actually been in the 20s -- Cuomo's are still in the 60s. And it's not just Democrats. 61% of New York's independent voters -- and even 53% of the state's Republicans -- support his leadership, striking numbers for a man who's an unabashed supporter of gay marriage, immigration, and the environment, and an indication of just how difficult Cuomo may be for the right to pigeonhole.

Of course, some would argue that contemplating such a radical change in "Team Obama" is tantamount to a public admission of defeat -- and will be viewed as a transparent attempt to conceal the administration's policy failures through a mere change of personnel. But others say coupled with series of new initiatives, especially the president's new jobs package, a targeted shake-up of this sort is eminently "saleable." Obama's not contemplating what Jimmy Carter did, a public firing of his entire cabinet, a move that only demoralized Democrats and led to a further drop in his public standing. Though it's rare, there are certainly precedents for a president to replace his VP, and Biden, pushing 70, could plausibly claim the all-too-familiar "family" or "health" concerns as justification, or could simply announce that he's stepping down to let Democrats groom a younger and more viable presidential successor, a problem that's plagued two-term incumbents for years.

Officially, Cuomo's team is still tight-lipped about the recurring rumors about their boss. Could it be the Cuomo family disease? His father flirted with a presidential bid for a decade, but could never seem to commit to running, despite the strong urgings of his party. The younger Cuomo reportedly is considering a run of his own for the presidency in 2016, whether Obama wins or loses in 2012. But if Obama's poll numbers continue to slide, don't be surprised if he tries to remind the New York governor that the time for change is now.