Will Biden Receive Obama’s Blessing?

Obama blessing Biden

Joe Biden with President Obama during State of the Union address, 2014

Will Biden Receive Obama’s Blessing?
| published August 25, 2015 |

By Thursday Review staff

Rumors have a funny way of becoming facts in Washington, and the latest buzz may burnish the already rapid-fire talk of a Presidential candidacy by Vice-President Joe Biden.

Numerous media sources are reporting several anonymous sources as saying that if Joe Biden decides to enter the 2016 race for the White House, he would be given the “blessing” of President Barack Obama. The backchannel talk comes after a busy weekend of news about Biden, who most analysts believe may be close to making a decision about running for President.

At a press conference this week, White House press spokesman Josh Ernest—in response to questions from reporters about a possible Biden candidacy—said that Obama would neither discourage nor inhibit Biden’s plans, a tacit pre-blessing of sorts. The White House’s remarks this week have done little to quell talk of a Biden candidacy in the wake of the VP’s meetings with major Democratic fundraisers, party strategists, and U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren—herself a popular standard-bearer for the party’s most progressive wing. Warren was once considered a likely candidate until she demurred early this year, saying she would remain in the Senate, for now.

Biden has been widely discussed among Democrats and political analysts as a potential candidate in 2016, but his path has always been considered a challenging one, especially considering the substantial lead maintained by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Clinton’s position as front-runner has remained intact for some 18 months as she built a formidable organization and channeled support from donors, bundlers and political groups. Her candidacy has also suppressed most other challengers’ ambitions, keeping many Democrats on the sidelines, and marginalizing the few who have said they will run. Rhode Island’s Lincoln Chafee, Virginia’s James Webb, and Maryland’s Martin O’Malley—though they have all been campaigning actively in states like Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada—remain stuck in low single digits in current polling.

Only Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has made inroads against the de facto front-runner Clinton. Sanders has drawn huge crowds to his events, and in August became the first Democrat to outpoll Clinton anywhere when he managed to surpass her in polls taken in New Hampshire. Though Clinton maintains a solid lead, Sanders is also gaining on Clinton in several other states, including Iowa and Florida. Sanders’ seemingly improbable rise has fueled the notion among Democrats—however farfetched—that Clinton is anything but inevitable.

The daily news cycle has brought difficulty to the Clinton campaign: issues regarding her private email account and the server which was housed in the Clinton residence during her tenure as Secretary of State have distracted from her campaign message, and have drawn frequent and uncomfortable questions from reporters. Some Democratic strategists also worry that investigations by the FBI and other agencies, though not characterized as criminal, could nonetheless inflict greivous damage to a candidate who must still endure more Benghazi hearings now scheduled for this fall in the Senate. Just how much damage Clinton can sustain before the erosion to her support becomes catastrophic is anyone's guess. The Clintons are known for their unique ability to have survived much more intense trials by fire, and the current controversies regarding emails and servers may seem, in fact, like a minor nuisance in Clintonland.

That Joe Biden hankers to be President is no secret. He has run for the highest office in the U.S. on at least two previous occasions. In 1988, after the demise of presumed party leader Gary Hart, his campaign leapt out to some early top-tier success with healthy fundraising and solid volunteer efforts. In one 90 day period in 1987, Biden raised some $1.7 million, outstripping all other candidates. Biden also succeeded in attracting some—but not all—of the younger generation of liberals and Democrats, many of whom were left without a standard-bearer with the meltdown of Hart. Biden positioned himself as center-left centrist, but also found the turf to be already crowded by Michael Dukakis, Al Gore and Richard Gephardt.

But Biden’s campaign soon imploded after it was revealed that he had plagiarized large significant passages of famous speeches by other politicians—notably a key speech by British Labour leader Neil Kinnock. In the ensuing press investigations, it turned out that Biden had been lifting entire passages (without attribution) from the speeches of Bobby Kennedy, Kinnock, and other European politicians, even recrafting his own backstory to match those of Kinnock and others. Days later, investigative journalists discovered that Biden had been accused of similar plagiarism while he was still in college, and that his frequent biographical claim of having three degrees was untrue. Biden also frequently claimed to have “graduated in the top half” of his class in law school, another item found to be inaccurate. The tempest became a media storm, which soon forced Biden to withdraw from the race.

Only later did it come to light that the vast majority of the negative spin on Biden’s plagiarism had originated with strategists for the campaign of rival candidate Michael Dukakis. Dukakis aids had even been feeding the plagiarism background elements to certain reporters on a daily basis in exchange for favorable access to candidate Dukakis. Dukakis even apologized for the campaign to destroy Biden in 1988. Eventually the Delaware Supreme Court’s special Board of Professional Responsibility cleared Biden of any wrongdoing and confirming that Biden’s standing as an attorney was not in jeopardy because of the incidents.

Biden again ran for President in 2008. This time Biden has additional decades of Senate experience on his side, including Judiciary Committee experience on the front lines of arguably the two most contentious Supreme Court nomination battles ever fought—those of nominees Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas. By the time of his candidacy in 2007, Biden had also burnished his experience on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Biden was considered by Washington insiders to be a top-tier candidate, but it became clear after the first several Democratic debates in late 2007 that Biden was being overshadowed by what was rapidly becoming a three-way battle for the top tier between John Edwards, Hillary Clinton and then-Senator Barack Obama. Biden was one of several candidates whose fortunes fell quickly after poor showings in Iowa and New Hampshire, and—like Chris Dodd and Bill Richardson—his campaign ran out of operational cash.

This time Biden surely understands the strength of his biggest potential adversary—Hillary Clinton. Clinton has been running for President unofficially since the day she left the State Department in 2013, and almost all of her efforts since then have been designed to propel her to the top of the Democratic Party’s standings. At times late last year and very early this year, she had no genuine opponents in terms of polls—crushing any and all candidates of either party, including—in an age before Donald Trump—presumed front runners Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, and Chris Christie.

Clinton has faced a daily barrage of negative news for months now, and some Democratic strategists are worried that the damage could soon become irreversible. Many of the old assumptions—meaning from early this year—have been shattered by the arrival of Trump, apparently immune to the normal rules of political conversation and discourse, and the ascendancy of Bernie Sanders—a quasi-Socialist with only a marginal level of loyalty to the Democratic Party. The success of both candidates speaks to the dissatisfactions and frustrations felt by many Americans toward the two major parties.

Biden may sense that if Clinton is vulnerable, it is time for him to step into the breach, if only to save the Democratic Party from disaster in 2016. However, some close to Biden read his thinking as being too attached to the notion that the party will draft him in a popular uprising of support, and as a way to provide an alternative to Clinton. Certainly if Biden is able to secure the coveted outright endorsement of President Obama, such a surge of support from rank-and-rile Democrats might take place. But Obama’s “blessing,” as it is being described, is not the same as an endorsement, and it seems unlikely that Obama would endorse Biden while Clinton remains an active candidate, and the undisputed front-runner.

On the other hand, Obama wants a solid Democrat—meaning one relatively free of dangerous baggage—to face whoever the GOP chooses in November 2016. If Obama senses that the damage to Clinton is irreversible, he may decide to openly back Biden, his most ardent and reliable water-carrier, to secure things at the White House and to maintain Obama’s legacy.

In the meantime, the talk of a Biden candidacy remains mostly talk. Most political pros estimate that he has only a few weeks in which to come to a decision. The first Democratic debate now looms about six weeks away, and Biden would have to declare his intention to run officially, plus make some headway in national polls, to qualify as a debate competitor in what will be his most important early opportunity to explain why he—and not Hillary Clinton—should be the next President.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Is Biden Closer to a Decision?; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; August 23, 2015.

New Polling: Sanders Gaining on Clinton; Keith H. Roberts; Thursday Review; August 14, 2015.