CREDIT PHOTOGRAPH BY JACQUELYN MARTIN/AP
In Joe Biden’s political vocabulary, nothing is more important than being “in the deal.” In 2008, when he was weighing whether to accept Barack Obama’s invitation to join the Presidential ticket, his only requirement was a guarantee that he would be “in the deal”—in every meeting that mattered, never unable to reach the President, worthy of inclusion. Once Hillary Clinton began to accumulate the air of a front-runner, logic dictated that the best way for Biden to stay in the deal was to keep alive the prospect of a candidacy, however quixotic it might appear. He played that hand as long as it made sense—and a week or two after it did not. But when the moment passed, Biden made the rarest of choices in Presidential politics today: dignity over ambition.In a Rose Garden announcement on Wednesday, with his wife, Jill, and Obama standing beside him, Biden said that he would not run for President. He tried to present a sense of certainty, a look of effortful serenity, but the dominant impression was ambivalence. He couldn’t help frame the choice—a major one, to say the least—in fitful, faintly procedural terms. “I believe we’re out of time,” he said, “the time necessary to mount a winning campaign for the nomination.” Ending the guessing game will insulate him from the perils of a campaign, and reassure the Democratic establishment, but, even as he bowed out, it was clear that he wasn’t quite ready to exit the deal entirely. “While I will not be a candidate, I will not be silent. I intend to speak out clearly and forcefully to influence as much as I can where we stand as a party and where we need to go as a nation,” he said.
For Biden, after all, it was a harder choice than it is for most. The Presidency—as an idea, a vocation, a validation—means more to him than it does even to the other politicians who believe it should be theirs. When, as a teen-ager at the University of Delaware, he first met the parents of his future wife, Neilia Hunter, her mother asked what he planned to do for a living. “President,” he said—and added helpfully, “of the United States.”
At times in his career, he succeeded in suppressing the urge. In 2008, Obama’s advisers favored Biden for Vice-President in part because they assumed that Biden’s age—he will be seventy-four on Inauguration Day, 2017—would prevent the classic White House intrigue: a No. 2 angling and strategizing around his own desire to be No. 1. Biden gave them reason to believe that; during the 2008 campaign, he told Newsweek that he had said to Obama, “I’m sixty-five, and you’re not going to have to worry about my positioning myself to be president.” (Some in Biden’s closest circle didn’t believe that for a second. One of his longtime friends and aides told me last year, “For six years, I’ve been saying, if you don’t believe that Joe Biden intends to run in 2016, you don’t know Joe Biden.”)
Biden was not being dishonest when he told the world, for twelve agonizing weeks, that he was unsure whether to run. In a series of interviews for a Profile in The New Yorker, Biden expressed persuasive misgivings about his age and the strain another campaign would put on his family. But he also made clear that he regarded the decision to run as something more than a political question; it got to the essence of how he envisioned the next phase of his life. He said, “I watched my father. I made a mistake in encouraging him to retire. I just think as long as you think you can do it and you’re physically healthy—” He trailed off.
The arguments against his candidacy were impossible to ignore: he has high favorability ratings, and a surge of good will surrounding the death, in May, of his son, Beau, but other numbers were inauspicious. In a recent New Hampshire poll by the Boston Globe, he drew only eleven per cent support—far behind Hillary Clinton, at thirty-seven per cent, and Bernie Sanders, at thirty-five per cent. When CNN asked people, in August, if Biden should enter the race, slightly more than half said he should. But when they asked the question again recently, more people said he should not. Moreover, the theory goes, as an outgoing Vice-President, with a long center-left voting record in the Senate, Biden was poorly positioned to challenge Sanders from the left, and would have been forced to compete with Clinton for mainstream Democratic voters. Had he put temperament and instinct above political calculation, it would have been a preview of his vulnerability as a candidate.
After Clinton had established a broad lead, there remained one especially tempting reason to run. Once it became clear that the other Democratic challengers—Martin O’Malley, Jim Webb, and Lincoln Chaffee—were immaterial, Biden faced the once-unimaginable prospect that the next person in line, in the event that Clinton stumbles, was Bernie Sanders, who has been, for most of Joe Biden’s political career, little more than a venerable irritant. Clinton has been having a good month, but the election is thirteen months away. If, for any reason, Clinton is not the Party’s choice, Joe Biden will now have to bear watching Bernie Sanders contend for the job that Biden has wanted for six decades.
Biden would have had to begin with no money (and no love for raising it), no staff, and no organization in the states. He would have been equipped with little more than a fervent belief that he could be President and an appetite for politics that is inexhaustible even by Washington standards. The former Senator George Mitchell once told me a story of working the phones with Biden, when they were trying to rally support for a bill in the mid-nineties. “Usually a senator would come to me, the majority leader, and say ‘Well, here’s a problem. Can you get the votes?’ Then they go off to dinner.” But Biden asked Mitchell to join him in calling every Democrat at home, a process that lasted until after two in the morning. “After a while, I was up to No. 8, and he was still on No. 2,” Mitchell said, “I said, ‘Joe, I know you want to explain this thing to these guys, but you’ve to got be a little more concise.’ ”
And that is what makes his decision especially memorable. Biden is giving up his last chance at the role that he has always wanted—and a bet that he believes his son Beau wanted him to place. “As my family and I have worked through the grieving process, I’ve said all along…It may very well be that that process, by the time we get through it, closes the window on mounting a realistic campaign for president, that it might close,” Biden said. “I’ve concluded that it has closed.”