Joe Biden’s personal compartment on the modified Boeing 757 that serves as Air Force Two had the feel of a motel manager’s office equipped with state-of-the-art communications gear. The room held a little black couch with a pullout bed he had slept on more times than he could count over the last eight years, during which he logged more than a million miles aloft. We were en route back to Wilmington, Del., from Cartagena, Colombia, in early December, and Biden was sitting in a black leather seat with a binder in his lap.
It contained the speech he had given at the Democratic National Convention in July. He told me he had been rereading it. He began reciting aloud: “If you live in neighborhoods like the one Jill and I grew up in, if you worry about your job and getting decent pay. ...” His voice accelerated. “If you worry about your children’s education, if you’re taking care of an elderly parent, there’s only one person in this race who. …” He looked up at me and sighed. “I wish to hell I’d just kept saying the exact same thing.”
Biden was afflicted with regret. He was sorry that, on the campaign trail, he had spoken so often about Donald Trump’s unfitness for office and not enough about what Hillary Clinton would do for the middle class. He was sorry he didn’t push harder inside the White House for a middle-class tax cut. And he was still torn over his decision not to run for president, a race that he said would have been “brutal” but that he also believed he could have won.
I spoke with Biden intermittently in the months before and after Election Day, and I had no doubt as to why he didn’t jump in. He was still corny, gabby, lovable Uncle Joe, the guy who once said: “Stand up, Chuck! Let ’em see you!” to a man in a wheelchair. But nearly every speech and interview now included some moving mention of his son Beau, who died of brain cancer in 2015, and how much Biden was doing, and intended to continue to do for the rest of his life, to speed the search for cancer cures.
I saw Biden cry in Manchester, N.H., in October when holding an infant that he was told was named after Beau. I saw him near tears in West Mifflin, Pa., the weekend before the election, when he was joined onstage by the former Pittsburgh Steelers Franco Harris and Mel Blount — which reminded him of the footballs the team owner sent to young Beau and his brother, Hunter, in the hospital after they were injured in the 1972 car accident that killed Biden’s first wife and baby girl.
On his deathbed, Beau advised his father to run, but many friends — including President Obama — didn’t think he was up to it emotionally, and the vice president finally agreed. “For all that’s important to me in almost a sacred sense,” he told me mournfully, the decision was unavoidable. “The family was broken, and I was more broken than I thought I was.” How broken? “I don’t know what I’d do if I was in a debate and someone said, ‘You’re doing this because of your son,’ ” he told me one late November day in his West Wing office. “I might have walked over and kicked his ass.”
And yet minutes later, he was standing at his desk, fidgeting and replaying what might have been in 2016. The South Carolina primary would have given him a strong start, he said, citing his internal polls there. “Hard to believe, but I was more popular with blacks than Barack was.”
Biden clearly loathes the new president
Biden clearly loathes the new president; he said during the campaign that if he and Trump were in high school, he’d “take him behind the gym” for the way he bragged about groping women. Trump reminded him of the bullies who teased him as a child on account of his stutter, calling him “B-B-Biden.” But the politician who has long believed all politics is personal wants to keep it impersonal with Trump. “The president and I have concluded that there’s no value in making that ad hominem argument,” he told me of Obama. “It gets you nowhere.”
Biden wasn’t shocked that Hillary Clinton lost. He had noticed before the election that Trump was connecting with the people he grew up with in Pennsylvania. This shaped his thoughts on how Democrats should respond. When the subject of Trump came up aboard Air Force Two, Biden referred to a well-worn story about how, as a freshman senator, he saw Jesse Helms, the archconservative North Carolina Republican, ripping into a piece of disabilities legislation. Biden was furious about it and began attacking Helms to Mike Mansfield, the Democratic Senate majority leader. Puffing on his pipe, Mansfield asked Biden if he knew that Helms and his wife had adopted a disabled 9-year-old boy no one else would take. “Question a man’s judgment, not his motives,” Mansfield instructed.
“Question a man’s judgment, not his motives”
Biden, who was invited by Helms decades later to give his eulogy, is convinced that absorbing Mansfield’s advice is what allowed him to work with Senate Republicans during the Obama years, to negotiate the approval of the New Start nuclear-arms-reduction treaty, the end of “don’t ask, don’t tell” and the expansion of the earned-income tax credit, among other accomplishments. His approach to Trump, he said, wouldn’t be fundamentally different. “It falls in that category,” Biden told me. “It’s one thing to say: ‘I think the proposal on the following is a serious mistake. I think it’s gonna do the following damage.’ It’s another thing to say, ‘The guy’s a fucking idiot, and he is an egomaniac who’s a whatever.’ ”
Biden suggested he might lobby former Republican colleagues when “circumstances generate blowback among mainstream Republicans.” He remains in the shrinking camp that believes Trump may yet step up, at least a bit, to the demands of high office. His hope is that Trump’s “sense of grandeur is so immense that he’d rather succeed than unleash these forces.” Given how many Trump voters would lose their insurance under full repeal of the Affordable Care Act, he may well back off of repealing it, Biden said. As for the rest of his own administration’s legacy, he said, “I’m not prepared to bet my granddaughter’s college tuition, but it’s less likely to be undone than frayed on the edges.”
Biden’s biggest worry is that Trump, for all his bluster, could be a global bystander, unwilling to engage a messy world with anything more than chest-thumping. “The question I get everywhere is: ‘Is American leadership going to continue?’ ” he told me on Air Force Two. If Trump “just stays behind the lines — hands off — it could be very ugly. Very, very ugly.”
In July, the president of Latvia asked Biden to fly there as soon as possible and give a televised speech assuring the Baltic states that the United States would fulfill its NATO obligations and defend them against a Russian invasion. He did so, emphatically, but his promises offer little comfort post-Election Day. The prospect of Vladimir Putin fulfilling his dream of re-establishing Russian hegemony over Eastern Europe is not far from Biden’s mind. “Now if we walk away — Hungary, Poland, even the Baltic states, these guys all start to hedge their bets,” he said.
It’s like a Rubik’s cube trying to figure this guy out,” Biden sighed. “We have no freakin’ idea what he’s gonna do.”
Biden’s national security adviser, Colin Kahl, who was with the vice president on the plane, interjected to outline the contradictions in Trump’s emerging foreign policy. If the United States is going to be more cooperative with Russia and Bashar al-Assad’s Syria but more confrontational with Iran, Kahl asked, how will Trump handle them joining together to fight ISIS? “It’s like a Rubik’s cube trying to figure this guy out,” Biden sighed. “We have no freakin’ idea what he’s gonna do.”
When they were Senate colleagues, and Biden was chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Biden thought Obama was in too much of a hurry — and Obama found the chairman a tad condescending. But in the White House, the two men became exceptionally close. “There was never a point,” Obama told me recently, “where I thought he was distancing himself from me or positioning himself. Never been a time when he wasn’t telling me something he really thought.” Their families, too, drew together. “Family has been central for us — that’s our baseline,” Obama told me. “We both feel freer to do what we think is right because if it doesn’t work out, our families will still love us.”
Biden later told friends that he thought the president was sincerely looking out for him in 2015 when he advised him not to run — though he also felt Obama had grown fond of the bright mark he could leave on history by passing the baton from the first black president to the first female president.
he surprised me with talk of 2020, when he’ll turn 78. “I’ll run,” the vice president deadpanned, “if I can walk.”
The big question now is when, and how, they will re-enter the arena. Obama has already said that, unlike George W. Bush, he won’t refrain from commenting on his successor. Biden may go further. Amid discussion of resistance to Trump, he surprised me with talk of 2020, when he’ll turn 78. “I’ll run,” the vice president deadpanned, “if I can walk.” Three days later, he informed the Washington press corps that he wasn’t joking.
Biden isn’t likely to run, but keeping the door ajar gives him a bigger voice in Democratic Party debates. The one that worries him most is over repositioning to win back Trump voters. He has little patience with Democrats who want to move either left or right. “ ‘We gotta move to the center,’ ‘We gotta move to those white guys,’ ‘We gotta move to those working-class people’ or ‘We gotta double down on the social agenda.’ ” It’s a false choice, he said: “They are totally compatible. I have never said anything to the A.C.L.U. that I wouldn’t say to the Chamber of Commerce.”
This was the vision of the Democratic Party to which Biden had dedicated his career. “Amtrak Joe” famously commuted every day from Wilmington to Washington — three hours round-trip, for 36 years. He told me that as the train neared Baltimore, he habitually peered into the rapidly passing homes close to the tracks — a flip book of middle-class families of various backgrounds who might have recognized themselves in his convention speech. “I wonder what the conversation at the dinner table is,” he told me.
Sometimes he saw his own family in the early 1960s in those houses. He imagines the families’ struggles with everyday expenses: “ ‘Honey, we need a new set of tires, but you gotta get another 20,000 miles out of them.’ That’s the goddamn discussion people are having! That’s their lives!”
Before the election, Biden had begun to map out what his post-vice-presidential plans would look like. Soon he would be back on Amtrak, riding to and from a foreign-policy institute bearing his name at the University of Pennsylvania and a domestic-policy center at the University of Delaware, and continuing the “cancer moonshot” — a Biden-led initiative marshaling resources in government and the private sector to accelerate cancer research. In the meantime, he’ll help play defense against Trump. “Even if the Democratic Party didn’t want me, I’m not walking away,” he said. “I’ve worked on this stuff my whole life.”
After Air Force Two touched down on the tarmac in Wilmington, I asked him about a line he liked to use before the election. “So do you still believe what your grandfather said, that God looks out for drunken Irishmen and the United States of America?” Biden said he wasn’t sure about the Irishmen, but he was about the country. “I have to believe that,” he said. “There’s no sense being in this business unless you’re an optimist.”