There is a keen Kennedy-like vigor to Joe Biden that overwhelms any room. As was once said of Theodore Roosevelt, he, too, wants to be the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral. Unlike President Obama, who speaks in interviews with Hemingway-esque sparseness, Biden rambles like Thomas Wolfe, painting a robust picture of an ever-changing America where coal miners will soon be working in clean-tech jobs, gun-safety laws will be tougher and China will be reined in by the White House from poisoning the planet with megatons of choking pollutants.
Never before have a president and vice president been as close personally and professionally as Barack Obama and Joe Biden – just think about the past 80 years. FDR switched out VPs with the regularity of a farmer rotating his crops. Harry Truman had little use for the lightweight Alben Barkley. Dwight Eisenhower never really trusted Richard Nixon. Historian Robert Caro just published an award-winning 736-page biography – The Passage of Power – that essentially chronicles JFK's deep aversion for LBJ. Nixon's selection of the pugilist Spiro Agnew in 1968 as his vice president blew up in his face a few years later: A volcanic eruption of ethics charges were levied against Agnew, and he was forced to resign. Gerald Ford and his vice president, Nelson Rockefeller, never quite jelled. Ford, in fact, asked Bob Dole to run as the VP candidate in 1976 – an awful slap to Rockefeller. Although it's true that Jimmy Carter was extraordinarily close to Walter Mondale, their relationship lacked the two-term gravitas of Obama and Biden's ironclad bond. Ronald Reagan wasn't particularly intimate with George H.W. Bush; their wives often feuded. And when Bush became president, he didn't take Dan Quayle very seriously. (Nor did the country.)
Of course, Al Gore and Dick Cheney were formidable presences in the past two White Houses. But by the time both of those men left Washington, their relationships with their bosses were strained. During the 1992 presidential campaign, Bill Clinton and Al Gore were clearly chummy, tossing footballs together on the trail as "Don't Stop," by Fleetwood Mac, blasted out of the bus speakers. But once the Monica Lewinsky scandal started unraveling, Gore backed away from a tainted Clinton. Cheney was seen as the puppet master of the Bush White House, the mastermind of the Iraq War. But by the end of Bush's second term, the two men had grown estranged.
As Biden tells it, these days he and the president see eye to eye on all policy issues. Only their nuances are slightly different. It's not far-fetched to think that Biden will run for president in 2016 on Obama's coattails. This notion surprises many Republicans, who feel Obama is foundering and that Biden, who will be 74 at the beginning of the next presidential term, is too old. But Biden is smart to stay close to Obama, whose public-approval rating hovers just below 50 percent (a number that rises to around 75 percent among registered Democrats). Assuming Hillary Clinton runs for president in 2016, she will sell herself as a successor to her husband, harkening back to the economic heyday of the 1990s. By contrast, if Biden gets into the race, it will be as an Obama Democrat promising to expand on the record of the last two terms.
What matters the most to Biden these days is whether he can persuade Congress to enact meaningful gun-control laws. After the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, in Newtown, Connecticut, President Obama asked Biden to head up the Gun Violence Prevention Task Force. Though his efforts so far have failed to overcome congressional resistance, he says that he is not giving up. If serious gun-control legislation is passed in the next three years – and Biden is convinced it will – he will deserve the lion's share of the credit.
My takeaway from my one-hour White House interview with Joe Biden is that he must be considering a presidential run. There will be too much Obama-era unfinished business – implementing the Affordable Care Act, fighting for climate-change initiatives, for example – for Biden to throw in the towel. His strengths as a candidate are his blue-collar persona, family values, lifetime support of labor unions and farmers, foreign-policy expertise and stouthearted belief that the Obama administration's record of accomplishment – from the economic recovery to the killing of Osama bin Laden – has been historic. With Air Force Two at his disposal and his two superbright sons, Hunter and Beau, probably working as his chief advisers, Biden can give Hillary Clinton a run for her money. Although she will have an unquestioned advantage among women, it's not inconceivable to think that labor unions, environmentalists, African-Americans, LGBT voters and small-business owners will prefer the hypercaffeinated, hard-charging vice president. Like Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, a presumed Republican candidate, Biden has learned to turn the sound-bite culture on its head by speaking from the gut. Though he's been a major political player since the Nixon years, Biden has pulled off the trick of not seeming like politics-as-usual. It could be a mistake to underestimate his populist appeal. And it's hard to imagine that this highly ambitious man will choose not to pursue the office he's wanted all his life.
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