You think there's a lot of excitement upon the election of a new pope, as the crowd of faithful in St. Peter's Square look for white smoke coming from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel? That's nothing compared to the months of absolute media frenzy surrounding every word, every move, every phone call, every meal, every facial tick of Vice President Joe Biden: What did it mean? Was he close? When would he decide? Was he going to run for president in 2016?
We members of the White House press corps divined the answer even before he announced it to the world. The vice president was about to make a statement at the White House, in the Rose Garden, with President Obama at his side, which could mean only one thing: He wasn't running. That was not the place to launch a campaign. That was the place to end a glorious political career.
And, indeed, glorious it has been. First elected to the Senate in 1972, Biden served 36 scandal-free years before taking the oath of office as vice president. Some senators have made their mark as chairman of the Judiciary Committee or chair of the Foreign Relations Committee. Biden served as chairman of both. In the Senate, he fought for causes reflecting his own middle-class background: consumer and environmental protection, minimum wage, college aid, arms control and campaign reform. He opposed the Gulf War in 1991. Like Hillary Clinton, he voted to authorize the Iraq War in 2002, but soon admitted his "mistake" and became an early advocate of letting Iraq break up into three ethnic states. He cites the Violence Against Women Act as "the single most significant legislation" he crafted as senator.
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And over the last seven years, he's been an invaluable partner to President Obama, tapped by him to lead several critical initiatives: managing the 2009 stimulus package, leading the administration's efforts for new gun safety legislation, reaching out to Republicans in Congress to break logjams on budget negotiations and representing the United States on the world stage in dozens of countries.
Biden, of course, also has a powerful life story. His wife and daughter were killed in an auto accident shortly after he was elected to the Senate in 1972. For the next 35 years, he commuted home an hour and a half every night, from Washington to Wilmington, Delaware, to be with his two surviving sons – one of whom, his elder son and close political adviser, Beau, died of brain cancer last May.
As the vice president himself admitted this week, it was grieving over the loss of Beau that derailed any chance of running for president in 2016. He always knew, he said in the Rose Garden, there was the danger that, while he was dealing with his son's death and comforting his family, the window for mounting a serious presidential campaign might close. In the end, he realized that was the case: "Unfortunately, I believe we're out of time."
We won't know for months the ultimate impact of Biden's not running, but it's already changed the political landscape in a couple of ways. For starters, it makes the Democratic Party less lively. Today, there are but two serious candidates, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. As the only one to embrace and unabashedly run on Barack Obama's record, Joe Biden would have brought a lot of new energy to the mix and made both Clinton and Sanders better candidates. It would have been better for the party had he run.
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The immediate beneficiary of Biden's decision is Hillary Clinton. Closer to his center-left politics than Sanders, she stands to pick up the bulk of Biden's supporters, while also avoiding what might have turned into a tough challenge over who's the best candidate to carry on the legacy of President Obama. It's a big break for her. No matter how you slice it, no Biden means a stronger Hillary.
For his part, Joe Biden promises to continue to speak out on the issues – as if anyone could stop him – he just won't do so as a candidate. Which is too bad. Biden brought more experience and more leadership skills to the table than any other candidate. Had he started earlier, I believe he could have won the nomination and been elected our next president. Now, with no chance to be president, he'll just have to settle for being one of our most influential vice presidents ever. And that ain't bad.