Washington — If someone told you the next president of the United States could be Joe Biden, would your response be ``Joe who?'' Well, you wouldn't be alone. Most Americans have never heard of Joe Biden, Bruce Babbitt, Thomas Kean, or several other potential candidates priming themselves for the White House.
In fact, what Americans don't know about politics would fill a book. Stephen Hess, a scholar with the Brookings Institution, observes:
``Americans' ignorance of issues [and candidates] probably is the most thoroughly documented tenet of voting research.''
All this can be downright discouraging to politicians. Just take the case of US Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, for example.
Mr. Gephardt, a redheaded, affable Democrat from Missouri, has traveled to every corner of the country to get better known as a presidential candidate. He's among the top five or six Democratic contenders. Still, his name draws a complete blank from 83 percent of Americans, according to the Gallup Organization.
This sort of thing holds true even for some people extremely well known in Washington, such as the new chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia.
Three out of 4 Americans have never heard of Senator Nunn (who is another potential 1988 candidate). Even most of those who have heard of Mr. Nunn concede they know nothing about him, Gallup found.
Issues also seem to puzzle Americans. Just look at the monumental subject now churning in Washington: secret, illegal aid to the Nicaraguan rebels.
When pollsters asked awhile ago whether the United States was on the side of the contras or the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, 14 percent said Sandinistas, 38 percent said contras, and 48 percent said they had no idea.
So much for Topic A in Washington.
It's the young voters who yawn the widest when the topic is politics. Some polls turn up startling results.
In 1984, for example, most voters aged 18 to 24 seemed bored by the presidential contest. At the height of the primary campaign season, an ABC-TV poll found that nearly 80 percent of these young voters couldn't identify a single Democratic presidential candidate, such as Walter Mondale or Gary Hart. Voters aged 25 to 29 weren't much better.
Sometimes, of course, little-known candidates race ahead to victory. ``Gary who?'' became Gary Hart in a matter of two weeks as his face went on the cover of newsmagazines and onto television.
``Jimmy who?'' eventually became President Jimmy Carter. And ``Spiro who?'' became Vice-President Spiro T. Agnew.
Yet name recognition doesn't always mean success. More people today can identify the Rev. Jesse Jackson (92 percent) than Gary Hart (81 percent). But Mr. Hart runs well ahead of Mr. Jackson as a 1988 contender.
The same is true on the Republican side, where retired Gen. Alexander Haig, the former secretary of state, is better known (71 percent) than Senate minority leader Robert Dole (70 percent). But Mr. Dole is far ahead in popularity.
The public's blas'e attitude toward politics frustrates some activists. But scholar Hess says it is only normal. He observes:
``For most people, the business of earning a living and raising a family is sufficiently difficult, time-consuming, and interesting. Running governments usually is left to those with unusual ambitions or leisure.''
By the way, for those who weren't sure: Joseph Biden is a Democratic senator from Delaware. Bruce Babbitt, also a Democrat, retired this month as governor of Arizona and has announced his candidacy for president. Thomas Kean, a Republican, was elected by the widest margin in history as governor of New Jersey.