Joe Biden heading to Iowa: why he's smart to keep 2016 options open

Joe Biden will be attending an event in Iowa in September, another clue that he's angling toward running for president. He'd likely be a long shot, but it could be a shot worth taking.

Tim Chong/Reuters/File
Vice President Joe Biden speaks to sailors onboard the USS Freedom during his tour of the vessel at Changi Naval Base in Singapore last month. In September, he'll be headed to Iowa.

To state the obvious, Vice President Joe Biden is acting like a potential candidate for president in 2016. The latest clue is that he has signed on as keynote speaker at Iowa Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin’s annual steak fry on Sept. 15. All presidential hopes and dreams run through the Hawkeye State, home of the first nominating contest.

Speaking at the steak fry “has been a long-standing commitment after the vice president was unable to attend last year,” a spokesperson in the office of the vice president told The Des Moines Register.

Mr. Biden is smart to send out feelers for a 2016 campaign, despite his obvious challenges as a candidate, party strategists say.

First, he is keeping his options open. “You never know what’s going to happen, so it can’t hurt” to do the Harkin event, says Democratic strategist Peter Fenn. “Second, it enhances his clout in his current job to be out there as a possible contender.”

Biden is an active partner to President Obama, spearheading administration efforts in policy areas such as gun violence and the fiscal cliff, and as an emissary to Capitol Hill, where he served as a senator for six terms. He earns widespread praise as a retail politician.

“He wants folks dealing with him in the Senate and Congress to think they’re dealing with a possible future president,” says Mr. Fenn.

Still, Biden would have to be considered a long shot for the presidency. Start with getting the Democratic nomination. The possibility that former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton will run is Exhibit A. For now, that possibility seems strong, as the "super political action committee" Ready for Hillary goes full steam ahead with fundraising and organizing. Mrs. Clinton is not involved, but if she wanted the friends and allies who are involved to stop, she would have made that clear by now.

Clinton is consistently way ahead of the second-place Biden in polls of Democratic voters: 52 percent to 12 percent, in a July survey by Public Policy Polling.

But maybe Clinton ends up not running. Or maybe she does run, and has a major stumble (which seems unlikely, given her lengthy experience in public life, but can’t be ruled out). Or maybe her conservative opposition makes her unelectable before she can even reach the nomination.

The rest of the prospective Democratic field isn’t that big, and aside from Biden, doesn’t have much of a national profile. Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley has dropped large hints that he’s running, but isn’t known much outside his home region. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has the famous last name, but hasn’t yet sent up any significant flares.

Another challenge for Biden: He would be well into his 70s by 2016. If he won, he would be the oldest person ever elected president. That’s why, when asked if he’s running, he talks about how great he feels. And he certainly exudes energy. On Inauguration Day last January, he jogged part of the parade route down Pennsylvania Avenue, sprinting toward folks along the sidelines – including NBC’s Al Roker.

The prospective Republican field is dominated by rising stars of the GOP’s next generation – people like New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. The contrast with Biden would be striking, and Democrats may be eager to keep the battle within the same generational ballpark.

Even if Biden reached the nomination, winning the top job wouldn’t be easy. He would effectively be running for Mr. Obama’s third term – as Vice President George H.W. Bush did in succeeding President Reagan in 1988. And there may well be plenty of reasons for voters to want a change of direction by 2016: Unemployment could still be high and economic growth sluggish. Obama’s job approval – now averaging 44 percent – could still be well south of 50 percent.

Of course, Biden’s chances would also depend on whom the Republicans nominate. Elections are always a choice.

Biden also has a history – and some well-documented tendencies – to run against. He has tried for the presidency twice before, in 1988 and 2008. The first time, he dropped out after he was accused of plagiarizing British Labor leader Neil Kinnock. His 2008 campaign almost ended as soon as it began, when on his first day in the race he complimented Obama for being “articulate and bright and clean.”

Some Democrats say his tendency to say what pops into his head is refreshing. And as the veep, he has managed to keep the gaffes mostly in check. But in the high-stakes game of a presidential campaign, even a few poorly timed gaffes could be fatal.

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