WASHINGTON — Amid the summer doldrums, it’s already playing out like a TV melodrama, starring some of the most powerful names in Democratic politics, including Barack, Hillary, and, of course, Joe. The plot: Watch friendships turn to rivalries with the party’s chances in the 2016 presidential election at stake.
Hillary Clinton, President Obama’s former secretary of state, has long been seen as a likely candidate to seek the nomination to succeed Obama in three years, and she received a glowing tribute, if not endorsement, from him earlier this year in a joint “60 Minutes” appearance.
Now Vice President Joe Biden is sending new signals about his own interest in the Oval Office. He has been active — through fund-raisers and visits — in early voting states such as New Hampshire and Iowa, and on Friday he is slated for a joint appearance with Obama in his hometown of Scranton, Pa. Not to mention his recent coy interview in GQ magazine about his presidential intentions.
Biden loyalists say such moves would not have happened without a tacit endorsement from Obama advisers.
Meanwhile, Biden’s associates are urging him to seize the spotlight.
“I’m enthusiastically for him being as visible as he can be in the next year, which I think he will be,” said John Marttila, a longtime confidant.
Indeed, now is a period of intense but quiet jockeying, as Biden, Clinton, and others make political chess moves as they scout out the field of competitors. Every movement, every word, is parsed. Will she or won’t she? Will he or won’t he? And if both Clinton and Biden run, will Obama make an outright endorsement, or will he remain on the sidelines as his vice president and former secretary of state fight it out in bitter primaries?
A Clinton-Biden contest would set up a tectonic battle rivaling the 2008 presidential race, with two Democratic heavyweights vying for the reins of their party. Clinton, of course, knows what that is like. She seemed destined to be the 2008 nominee until Obama bested her.
Much of the attention in the coming contest has been focused on Clinton. (She’s set up a Twitter account! She’s giving a speech to the American Bar Association! She says she’s a “Downton Abbey” fan!) And so far, she seems to have more of a ready-made campaign network.
Her supporters have established a political action committee, called “Ready for Hillary,” which has been raising money and hiring staff from past Clinton and Obama operations. The group is already distributing bumper stickers. When a notable person says something positive about Clinton — from actress Freida Pinto to Obama — it goes up on the website as an “endorsement.”
”Obviously there’s a lot of talk,” said Seth Bringman, communications director for Ready for Hillary. “But our focus is certainly on Hillary.”
So is the focus of the media. CNN and NBC News are planning documentaries on her.
There are no apparent plans for Biden documentaries, however. His Twitter account gets far less attention, and followers, than Clinton’s (he has about 490,000; she has 709,000). There is a Stop Hillary PAC, with a staff dedicated to preventing another Clinton presidency, but there is no Stop Joe PAC.
Biden has left hints, however. In his GQ interview, he is quoted as saying: “I can die a happy man never having been president of the United States of America,” while adding, “But it doesn’t mean I won’t run.”
Biden is now weighing whether to create a political action committee of his own, something his advisers say he probably wouldn’t do without Obama’s blessing. Having a PAC would allow him to raise money — one barometer of how much support he would have — and use the money to donate to candidates ahead of the 2014 midterm elections.
He is also spending time in early voting states.
He had planned to attend a fund-raiser on Thursday for Maggie Hassan, the governor of first-in-the-nation-primary New Hampshire. That event was canceled on Wednesday, as Biden continues to spend time with his son, Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden, who successfully underwent an unspecified procedure earlier this week at a cancer center in Houston.
Biden is also planning to attend an annual steak fry next month hosted by Senator Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat, that has a history of hosting prospective presidential candidates.
There are several other Democrats whose names are often floated as possible 2016 presidential candidates, including Governor Martin O’Malley of Maryland, Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York, and Senator Mark Warner of Virgina.
But the Biden-Clinton speculation has, if nothing else, drowned out most of the talk of alternatives.
Sitting vice presidents who seek their party’s nomination have a strong track record in modern times — often with the backing of the president. The last time a sitting vice president sought his party’s nomination and did not receive it was Alben W. Barkley in 1952.
“The irony is, here you have Biden, who arguably is the most consequential vice president we’ve ever had, someone who’s been enormously successful and influential,” said Joel K. Goldstein, a professor at St. Louis University and an authority on the vice presidency. “And yet he has a tougher fight if he chooses to run to get the nomination than any of his predecessors.”
Additionally, the Clintons have a long history with Biden — one that is deeper than the one they have with Obama.
As a US senator from Delaware, Biden was a loyal partner to Bill Clinton when he was president, and he helped guide Hillary Clinton when she became US senator from New York. He was also an advocate for her becoming secretary of state.
Indeed, Hillary Clinton had at least 17 breakfasts with Biden at his residence at the US Naval Observatory — meeting privately with the vice president more often than she did with the president, according to White House visitor logs. On Feb. 29, 2012, Bill Clinton dropped by the vice president’s residence for coffee.
Last month, Hillary Clinton stopped at the White House, joining Obama for a lunch of grilled chicken and pasta jambalaya. The next morning, Biden supporters noted, she was having breakfast with Biden.
“He and Hillary are good friends. I don’t know how that works out,” Marttila said. “If he runs, he’s not going to run against her. He’s going to run for what he stands for, what he believes in.”
Both Clinton and Biden would have to combat concerns about their age. On Inauguration Day in 2017, Biden would be 74 years old — the oldest new president ever. Clinton would be 69, and older than any new president except Ronald Reagan, who was almost 70 when he first assumed the presidency.
Most conversations with Biden loyalists contain at least one reference to how fit he seems to be. Clinton supporters have downplayed any concerns about her health, which received wide coverage when in December she sustained a concussion after becoming dehydrated and fainting.
She has encouraged her image as a sort of secretary of cool: Her Twitter profile shows her wearing sunglasses and staring intensely at an unseen message on her phone, embracing a meme first publicized by some online supporters. The profile teases that the “glass ceiling cracker” has a future “TBD” — to be determined.
Biden, too, insists he is still undecided, while displaying his own signature style, posing for GQ in his Ray-Ban aviator sunglasses with the White House in the background.
Biden said in the GQ interview he would have to determine whether he was the best person to “move the ball.” When that day comes, the ever-blunt Biden said, “We’ll see where the hell I am.”
Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.