Biden, the Vice Presidency and Running for President

Vice President Joe Biden smiles as he arrives to speak to the University of Notre Dame Leaders Symposium, Tuesday, April 14,
Vice President Joe Biden smiles as he arrives to speak to the University of Notre Dame Leaders Symposium, Tuesday, April 14, 2015, at the Ritz Carlton in Washington. (AP Photo/Molly Riley)

The growing interest in the possible presidential candidacy of Vice President Joe Biden rebuts two inconsistent judgments that had gained popularity when conventional wisdom dismissed his prospects. One judgment saw Biden's standing as evidence that the vice presidency is not a good presidential springboard; the other read Biden's perceived status as reflecting poorly on him relative to his recent predecessors.

The judgments were inconsistent with each other and with reality. The vice presidency remains the best presidential springboard and has provided Biden a forum where he has demonstrated his presidential qualities. And Biden, like recent vice presidents, is and deserves to be a serious presidential candidate. The conclusions downgrading the office and its current occupant related not to shortcomings in either but to a tendency to ignore significant contextual factors in shaping analysis.

The vice presidency has been the best presidential springboard for more than one-half century. The office and political system before Richard Nixon's tenure (1953-1961) were so different that earlier data has little value. Yet beginning with Nixon, every sitting vice president a) who completed a term with a president who was constitutionally barred from seeking a third term or elected not to seek a second and b) who wanted to run for president, received his party's presidential nomination. Only four vice presidents -- Nixon, Hubert H. Humphrey, George H. W. Bush and Al Gore -- met this two-part test but that was the sum total of sitting vice presidents since 1960 who had a fair chance to run for president and wanted to do so. Two other vice presidents (Lyndon B. Johnson, Gerald R. Ford) became president upon the death or resignation of their predecessor and two former vice presidents (Nixon, Walter F. Mondale) also received presidential nominations. Thus 7 of the 20 people (35%) who have received major party presidential nominations since 1960 have been sitting or former vice presidents. That number is smaller than the number of past or current senators (12) who have received presidential nominations since 1960. Yet the senate numbers are greatly inflated by two distorting factors. Five of the 12 senators (Nixon, Johnson, Humphrey, Mondale, Gore) only became presidential nominees after leaving the Senate to serve as vice president. All but Nixon had tried and failed to obtain the presidential nomination as senators but succeeded the first time after serving as vice president. And at any one time there are 100 senators but only one vice president. Six of the 20 presidential nominees were past or current governors but again there are always far more present or former governors than vice presidents. Only Bush of the sitting, and Johnson and Nixon of the former, vice presidents were elected president but Nixon (1960), Humphrey, Ford, and Gore ran essentially dead heats in losing. Quite clearly, the vice presidency provides a far better steppingstone for almost any individual than does any other public office.

Biden's experience follows the pattern. As a senator, his 2008 presidential candidacy attracted about 1% of the support in the Iowa caucuses before he withdrew. After less than seven years as vice president, he clearly is a formidable candidate. His recent favorability ratings are higher than those of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and he fares better against the leading Republicans than she does. Regardless of whether he decides to run or not and even if his numbers are inflated as a potential candidate as is often the case, his service as vice president has clearly enhanced his stature as a presidential candidate.

And well it should have. With 17 months remaining in his second term, Biden appears likely to be the most consequential two-term vice president in American history. He has served as a close and trusted presidential adviser and has skillfully handled a range of important assignments that required attention at the highest level. Unlike Gore and Dick Cheney, Biden's influence shows no sign of waning. On the contrary, President Barack Obama's testimonials to Biden have grown more effusive as their service continues. Interest in Biden's candidacy relates in part to Secretary Clinton's troubles but it also reflects an appreciation of Biden's skill and commitment to public service, and the sense that he is an authentic representative of values many Americans share.

The suggestion that Biden was deficient because he did not dominate presidential speculation overlooked key contextual factors. Vice presidents Nixon and Humphrey operated in a presidential nominating system that accentuated their advantages. Even so, Humphrey might not have won had Senator Robert F. Kennedy not been assassinated. The nominations of other vice presidents were not as inevitable as hindsight suggests. Bush's campaign appeared in trouble after the Iran-Contra revelations tarnished the Reagan administration and again after he finished third in the Iowa caucuses and seemed likely to lose New Hampshire to Senator Bob Dole. Gore largely cleared the field but then found himself in a seemingly competitive race against Senator Bill Bradley after investigations of his earlier fund-raising activity and some early campaign stumbles weakened his position. After a surprise loss in New Hampshire to Senator Gary Hart, Mondale was on the ropes until victories in Alabama and Georgia saved his candidacy.

Biden has also operated in a unique context with unprecedented challenges. Secretary Clinton, was a)the 2008 runner up having run essentially an even race with Obama; b) linked to the popular Clinton administration which she served as First Lady; c) a respected participant of the first Obama administration; and d) the first significant woman candidate for president and accordingly an iconic figure. None of Biden's predecessors faced a rival with one, let alone all, of these attributes. Moreover, Biden is older than most presidential candidates, although his age is comparable to those of Ronald Reagan in 1984, Dole in 1996 and John McCain in 2008.

Biden may decide not to run or may run and not be nominated or elected. Yet the recent interest in his candidacy confirms the utility of the vice presidency as the best political springboard and the recognition of Biden as among the truly outstanding political leaders of his generation.