WASHINGTON — With his political future tied irrevocably to President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden is still working to preserve his own distinct identity as he contemplates a third presidential run in 2016.
With nearly four years left in Obama's second term, it would be untoward for Biden to be openly self-promotional, and his advisers say he's focused on his current job. Still, with the jockeying for 2016 nominations already well under way, there's an advantage to staying part of the conversation. So the freewheeling man from Scranton, Pa., is polishing a reputation carefully nurtured over four decades in Washington, playing up his own strengths even as he stays fiercely loyal to his current boss.
"The good news is my dad understands that he works for the president, first and foremost," said Beau Biden, the vice president's son and Delaware's state attorney general. "I hope he takes a real, hard look at running, but now's not the time."
That time will come soon enough. In the meantime, the vice presidency has afforded Biden ample opportunities to keep his name in the spotlight without seeming overtly political. He's hit the pavement, keeping a strenuous schedule that would wear out many 70-year-old men.
On a Monday earlier this month, Biden hosted religious leaders for hours at a White House meeting on gun control, even though efforts to revive a failed bill had stalled. On Tuesday, he spoke about voting rights at an African-American think tank. He talked immigration with Asian-Americans at an awards dinner Wednesday, and the Boston bombings in a keynote address to firefighters on Thursday. By Friday, he was preparing to return home to Delaware, where he spends many weekends.
"Part of the challenge of being president is you have to be president. It doesn't give you time to go out and travel the country as you'd like," said Ron Klain, Biden's former chief of staff. He said the ability to deploy Biden as a surrogate for Obama has been a major asset for the White House.
As he moves from issue to issue with fluidity and unchecked enthusiasm, it's easy to see how the Biden brand — blue-collar, solidly liberal, disarmingly candid — could have distinct advantages when Democrats select their candidate for 2016.
Whether Democrats, in picking their first nominee to follow Obama, will sour on the notion of an "old, white guy" as their standard-bearer is an open question. Another factor in Biden's equation — and every conversation about 2016 — is Hillary Rodham Clinton, who Democratic insiders say would start out a heavy favorite if she seeks the nomination.
A match-up with his former Senate colleague, 2008 primary opponent and West Wing teammate would test the loyalties and relative influence of a number of key Democratic constituencies.
Fiercely popular with women and with strong bipartisan appeal, Clinton stands to gain from fond memories of a booming economy under her husband's presidency. Like Biden, she also lays claim to the Obama legacy. But Biden, on many issues, also has cast himself to the left of Obama, staking out ground that could make him an attractive alternative to Clinton for the party's liberal base in presidential primaries.
"When he takes on gun control or comes out ahead of the curve on gay marriage, he is also right where people are," said John Anzalone, a Democratic pollster who worked on Obama's re-election. "He's evolved just like everyone else."
Unlike Obama, whose appearances are carefully choreographed to leave nothing to chance, each of Biden's public events has an element of suspense. His supporters say his seeming inability to hide his true feelings about an issue speaks to an honesty and candor that are at the heart of his appeal. But White House officials have privately griped about the fallout and distractions when he struggles to stay on message in a highly politicized environment.
"The standing joke in the office is Barack's learning to speak without a teleprompter, I'm learning to speak with one," Biden quipped Tuesday at a Jewish American heritage event, managing to be self-effacing while coming close to slighting his boss in the course of a single sentence.
Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian at Rice University who interviewed Biden for a recent feature in Rolling Stone magazine, said Biden's become "the Chris Christie of the Democratic Party," a reference to New Jersey's shoot-from-the-hip Republican governor.
"Biden's kind of a joke to the right," Brinkley said, "but in core Democratic circles, they feel that somehow this longtime Washington politician has packaged himself as the straight talker who's not hostage to Washington."
"That kind of makeover doesn't happen by accident," he said.
Behind the scenes, Biden is doing the legwork to keep his membership current in key Democratic circles. He's making recruitment calls for the House Democrats' campaign arm ahead of the 2014 midterms. During inaugural weekend, he schmoozed with prominent Democrats from Iowa and New Hampshire — the first two states to hold presidential primary contests. While vacationing in early April in South Carolina, another key early primary state, Biden invited the state party chair, Dick Harpootlian, for a round of golf.
A few weeks later, Biden was back in the Palmetto State, where he let his voice rise to a boil as he keynoted the state party's annual fundraising dinner.
"To all of a sudden, since the last election, hear our Republican friends talk about how much they value the middle class ... " Biden said with dismay. He noted state Republicans were holding a competing dinner a few miles away. "I'll bet they're talking about the middle class — oomph."
When the laughter subsided, a more restrained Biden emerged.
"I don't want to make any news tonight," he said.
"Go ahead!" one activist in the audience shouted, egging him on.
Minutes later, Biden was whisked by motorcade across town, where he riffed on voting access before a casual crowd downing beers at a fish fry in honor of longtime Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C. For almost an hour, he worked a rope-line, five-people deep, greeting supporters and posing for pictures the way he did years earlier in two unsuccessful presidential campaigns.