If there’s any clue to what Joe Biden might decide as he once again wrestles very publicly with a run for president, consider how he spent the last 10 days.
The former vice president held conversations: One last week at the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement, another Tuesday at the University of Delaware’s newly named Joseph R. Biden Jr. School of Public Policy and Administration. On Thursday, he helped Chuck Hagel, an old pal and fellow Obama administration alum, launch a leadership forum at the University of Nebraska Omaha. (That event wasn’t promoted as a conversation like the others were, but a Q&A featuring questions submitted by students in advance made for a mild afternoon.)
Biden, 76, is sticking to safe, friendly, and predictable ground at a time when the 2020 presidential race offers none of that. In an already crowded Democratic primary field that may be most favorable to newer voices on the left, Biden’s nostalgia for the not-so-long-ago days of bipartisanship — Hagel is a Republican — is an awkward fit. And don’t think he doesn’t know it.
The “alleged appeal that I have, how deep does it run?” Biden wondered aloud Tuesday at the Biden School, winding through a long answer to a question about his plans. “Is it real?”
For that conversation, Biden was supposed to be the interviewer. Author Jon Meacham had come to promote his book — a Biden favorite. But the two spent nearly 90 minutes in a sort of tandem history lecture, with Meacham ultimately unable to resist asking Biden about 2020. Biden’s response betrayed a self-awareness that times have changed, that the political moment may have passed him by. He told Meacham he wouldn’t want to embark on a “fool’s errand.” As evidenced by the deliberations over his “appeal,” Biden, who leads Democrats in early polls, is skeptical of how far he can get with the electability argument that provides a rationale to run.
“Some people say he may be afraid of losing,” Ted Strickland, the Democratic former governor of Ohio and a Biden friend, told BuzzFeed News. “That’s always a possibility, I guess.”
Strickland said he hasn’t heard from Biden recently and plans to support Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, another longtime friend, for president if he decides to run. But Strickland also believes Biden will run and thinks he should, viewing him as one of the most capable foreign policy experts available.
“He’s a good, decent human being,” Strickland said. “What I’ve been saying to my friends who ask about his possible candidacy is that I think Joe Biden is the single best person to repair our frayed international relationships. I think he would bring a calm and reassurance.”
That was the topic — “the Role of US Leadership in a Changing World” — of Biden’s speech Thursday at the inaugural Chuck Hagel Forum in Global Leadership. It marked the closest Biden has been to one of the early-voting states since last year’s midterm elections. (Omaha is just across the border from Iowa.)
Someone’s cellphone rang out early in Biden’s remarks. “That’s President Trump calling me,” he joked. “Tell him I’m busy, but I’m happy to help.”
Biden used the appearance to explicitly criticize Trump’s foreign policy as a stain on the country’s reputation abroad, noting that the president has accepted “the words of dictators and thugs” over US intelligence. Asked during the Q&A about Trump’s denuclearization talks with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un falling apart earlier in the day, Biden said he hoped that the president “has learned a really important lesson. Diplomacy matters. Preparation matters.”
But Biden also went out of his way to project bipartisanship, at one point calling Vice President Mike Pence, his successor and an ideological conservative reviled on the left for his positions on LGBT rights, a “decent guy.”
There were no opportunities during Thursday’s tightly controlled Q&A session — which became storytime for Biden and Hagel — to press Biden on his praise for Pence, the kind of soundbite that could haunt him in a primary. But the criticism on Twitter came fast, pushing Biden to respond after the event, something he typically hasn’t been so willing to quickly do.
That ties back to Biden contemplating if and where he would fit in the Democrats’ 2020 field. Speaking to crowds amid a sprawling primary campaign is high-pressure and risky when you don’t know exactly what you’re going to say next; it’s a relatively comfortable exercise when you’re giving paid speeches or pontificating from emerituslike perches in academia. Onstage for programs in his or his friend’s names, he doesn’t have to worry about questions about how he treated Anita Hill during Clarence Thomas’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings. He doesn’t have to answer for his crime bill or any other vote that hasn’t aged well with the Democratic base since his long Senate career.
And, so far, Biden has shown no appetite for anything but a soft launch. Behind the scenes, there are reports that he’s trying to staff up in the early-voting states, but party leaders there haven’t heard a whole lot from him. As it stands, Biden’s first political activity of 2019 is set for March 16, smack dab in his comfort zone: a dinner for home-state Democrats in Delaware.
The state’s party chair spoke of Biden reverentially this week when announcing Biden’s keynote speech. “If there’s a singular theme that runs through our party platform, it’s that we’re the party of the people, that together we can accomplish great things if everybody just has a fair shot,” said Erik Raser-Schramm. “That’s how Joe Biden has led and I can’t think of a better person to inspire us to undertake the hard work that lies ahead.”
Whether he will inspire them as a candidate or as a party elder remains a mystery — and one unlikely to be solved that night. A source close to Biden said not to expect a 2020 decision then.