“Ryan is better at that than Romney,” says Granholm, ignoring the fact that the same could be said about a mannequin. “But nobody is better than Biden. There are similarities between him and Ryan: both creatures of Washington, both know a lot about policy. But Biden understands what people are feeling and puts it into words, especially the anxiety of working people—no one feels their pain more than he does.”
On the last morning of his southern swing, Biden gives a speech (carefully, as written) at Virginia Tech university in Blacksburg, then makes an unscheduled stop at the memorial to victims of the 2007 shooting spree on campus. A misty rain is falling when he arrives at the site on the main quad. Slowly, silently, somberly, Biden walks along the semi-circular path, studying each of the 32 stones laid in the ground that bear the fallen students’ names, staring for a long time at the plaque that reads WE WILL PREVAIL. WE ARE VIRGINIA TECH.
As Biden makes his way back to his motorcade, a reporter asks what the memorial means to him. “It reminds you how precious life is,” he replies quietly, almost meditatively. “I think of those kids, but I also think of their parents. No child should predecease their parents. I remember what it’s like.” A long pause. “It brings back”—another pause—“it brings back memories. Whether it’s that call, out of the blue, that you get, and it’s like, How could this happen?”
For Biden, the call came nearly 40 years ago, a month after he was first elected to the Senate at the age of 29: A tractor-trailer had plowed into the family car, killing his wife and baby daughter and seriously injuring his two boys. Fifteen years later, Biden’s first campaign for the presidency ended in abject ignominy, with him branded a plagiarist (for lifting lines from Bobby Kennedy and the British Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock) and a fabricator (for false claims about his academic record in law school). A few months later, he suffered his two aneurysms and a pulmonary embolism, conditions so grave that a priest administered last rites. Twenty years after that, he waged his second presidential campaign, in which a gaffe on its announcement day—calling Obama “articulate and bright and clean”—grounded his bid before it took flight. In each of these instances, many people, and sometimes Biden himself, thought that he was finished. But it turned out Biden’s story always had another chapter in it.
The question swirling around the V.P. now is whether he is ready to acquiesce to his epilogue—or might try to generate a whole new volume. In 2008, the premise of Biden’s selection as running mate was that he was a Cheney pick: He would serve Obama free of ulterior motives or longer-range ambitions. But almost as soon as Biden assumed office, his people put out the word that, as his then–communications director Jay Carney was quoted saying in the Times, “we’re not ruling anything in or out” regarding 2016. Since then, there have been routine emanations from Bidenworld that the idea of another run is on the table.
“I’ll give you my word as a Biden—a serious answer,” the vice-president says when I raise the topic on Air Force Two. “If the Lord Almighty came down and sat at that coffee table and said, ‘I guarantee you’re the nominee if you say yes now,’ I wouldn’t say yes now. Because I don’t know what the hell four years from now, three years from now, is gonna be like. But I know one thing: I have no intention, if I feel as good and have the same mind-set I have today, of my just saying, ‘Well, you know, I put my years in, and I am proud of what I did. And now, you know, I’m going to play a lot more golf.’ ”
So just how serious is the prospect of Biden 2016? According to his lieutenants, the floating of the possibility is partly a hard-eyed effort to maintain his currency and leverage; Biden is fond of saying, “You’re either on the way up or on your way down.” But Biden also genuinely wants to keep the option open. What’s animating him at this point is less calculation than ego, pride, and force of habit. “You go to someone who’s been a senator since he was 30 and say, ‘That’s it, you’re done,’ ” postulates one of his closest confidants. “What’s he going to say? ‘You’re right, thanks!’ No. He says, ‘What do you mean I’m done?’ ”
For all of Biden’s impetuousness, however, he is also a pragmatist, and one who relies to an unusual degree on a particular (and particularly vivid) brand of foresight. As Air Force Two touches down at Andrews Air Force Base, Biden is musing about What It Takes, Richard Ben Cramer’s classic book about the 1988 campaign. “He came up for each one of [the characters in the book] with one little thing that he said was the defining feature of who we were,” Biden says. “And with me … it was that I’ve never done anything, except once in my life, that I couldn’t see [in my mind beforehand]. When I’d go out for a pass, I would literally picture the ball in my hands before it was thrown. That’s how I do things. I picture exactly what the end is gonna be. Jumping out of a tree on top of a trolley car as a kid, I’d picture it. It wasn’t just impulse. And when he said that, I started thinking to myself, Son of a bitch. How did he … ?”
All of which explains why Biden, as far as I can tell, is actually, factually undecided about 2016. There are simply too many unknowables for him to be able to form a clear picture in his head of his own future. Will the economy turn around? If it continues to flatline, the Democratic nomination in 2016 will be close to worthless for anybody, let alone Obama’s two-term No. 2. Will Hillary Clinton run? If she does, Biden’s close friendship with her—and his desire not to end his career being flattened by the political equivalent of a freight train—would almost certainly impel him to stand down.
Yet Biden can already see one thing clearly, which is the foundational and nonnegotiable precondition to hurling himself at the White House again: he and Obama on Election Day, victorious. Or so he tells me.
“Here’s where I am,” he says as we prepare to part. “I really don’t see how the American people embrace a team that says, ‘There’s really no compromise. It’s my way or the highway.’ And secondly, how they embrace the notion that we’re gonna cut a whole lot of things in order to spend, even if they get tax cuts, billions of dollars on people who aren’t even asking for it.”
Biden smiles, pats my shoulder. “That’s what this campaign’s about,” he concludes. “And if I’m wrong about this, then I … I … I … I … I really should retire retire.”