“Run, Joe, run!” chanted the crowd in Pittsburgh on 7 September. Joe Biden obliged, defying his years to jog through the crowds lining the city’s streets for the annual Labor Day parade. A few days later, on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, the audience shouted “Joe, Joe, Joe!” causing Biden, 72, to smile. “Be careful what you wish for,” he said.
The US vice-president has a decision to make and soon. As this summer of political upheaval on both sides of the Atlantic ends – that joke about Prime Minister Corbyn’s first meeting with President Trump doesn’t sound so funny now – the campaign to be the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee is wide open. As with the Labour leadership contest, it wasn’t supposed to be this way. When Hillary Clinton announced her second bid for the presidency in April, many thought she would be unstoppable, with her main challenger, Bernie Sanders, the independent socialist senator from Vermont, too left-wing and sure to fade quickly.
Now, polls suggest that Sanders is pushing Clinton hard. The latest YouGov surveys have him ahead in Iowa and New Hampshire, where the first two party primaries will be held in February 2016 and in which victory is considered crucial for any campaign’s momentum and viability. For Clinton, this is an uncomfortable echo of Barack Obama’s rise in 2008, when he defeated her in Iowa, gaining a foothold on the way to his against-the-odds victory. Once again, the campaign of the former first lady and secretary of state appears to have stalled, dogged by persistent questions over her use of a private email server for state department material.
If he decides to run, Joe Biden has every chance of winning both the Democratic nomination and the presidency. He is the candidate Labour never had this summer: a political heavyweight with the capacity to pass legislation but also to fire up the party grass roots. Unlike Sanders, he is electable in a national vote; unlike Clinton, he can mobilise activists who are angry about a seemingly rigged economic and political system. Biden has many years of foreign policy expertise and a track record of closing deals with even the most intransigent Republican opponents – and he would put rising economic inequality at the centre of his campaign. “The wealthy aren’t paying their fair share,” he said in his Labor Day speech. “There used to be one America.”
Biden has run for president twice before but without the recognition he has gained as vice-president. In successive campaigns with Obama, he has shown he can perform under pressure, winning debates against Sarah Palin in 2008 and Paul Ryan in 2012. He is five months behind Clinton in organisation, endorsements and funding but his entry would reset the race: many Obama campaigners and funders who have held back so far might leap in for Biden. His age is not necessarily a barrier, as Jeremy Corbyn has shown, and his reputation for “gaffes” only underlines his authenticity: his whispered description of the Affordable Care Act as “a big f***ing deal” may have been impolitic but it was correct.
Biden is respected across the aisle and well placed to consolidate Obama’s achievements. For all her strengths, Hillary Clinton’s tendency to polarise voters risks turning the election into a referendum on her. Biden can ensure that the spotlight is focused on the issues in which the Republicans are out of sync with mainstream US opinion – equal rights, women’s health care, climate change. Recent weeks have demonstrated that it is not impossible that Clinton’s campaign will trip and fall. If so, it is Biden who is best prepared to carry the fight to any Republican candidate.
Yet there is a good chance he won’t run. Biden is grieving for the loss of his son Beau, who died on 30 May of brain cancer at the age of 46. He has described his heart and soul as being “pretty well banged up” and publicly questioned whether he and his family have the “emotional fuel” for the race. When you consider the other tragedies he has endured – the loss of his wife and one-year-old child in a car crash in 1972, just weeks after his election to the Senate – it seems horribly cruel. This is a man who commuted on the Amtrak for three hours each day between Delaware and Washington, DC for decades, a ritual that began after the car crash, and ensured he could see Beau and his brother, Hunter, every night before bed.
No one will hold it against Biden if he decides against one final campaign. But if he does run, there may be a surprise.
George Kynaston, an Obama 2012 campaign alumnus, is studying at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard
This article appears in the 16 Sep 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn's Civil War