Joe Biden is having the best week of any of his two — or maybe three — runs for President of the United States.
Biden, the former vice president under Barack Obama, has a new memoir out, Promise Me, Dad. He was just interviewed by Oprah, telling her that he thinks he could have beaten former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Democratic primary. Biden had another interview with the Today show, during which he said he’s “not closing the door” to another presidential campaign in 2020. And Biden is telling friends he may be the only Democrat who can beat Donald Trump.
Meanwhile, all of Biden’s flaws have been cast in a more favorable light. As he notes in the book, his “reputation as a ‘gaffe machine’ was no longer looking like a weakness” in light of Trump’s candidacy in 2016. That will be only more true in 2020. His age — Biden would be 78 on inauguration day in 2021, making him the oldest U.S. president ever elected — hardly seems as big a factor considering that Trump will be 74 and Vermont Democratic Sen. Bernie Sanders will be 79.
And Biden’s blue-collar image as the scrappy kid from Scranton, Pa., seems like a strong argument at a time when voters in depressed former steel towns like Johnstown say they’re standing by Trump.
But if Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. learned anything from his failed presidential campaigns in 1988 and 2008, it’s that good weeks are followed by bad weeks, and that while good weeks can be nice, bad weeks can end a campaign.
First, the Biden boomlet is being driven entirely by the leadership vacuum in the Democratic Party right now. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has little legislative power and high unfavorable ratings. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer fares a little better, but his favorability ratings have taken a hit since he took over from Harry Reid.
Tom Perez? The head of the Democratic National Committee is hardly a household name. Sanders? Not technically a Democrat, but he has a following, as does Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren. New York Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand? California Gov. Jerry Brown? Billionaire businessman Mark Cuban? None have the sway or position necessary to lay claim to the title of de facto head of the Democratic Party.
Meantime, Biden has national name recognition that boosts him in the mostly meaningless polls about 2020 being taken right now. Biden is not currently serving, which means he doesn’t take any blame for the perceived ineffectiveness of the Democratic caucus. (A major reason why favorable views of the party have hit their lowest mark in a quarter century of polling.)
The death of his son, Beau, from brain cancer in 2015, which Biden revisits in Promise Me, Dad, also gives him a powerful story of grief and loss, which serves as a counterpoint to Trump, a commander-in-chief who struggled with a simple condolence call to a military widow.
So will Joe Biden run for president? That’s an open question. He’s been around national politics long enough to know that his book and his ideas on politics will get more attention as long as he doesn’t rule it out.
But even if Biden does, he’ll still face a huge Democratic field full of fresh faces making arguments for bold new ideas. His run-of-the-mill gaffes may not matter as much in the post-Trump era, but in a Democratic primary, the fact that Biden somehow always ends up photographed with a woman biker on his lap or giving a woman a back rub while her husband is being sworn in may play differently in the post-Harvey Weinstein era.
And his style of politics — offering olive branches to Republicans, arguing that Democrats should work with Trump, seeking compromise over friendly lunches with the opposition — may not be much in demand among an angry liberal grassroots in 2020.
Joe Biden may run for president. Or Biden may decide, as he did in 2016, that he’s not interested in running. But either way, the real test will be whether Democrats are interested in him.