Witcover: Biden leaves the door open for another run at president

With a leaderless Democratic Party still trying to pick up the pieces from its shocking defeat at Donald Trump's hands in 2016, it is looking to next year's congressional elections for a comeback as a prelude to the next presidential election.

But with Barack Obama in retirement and Hillary Clinton emphatically sidelined, there is no frontrunner in the party establishment. It's not totally surprising therefore that former Vice President Joe Biden has said that while he's not planning to run again, "I'm not closing the door" either.

He also observed, "I'm a great respecter of fate." It's for good reason, considering how he put his life back together 45 years ago, days after being elected to the Senate, when he lost his young wife and infant daughter, and their two sons were seriously injured in a horrible car accident.

He eventually remarried, rebuilt his family and served six terms there. After losing two presidential bids and surviving two brain aneurysms along the way, he spent eight productive and popular years as President Obama's right-hand man.

On Monday's NBC "Today" show, Mr. Biden asked: "But who knows what the situation is going to be a year-and-a-half from now? I don't have any idea." He was quick to add that his age of 74 "was a legitimate issue to raise," that "people have a right to ask about your age, your health," and "if anyone were to run for president, you should fully disclose your medical records."

So that's where he's leaving the matter for now, and many voters no doubt would be put off by those issues. While he has become an icon in his party as Mr. Blue Collar Democrat, Mr. Biden's reputation for having a loose tongue has also often enabled Republicans to cast him as a comic character. This is despite having chaired the Senate Judiciary and Foreign Relations Committees before becoming the presidential stand-in for two terms.

Indeed, it can be argued that Mr. Biden is uniquely qualified by his political resume over 45 years in the Senate and then in the White House to serve in the presidency, while being a target for repeated GOP barbs.

He has openly acknowledged that he still wants to be president but says he has no regrets that he didn't run in 2016. He says he believes he made the decision as best for his family as it grieved in 2015 for the death of his older son, Beau, of brain cancer.

One of Joe Biden's major undertakings in his last years as vice president, and now, has been committing himself to research for an eventual cure. He and his wife, Jill, also head a family foundation devoted to advancing community colleges and ending domestic violence against women. He also leads a new center at the University of Pennsylvania focused on diplomacy and global engagement.

Through most of American history, vice presidents served with little significance and often were the brunt of lame jokes. Exceptions were Theodore Roosevelt, through the strength of his overwhelming energy and personality, and later Alben W. Barkley of Kentucky, the beloved "Veep," a widower who charmed the country by marrying a socialite widow 34 years younger.

In recent times, however, vice presidents have been given stronger roles by their presidents. Mr. Biden's predecessor in the office, Dick Cheney, came to be considered the strongest vice president up to that time, but he was highly secretive and controversial, and sometimes was seen as a rival for power to his president, George W. Bush.

Mr. Biden, on the other hand, was the most visibly engaged vice president of all, and Mr. Obama made a point of having at his side on most public occasions. At the funeral of Beau Biden at a Catholic cathedral in Wilmington, the president introduced himself as a member of the Biden family, and as his vice president's "brother" in a rare close relationship.

It is thus understandable that Joe Biden would still have strong feelings for filling the shoes, and the obligations, of the president he served for two momentous terms, and with more engagement and responsibility than many, or even any, of his vice presidential predecessors.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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