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Don't count Biden out in 2016

As the second Obama term gets underway, much is being said and written about the president finally emerging as a tougher, stronger Democrat in the liberal mold of past party greats. His second inaugural address pressed Republicans in Congress to accept a broader, more aggressive package of social programs and reforms than he embraced in his first term.

Standing at his side, even more visibly during the second inaugural festivities than before, has been Vice President Joe Biden, not merely in ceremonial roles but as a key supporting player in Mr. Obama's most prominent second-term initiatives. Gone are past hide-the-veep exercises that often marked the vice presidencies of so many previous occupants of the office since its almost accidental creation by the founding fathers.

The first vice president, John Adams, got the job as a sort of booby prize under the original constitutional plan giving the post to the runner up in the presidential balloting. After that approach was scrapped to provide separate voting for the two offices, a string of near-invisibles with names like Daniel D. Tompkins, Richard Mentor Johnson, George Dallas and William Wheeler served as vice presidents and vanished into obscurity.

Not until recent occupants, including Walter Mondale, Al Gore, Dick Cheney and now Mr. Biden, has the vice president been seen as a truly active participant in the administration in which each has served. Of these, Mr. Cheney probably has been the most dominant if often portentous figure. Mr. Biden, by contrast, has been more openly and publicly engaged in tackling administration political and legislative tasks than any previous veep.

Mr. Cheney was deeply involved, often in "undisclosed locations," plotting war strategy and ways to expand presidential power under George W. Bush. Mr. Biden, by contrast, has more conspicuously carried the ball for Mr. Obama as a negotiator in his fiscal battles on Capitol Hill. His intercessions most recently with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in avoiding the fiscal cliff earned him the nickname the "McConnell whisperer."

At the same time, Mr. Obama gave Mr. Biden the lead role in the task force exploring the gun-control agenda that grew out of the Newtown tragedy, and now in the just-unfolding effort to sell it with Mr. Obama through an aggressive grass-roots campaign around the country.

All this has begun to give a more serious tilt to previously fanciful notions that Mr. Biden, a two-time loser in the presidential sweepstakes in 1988 and 2008, might well despite his age at 70 and a nagging image of flippancy and loquaciousness, make a third try in 2016.

For all the ridicule directed at him by partisan foes who would reduce him to a political joke, Mr. Biden has continued to pile on credentials as an effective politician adding to his already impressive record of 36 years in the Senate that included chairmanships of the body's key Judiciary and Foreign Relations Committees.

His abilities as a combative campaigner, demonstrated again in his October debate with Republican running mate Paul Ryan, helped counter Mr. Obama's disappointing showing in his first debate against Mitt Romney and put the Democratic campaign back on track to re-election in November.

More substantively, Mr. Biden has been a primary Obama hand-holder in the president's determination to wind down the American involvements in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He notably urged the pivot from counterinsurgency to counterterrorism as opposed to nation building in the latter.

Right now, the chief potential barrier for Mr. Biden in 2016 may not be his age — he would be 73 when embarking on a third presidential bid — but the prospect of Hillary Clinton running herself for a second time, immensely strengthened by four successful years as secretary of state.

Her tremendous support from women voters, and her demonstrated ability as a national campaigner in 2008, would doubtless be a factor for Mr. Biden to consider in embarking on such a course. However, his own progress in building his stature as a serious public figure should not be underestimated.

A major sideline drama over the next four years in the Democratic Party, as Barack Obama strives to construct a lasting legacy for himself, may be the performances and positioning of Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden in the lame-duck president's shadow.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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