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Joe Biden: Still in the wings

A report in the New York Times has stirred new speculation that Vice President Joe Biden, who up to now has remained aloof from the 2016 Democratic presidential race, may be edging closer to entering it. If so, it would be a course correction from his declared position ever since he assumed the vice presidency — and arguably an unwise one.

The report relies in part on a supposed conversation the vice president had with his elder son, Beau Biden. In it, Beau, who died of brain cancer in May, reportedly urged his father to seek the presidency again in spite of the odds against success. That seems a rather thin reed on which to hang all the chatter that Joe Biden might run on such a longshot mission at this stage of the game.

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The vice president has consistently insisted, in public and in private, that while he would still like to be president, his best and most honorable route would be to continue serving President Barack Obama steadfastly in the job he now holds. Doing so not only demonstrates Mr. Biden's loyalty but also gives him the best possible preparation for assuming the presidency should fate so dictate between now and the end of his second term.

Mr. Biden's six-plus years as vice president have established him as a trustworthy and dependable presidential adviser and political workhorse for Mr. Obama and the Democratic Party, and has endeared him with both. This is so despite occasional verbal or political gaffes that Republicans have seized on to cast him as less than the informed and seasoned government official he has been throughout more than 42 years in Washington.

He has specifically adhered to this course rather than calculating a path to a third try for the presidency, along with the toil in the political vineyards, organizing and campaign fund-raising that would require. He has recognized up to now that, as he has often put it, his best chance to gain the Oval Office has been "to be the best vice president I can be."

Mr. Obama often has said that is how he regards Mr. Biden, and their personal bond has been demonstrated particularly in the wake of the death of Beau, at whose funeral mass Mr. Obama spoke with warmth and eloquence about the whole Biden family.

Realistically, a third Biden presidential bid would indeed be a longshot, given the huge organizational and financial resources already in place for Hillary Clinton's candidacy. Furthermore, running against her now could endanger Mr. Biden's reverential esteem within the party as a loyal soldier.

Were he to declare himself a candidate, Mr. Biden predictably would invite a barrage of partisan invective from Republicans who have spent years demonizing him as a loose-cannon clown. It is a caricature unwarranted in light of his long public service in the Senate and now as an effective partner in governance within the Obama administration.

The only circumstances that would offer Mr. Biden a non-damaging route to the presidency at this stage would be through constitutional succession in the event of a presidential vacancy, or a collapse of Hillary Clinton's 2016 candidacy under unanticipated circumstances, such as new developments in her email scandal.

If the latter were somehow to happen, Mr. Biden would be an obvious alternative and one more favorable to the Democratic Party than the current progressive darling, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, an independent, declared socialist.

The better course for Mr. Biden is to remain in the public eye in an office that has over the last four decades grown in stature and responsibility. As of now, he would leave the vice presidency in 2017 after eight years of honorable and constructive service, with his reputation intact as an honest, straight-talking public official of notable warmth and charm, at least in his own political family.

If he were so inclined, he could always run for a third term as vice president. There is no constitutional barrier to doing so. But eight years as a president-in-waiting is probably enough to ask, even of a loyal Democrat like Joe Biden.

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). He is also author of "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption." His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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