The “Will Joe Biden Run?” stories are popping up with greater frequency again after a weekend interview in which anonymous members of his staff suggested that he’s “more likely to run” than not.
“More likely than not” usually isn’t enough to be convinced of anything (although that was enough to convict Tom Brady), but in the case of Biden, the press and some pockets of Washington, D.C., are so desperate for a Democratic-race shake-up that they’ll run with that line for at least another news cycle. However, there are some practical elements to a Biden run that are worth remembering in the wake of this new Uncle Joe fever. Several things have to fall in his favor for the vice president to make one last run for the White House.
1. Hillary Clinton has to be weak. Biden is not running for president unless he has not one, not two, but three or four different ways to both beat Clinton for the Democratic nomination and win the presidency. Clinton is facing a real challenge from Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. He will compete with her in Iowa and New Hampshire and will try to be competitive in South Carolina, but the primaries are months away, and no one wins a nomination in September. And Sanders’ success doesn’t necessarily mean that Clinton is a weak candidate—only that Sanders has expanded his base of support. The Biden camp has to know that he can beat Clinton and Sanders among critical Democratic-coalition groups, like African Americans, millennial voters, working-class voters, Latinos, Catholics, Jews, union members and urban voters. Right now, that’s not the case.
2. Biden needs a reason to run. Why would Biden run for president? Because he wants to? Because it’s his last chance? These aren’t compelling reasons for anyone to run for president, especially not a sitting vice president. We know why Clinton is running: This is her chance to be historic and to be more practical than President Barack Obama’s administration. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida wants to bring his conservative immigrant bootstrap story to the White House. Even Donald Trump’s reasons are clear: He just wants the job because he’s accomplished everything else he wanted to do.
While President Obama’s approval numbers have been comparable to Ronald Reagan’s, his last term hasn’t been popular enough for Biden to run on a “more of the same” campaign platform. There is deep dissatisfaction with the gap between what was promised and what was delivered during the Obama years (some of which is based on unrealistic expectations set forth by Obama and embraced by voters), and a Biden campaign would need to be able to explain why he’s running and what he would do differently. It’s similar to the problem that Clinton will have in a general election matchup, but at least she can draw upon her 2008 primary fight and the 1990s to draw contrasts. Biden doesn’t have that explanation just yet.
3. Biden needs an identity. His “Uncle Joe” persona is a recent phenomenon. Thanks to The Onion and various Daily Show sketches, to many Generation Xers and millennials he’s a buffalo-wing-eating, weed-smoking, older-dude bro who plays Paul Newman to Barack Obama’s Tom Cruise. His various gaffes through the years (many of them racial) have driven conservatives crazy because none of it seems to stick to Biden.
But that’s not who Biden was when he ran for president in 2008. He was a savvy Washington insider who knew foreign policy. Obviously, that persona didn’t win him the election, but it’s difficult to imagine that his current wacky-neighbor/goofy-uncle image will work, either. Despite seven years as vice president, Biden will still need to “reinvent” himself to the public in order to be successful. And given that his past attempts (foreign policy wonk), vice presidential persona (liberal gadfly) and current image (the undecided grieving father) aren’t sustainable campaign personalities, he has to come up with some version of Biden that he can sell the public before he runs.
4. Biden has to want the job. While this seems like the most basic reasoning behind a campaign run, you’d be amazed at how often people run for office because it’s what they’re “supposed to do” or because they have the chance, as opposed to because they really care for the job (for an example, just look at former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s joyless campaign). Obviously, Biden has run for president several times, and he’s been close—like the Seahawks-in-the-Super Bowl close—to the presidency by being Obama’s vice president. It’s hard for anyone who has politics in his blood for that long to just walk away from the game if he has any juice left.
But that’s just it. Joe Biden is mourning the death of his best friend, campaign adviser and, most important, son. You can’t just want the presidency; you have to want to campaign, too, and unless he has really determined that he and his family can handle it emotionally, the Biden campaign isn’t happening.
We are still weeks away from any official deadlines for the 2016 Democratic primary race. The first debate isn’t for another three weeks, and filing deadlines for some states are a ways off, but those are all technicalities. Biden’s decision to run won’t be limited by anything so trivial as deadlines or timelines, but he’s still facing a daunting task. “More likely than not” still isn’t a solid yes, and the longer he stays undecided, the more I’m leaning toward the “not” than the “likely.”
Jason Johnson, political editor at The Root, is a professor of political science at Morgan State’s School of Global Journalism and Communication and is a frequent guest on MSNBC, CNN, Al-Jazeera International, Fox Business News and SiriusXM Satellite Radio. Follow him on Twitter.