Joe Biden is a politician—an exceptionally able politician who at the age of 29 beat an incumbent US senator, who retained that Senate seat in even the stormiest of election seasons, who ran well enough for the presidency in 2008 that (despite losing early) he finished as his party’s vice presidential nominee, and who, as vice president, made himself essential enough and appealing enough to be considered a 2016 prospect.
The consideration is now done, with Biden’s announcement that he will not bid for the Democratic nod.
There’s every reason to believe that Biden would have liked to run. He tried for the 1988 and 2008 Democratic nominations. And he enjoyed speculation about possible bids in a number of other presidential election years. He owed it to himself to explore whether there was a place for him in a race that already features a former secretary of state (Clinton) who could well be the first woman president; a senator (Bernie Sanders) who has excited a populist insurgency; and a former governor (Martin O’Malley) who has ably filled a number of policy voids.
Biden could have tried to wedge himself into the race as a somewhat more experienced legislator and leader than Sanders, But he would have had a hard time making the case that he had dramatically more domestic and foreign-affairs experience than Clinton.
Biden could have tried to wedge himself into the race as a somewhat more populist contender than Clinton (except on the trade policy, banking reform, and corporate-governance, issues where she has veered left). But he would never have been as much of an economic populist as Sanders.
Biden could have tried to wedge himself into the race as an acceptable alternative in the case of a front-runner stumble, but O’Malley has already done a reasonably good job of making himself that candidate.
So how might Biden have run? He certainly could have positioned himself as the candidate of continuity—as a trusted and loyal ally of Barack Obama who would not deviate from the positions taken by a president who remains popular with the Democratic base and whose accomplishments will be increasingly well-regarded. But vice presidents are rarely elected to succeed the presidents with whom they have served; the last Democrat to secure such a victory was Martin Van Buren in 1836.
For Biden, the prospect of a 2016 run was always remote. He accepted this initially. After the death of his son Beau, and as Clinton appeared to be having a hard time getting her run going, he rethought—publicly, and for a good long time.