January 23, 2013

Speculation about the 2016 presidential field began as soon as President Obama won reelection, and on the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton was the object of most conversation. But in the last month, Joe Biden has entered the conversation as a potential contender. Vice presidents are almost always well positioned to run for the top job — but Biden’s age (he’s 70) and his previous, failed attempts at winning the nomination make this a surprise.

Of course, someone forgot to tell Biden that he isn’t supposed to be running. To wit, Politico has a great report on the vice president’s early efforts to build support for a run among Democratic activists and officials:

Biden’s most revealing move may have been to hold a little-discussed Sunday night party at the vice president’s mansion. He invited about 200 Democratic insiders over to his home and the guest list included some of the most influential figures in national and early-state Democratic politics. […]

But what really raised eyebrows among the attendees were just how many Democrats from the traditional first nominating states made the trek to the Naval Observatory.

Biden is clearly moving towards a run, but he has a major obstacle in the form of his popularity. According to the latest poll from ABC News and the Washington Post, only 48 percent of Americans have a favorable view of Biden. Thirty-seven hold an unfavorable view, and 15 percent hold no opinion. By contrast, his biggest potential competitor — Hillary Clinton — is one of the most popular political figures in the country. Sixty-seven percent of Americans have a positive view of the Secretary of State, former senator, and former First Lady. Twenty-six percent hold a negative opinion, and only 6 percent say they have no thoughts on Clinton.

One thing to keep in mind, however, is that Clinton’s popularity is a partial function of her remove from partisan politics. She wasn’t involved in the presidential campaign, and while she belongs to a Democratic administration, she represents the interests of the nation writ large. Americans have no reason to view her as a partisan figure. If Clinton were to enter the realm of partisan politics, she might lose that popularity. Indeed, with the controversy over Benghazi, we saw how a small dip in the political waters can inspire tremendous frenzy from Republicans.

In any case, the race for 2016 has begun, and while it seems early, it’s important to remember that the nomination process goes far beyond the voting primaries. Mitt Romney’s campaign began in 2005, and Obama’s in 2006. Biden’s moves might look premature, but in reality, they’re right on schedule.

Jamelle Bouie is a staff writer at The American Prospect, where he writes a blog.