On Wednesday afternoon in the Benjamin Franklin State Dining Room at the State Department, Biden and Hillary Clinton stood onstage together flanking the British prime minister, David Cameron.
When it came time for Cameron to speak, he said a nice sentence or two about Biden, honoring him “as a legislator, as a statesman and as a campaigner.” Then he paid a lengthy tribute to Clinton.
Since at least June 2010, the great mentioners in the Washington press corps have floated the rumor that Biden might be replaced on the ticket by Clinton. The notion of “the Great Switcheroo,” as New York Magazine coined it, has received oxygen from stubborn Hillary supporters and some donors. Clinton insiders assured that the talk was coming from the Democratic base, not the Hillary inner sanctum. And it noticeably died down once the president’s approval ratings started rising.
“That came up less as a reflection on Biden than of the sense that somehow Hillary would bring some magic to this,” said Axelrod, who, like people close to Biden, described the speculation as “irritating.” He said that while Clinton had been a “spectacular secretary of state, and world-class politician,” the chatter was a “case in which people project onto Clinton transformative powers here that aren’t realistic.”
Also, Axelrod said, the story line “presupposes that the president is someone who would discard a guy who has been faithful and helpful,” and added that the affection and respect the two men share is “palpable.”
On the day Biden’s son Beau, the Delaware attorney general, suffered a stroke, Axelrod was briefing Obama in the Oval Office. Joe Biden had nearly died from a cranial aneurysm in 1988, and blood clots had probably claimed the life of his grandfather and grandmother. As Obama’s aides went over the business of the day, the president stared blankly at the window. He turned to Axelrod, and said, ‘I just don’t know how Joe is going to go on if this doesn’t work out well.’ ” When Biden returned to the White House, Obama walked to his office and embraced him.
From Biden’s end, there is no question that he wants to keep his job. When he visited York, a fourth-grader named Oliver Brown asked Biden how long he wanted to be vice president. Biden laughed.
“Good question, Oliver,” he said, standing in the middle of the classroom. “I want to do this job for another five years. Because as you know, presidents and vice presidents get elected for four years. And every four years you go back to the American people and you say, ‘Okay, this is the job we did, and this is the job the other guy wants to do. Now who do you want to pick?’ ”
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“I must tell you, Mr. Prime Minister, and the secretary knows this, and friends like John Kerry know it — in my family, it wasn’t the War of 1812 that bothered anybody,” Biden said at Wednesday’s state luncheon, dipping back into the lineage that James Petty, his Salt Lake City genealogist, had helped trace. “The Bidens emigrated from Liverpool in 1825. But the other side of the family, the Finnegan side,” Biden said, pausing as the laughter in the crowd acknowledged the half of his heritage traditionally antagonistic to the British, “they had a different problem.”
Biden lifted his hands to the ceiling and invoked his grandfather.
“Ambrose Finnegan,” he shouted to the chandeliers, “things have changed.”