On Monday morning, Vice President Biden returned from a weekend in Delaware to meet with some of his most senior advisers, under great pressure to make a decision about whether he would run for president. As he deliberated, the Washington rumor mill, which had been running wild for weeks, was in overdrive about a likely Biden campaign.
Allies outside Biden’s inner circle were increasingly confident he would run, based on their own reading of events. Throughout the day, cable news and others provided a continuous series of reports about an imminent decision, with Biden now ready to challenge Hillary Rodham Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) for the Democratic nomination.
In reality, Biden, 72, had not arrived in Washington with his mind made up. And as he and his advisers weighed options, things did not look favorable.
His advisers were confident that he could raise the money and recruit the talent for a successful campaign, and they told Biden so. But they all agreed that there were not enough days left to execute those tasks, while also participating in debates and campaigning actively in the early states, before the voting began in February.
As he and his family were going through the emotionally wrought grieving process after the death of his son Beau Biden, who died of brain cancer on May 30, the vice president had finally run out of time to mount and run a serious campaign.
The final decision did not come until Tuesday night, after late meetings with his family and senior advisers following a dinner for former president Jimmy Carter and former vice president Walter F. Mondale.
Hoping to avoid leaks, Biden made the announcement public on Wednesday in the White House Rose Garden, flanked by his wife, Jill Biden, and President Obama.
The decision snuffed out the last flickers of Biden’s dream of occupying the Oval Office — a dream he had carried with him for more than four decades and one he was clearly reluctant to let go. But as much as he never wanted to say no to one final campaign, in the end, he couldn’t find a way to say yes.
There were many mixed signals along the way, and as it turned out, many missed ones as well. Biden never said publicly he was emotionally ready, but many who wanted him to run interpreted what they heard or saw privately as evidence that he would do so.
There is no better example than that of Harold Schaitberger, the president of the International Association of Fire Fighters, who on Tuesday told The Washington Post and others he expected Biden to run and promised the union’s endorsement when it happened.
There was an alternative reality that eventually proved decisive. Over the past week, with filing deadlines approaching, Clinton winning praise for her debate performance in Las Vegas and polls showing Biden slipping, the vice president’s window of viability closed quickly and with finality. Scenarios existed for a possible winning campaign, but they clashed with available evidence of the moment.
As the 2016 campaign took shape, Biden played coy about his intentions, never signaling clearly an interest in running but never saying he would not. As Clinton built a political machine and gathered institutional support around her likely candidacy, Biden stood still.
He occasionally traveled to Iowa or New Hampshire or South Carolina, but it was at most a game of keeping everyone guessing rather than taking serious steps to assemble the elements of a modern campaign.
Something changed in the weeks after Beau Biden’s death. As he began more serious deliberations, the political and journalistic worlds soon joined in full pursuit of the answer to the question: Will he run?
The media frenzy began on Aug. 1, an otherwise quiet summer Saturday. The New York Times reported that afternoon that Biden and his advisers had “begun to actively explore” a presidential campaign. The article quoted a column by Maureen Dowd, published the same day, that recounted a conversation between Biden and his dying son in which Beau urged the father to run.
The Wall Street Journal had written about Beau’s urgings two weeks earlier, but it wasn’t until the Times stories appeared that the idea of a Biden presidential campaign fully took root.
Biden had long wanted to be president and talked about it not long after he was elected to the Senate in 1972. “I know I can be a good president,” he said in an interview with author Kitty Kelley in Washingtonian magazine. The date was June 1974. At 31, he was not yet old enough to run for president.
He first ran for the Democratic nomination in 1988 but was forced out of the race amid charges of plagiarism and exaggerations in September 1987. He waited 20 years before trying again, entering the 2008 race in a field that included two political rock stars in Obama and Clinton. When he barely registered in the Iowa caucuses in early January 2008, he quickly announced he would end his candidacy.
No one around Biden was saying in August that he was a likely candidate, but the preparations were underway. The vice president went away on vacation with no decision made or announced. This was a family issue, advisers said, even as they were fielding calls of encouragement from people who wanted Biden to run and were prepared to raise money or work in the campaign.
Feeding speculation about a possible campaign, CNN reported on Aug. 23 that Biden had met with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) at the vice-presidential residence at the Naval Observatory, a meeting Biden had requested on short notice. It was mostly a get-to-know-you meeting between two Democrats who did not know each other well.
At the end, Biden said he hoped to meet again, but there was no discussion about a possible collaboration or endorsement if Biden became a candidate, according to people familiar with the meeting.
Biden’s campaign-in-the-making was under the domain of a few trusted advisers: his vice-presidential chief of staff Steven Ricchetti; Ted Kaufman, the former senator from Delaware and Biden’s former Senate chief of staff; and veteran strategist Michael Donilon.
Biden and his team talked about trying to run a campaign that would break the mold of modern politics, one that would prove that it wasn’t necessary to spend two years on the trail, one that would show that the power of a big message could break through some of the clutter, partisanship and small-bore thinking that afflicts some candidates.
There were conflicting reports about just how far along the trinity of Ricchetti-Kaufman-Donilon had gotten in assembling a potential team to staff the campaign. The pace of the potential hires was sometimes overstated in some media leaks, but an early skeletal staff was being assembled to take key positions.
The vice president’s team would have probably relied on old hands such as Larry Rasky, who had been with Biden for years, as well as a next-generation duo of young, smart operatives: Greg Schultz, who led Obama’s Ohio reelection effort in 2012 and now serves on Biden’s vice-presidential staff, and Steve Schale, who ran Obama’s Florida operation in 2012 and now advises the Draft Biden super PAC. Josh Alcorn, the lead operative for Beau Biden, expected to stay onboard the super PAC and morph it into a fully functional entity supporting the candidacy.
On Sept. 7, Biden joined union workers in Pittsburgh for an annual Labor Day parade. Biden sprinted along the parade route, shaking hands with well-wishers and, as the cliche of the moment put it, looking every bit like a candidate.
Nothing he was saying publicly suggested that was the case.
On Aug. 26, Biden spoke to members of the Democratic National Committee, meeting in Minneapolis, by conference call. He told them he was trying to assess whether he had “the emotional fuel” to run. He said he would need to run with his whole heart and soul to do so, adding that “right now, both are pretty well banged up.”
On Sept. 3, he spoke at a synagogue in Atlanta, where he talked about whether he had the “emotional energy” required to run for president. “I can’t look you straight in the eye and say, ‘Now I can do it,’ ” he said.
A week later, he appeared on CBS’s “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert.” He spoke even more openly and emotionally about himself, his son’s death and the process he was going through trying to decide whether to run. “I’d be lying if I said that I knew I was there,” he told the host.
Supporters of a Biden bid were delivered a blunt warning: For the vice president to really consider the race, he and the family would have to start having more better days than bad days.
By Oct. 3, the day of a memorial service for a civil rights leader in Delaware, Biden was still having bad days.
The vice president was one of the eulogists, and those in attendance saw a “fragile” man who every five seconds had to pause to take a deep breath, according to one of those in attendance. “He was in absolutely no shape to run a presidential campaign.”
None of those public comments slowed down the speculation that a Biden campaign was coming soon.
In private meetings or telephone calls with friends, potential donors and supporters, Biden left some with the impression that he was leaning strongly toward running. Advisers continued to insist that no decision had been made and chalked up some of the talk that he was on the brink of running to people who wanted to offer public encouragement.
Through the early fall, Biden’s presumed timetable for a decision continued to slide, from early September to late September, then to early October in time to participate in the first Democratic debate on Oct. 13, and even to the possibility that he might wait until the end of October, just before the first filing deadlines.
As he agonized, some longtime friends expressed concerns about embarking on another campaign.
In their view, he already had put together an illustrious career in public service, capped by two terms as vice president. He was enjoying an outpouring of sympathy and respect following his son’s death. All that, they said privately, would be put at risk by a campaign against the formidable Clinton, as well as Sanders, who had captured the imagination of the progressive wing of the party.
They feared the decision would be made simply on the basis of Clinton’s political health — though advisers said that was never the main consideration.
Clinton’s strong performance in last week’s debate marked another important moment. Whatever impact it had on Biden personally, many Democrats believed it complicated the vice president’s path to the nomination and also took away his hope that she was so weakened by the controversy over her private e-mail server that Democrats would turn to him instead.
The final frenzied days of the campaign that never was came filled with stops and starts, a series of contradictions that left many believing a liftoff was imminent but those closest still doubtful.
Some on the outer edges also entered last weekend believing that a campaign was a certainty. On Monday, those allies waited and waited for word to come. By 11 a.m., there was no word, no leak, no announcement of any kind, just a media frenzy that there might be something. Doubts increased.
During the day, Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), a member of the House leadership, told the Huffington Post that Biden should not run — another blow, given the Biden team’s view that South Carolina was the most hospitable of the early states.
By Tuesday, some who had encouraged Biden to run still held out hope. Schaitberger began making plans for the endorsement.
But Biden had concluded it simply wasn’t possible to run a successful campaign with so few days left: The Iowa caucuses were barely three months away, the holidays would eat up time, and three debates would steal precious days away from the trail.
As one adviser put it, “By the time the family was ready to go, we were down to 70 days.”