The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Biden wraps up book tour amid persistent questions about the next chapter

Former vice president Joe Biden during a question-and-answer session at Vanderbilt University in Nashville in April. (Mark Humphrey/AP)

WILMINGTON, Del. — Joe Biden confessed that he loves those social media memes from his final days as vice president in which he would nudge then-President Obama about the incoming president’s claims.

His favorite? “Barack, I put a fake birth certificate in your desk,” Biden told a crowd of 1,200 Sunday in his home town, a stop on his tour promoting his book, “Promise Me, Dad.”

That jab, playing off Donald Trump’s false contention for years that Obama was born in Africa, served as the closest Biden came to taking on the current chief executive, a position that Biden has long sought and might try for again in 2020.

Instead, the focus of Biden’s emotional homecoming was an optimistic pep talk about overcoming personal tragedy, three years after his oldest son, Beau, died of brain cancer at age 46.

With the book tour ending this week, Biden will resume his in-high-demand role of Democratic ambassador in the 2018 campaign. No final decision will be made on another presidential bid until after the midterm elections — and, if past is prologue, his deliberation could linger well into 2019.

Biden remains as popular as any Democrat in the nation, but it’s unclear whether a white ­
70-something man whose first political impulse is to urge compromise is going to be the right fit for today’s more diverse, combative primary voters.

But the book tour and campaign work have given him a chance to keep his message and delivery honed.

He has already campaigned for nine House or Senate candidates this year, in addition to four other Democrats in elections last year. He has been able to go to places where most Democrats cannot, such as Alabama, where his friend, Sen. Doug Jones (D), won a special election last December, and southwestern Pennsylvania, where Rep. Conor Lamb (D) won another in March.

Republican Rick Saccone concedes defeat to Conor Lamb in Pennsylvania special election

That’s good news, for Democrats and Biden, because they have 10 Senate races in states that Trump won in 2016, places where more liberal potential 2020 contenders will not be viewed as helpful to incumbents such as Sens. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.).

Trump won Montana by 19 percentage points and North Dakota by 36 points, but Tester and Heitkamp happily hosted Biden in their states for events benefiting their campaigns and their state Democratic committees. A trip to Ohio — Trump won by nearly nine percentage points there — for Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown’s reelection campaign is scheduled this month.

When Biden, 75, planned his post-vice-presidency, he expected Hillary Clinton to win and Democrats to seize the Senate. His career in elective politics would be over and he would move on to a very personal legacy item: combating cancer through the “Biden moonshot,” a more than $6 billion funding stream to the National Institutes of Health included in legislation signed into law in December 2016.

His book was meant to promote that effort, covering the year in Biden’s life from Thanksgiving 2014, when the family realized the seriousness of the cancer that would lead to Beau’s death six months later, to Biden’s decision in October 2015 not to run for president.

“Promise me, Dad,” Beau told his father, according to the book. “Give me your word that no matter what happens, you’re going to be all right.”

Biden set up a domestic policy center at the University of Delaware, a foreign policy center at the University of Pennsylvania, and two other nonprofits to advance family causes. It was more than enough to keep a retired politician busy after 36 years in the Senate and eight years as vice president.

But Trump won, and now all anyone wants to ask Biden is whether he would run for president. Everyone except Ted Kaufman, his close friend and adviser, who replaced Biden in the Senate for two years after he became vice president in 2009.

Kaufman moderated Sunday’s event and steered the questions into sometimes deeply personal topics, such as the family Thanksgiving trips to Nantucket and how Biden studied up on cancer when the diagnosis came in. He never asked Biden if he were going to run in 2020.

Trump’s name came up once, after the hometown crowd drowned out a heckler and demanded he get thrown out. “This is not Trump world,” Biden said, pleading to let the man stay. The heckler kept shouting, so he was escorted out.

Biden recounted how Obama was one of the only West Wing individuals who knew what his son was going through. The president directed the Secret Service to perform favors, such as flying Biden to Beau’s cancer treatments in Houston in a generic plane rather than easily identifiable Air Force Two.

“I stopped telling him the details about Beau toward the end because he would get too emotional. He’d actually break down,” Biden told Kaufman.

Beau Biden, vice president’s son, dies at 46 of brain cancer

Biden explained that his famous candor came from the “Delaware way” — being in a small state where he got to know voters personally and character assassination campaigns did not work.

“It would be a hell of a job to have to be a member of Congress, in the Senate, to get up every morning and go out and vote and have to vote a way you didn’t believe, just to keep a job,” he said. “Who in the hell would want the job?”

By Friday, Biden will have completed his 36th book event. None were in early primary or caucus states, intentionally avoiding the fanfare that would create.

The last question — Why are you still an optimist? — gave Biden the chance to hone his stump speech: During his 12-minute answer, he paced the stage of the Grand Opera House and touted the nation’s great universities that are still producing technological breakthroughs.

He asked the crowd to name one big product that wasn’t made in America. A woman yelled out, “Joe Biden.”

“I was made in America,” he replied, pausing for effect. “Unlike Barack.”

The crowd burst into laughter. He told the birth certificate joke, drawing more laughter.

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