If Joe Biden ran for president, who would vote for him?
Judging from the enthusiasm of the crowd at the Saenger Theatre June 5, one of whom called out to Biden "We need you!", a lot of people.
The warm room turned out for Biden's New Orleans appearance, which was sold as a book tour for his recent memoir Promise Me, Dad: A Year of Hope, Hardship and Purpose. In an affectionate conversation with journalist (and apparent longtime Biden acquaintance) Cokie Roberts, the former vice president from Scranton, Pennsylvania touched on foreign policy, his enduring friendship with President Barack Obama and the death of his son Beau from brain cancer, all of which are part of the book.
But the subtext to it all — Roberts joked that she'd have her journalist credentials revoked if she didn't ask about it — was the prospect of a Biden campaign in 2020. Biden is popular among Democrats, and he made clear that he's still actively considering a future run after sitting out 2016 due to his son's illness.
[jump] "I think that the issues that we're facing now are sort of in my wheelhouse," Biden said. He said he'd need to make a "family decision" by the end of the year, while he tries to remain "fastidious" about not mixing discussions of his book, which reflects on his son's death, with politics.
On that point he did not perhaps quite succeed, as some elements of this appearance had a distinct air of the shadow campaign.
A discussion of Biden's travels and foreign policy work as vice president segued into his thoughts on the will-they-won't-they summit planned between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, as well as an account of meeting Vladimir Putin, in what sounded a workshop of stump speech lines for a man who once chaired the Senate's Foreign Relations Committee.
"[Putin is] doing everything he can to diminish America's role in the world," Biden said. He called for a return to American promotion of democratic orders around the world, criticizing "phony nationalism" and "us against the world" policies, as well as the hollowing out of the State Department under the current administration.
"This idea that you can negotiate on the back of an envelope is just really frightening," Biden said.
Other parts of the talk were more personal. Biden was most engaging when discussing the unusual bond that he feels with Obama, especially considering that relations between presidents and vice presidents sometimes are chilly. The two men became close friends ("He made the first friendship bracelet, not me," Biden said), and Biden confided in Obama about his son's illness, the only person outside the family who knew at the time.
Biden said their relationship was so strong because Obama trusted that he would not take personal credit for the administration's accomplishments.
"He knew I wasn't about to say 'I did this,'" Biden said.
But here, too, there were glimmers of a potential political strategy, if you were listening for them. Biden pointed out his shared pride with Obama that their administration carried not a whiff of political scandal — in unspoken contrast with the Trump administration, which seems to be powered by scandal and upheaval the way teenagers are powered by junk food.
The former vice president also touched on his bona fides as a longtime legislator, which became a powerful asset when dealing with an Congress that seems to grow more intractable every year. "Every time there was a problem in the House and Senate, I'd get sent to the Hill," Biden reminded the audience.
An odd crowd attended the event, which had sparked whispers about a bad turnout after the theater offered two-for-one seats in the days prior to Biden's appearance. But there was just a generous handful of empty seats in the auditorium Tuesday night, with the rest filled by an indeterminate mixture of Baby Boomers, college kids, green-haired hipsters and media types.
In a politician's obligatory slim-cut navy suit, a white shirt and red and blue striped tie, Biden was affable yet serious, folksy yet sincere. He has the demeanor — and appearance — that used to be called "presidential." He's still sharp at 75, and though there are all sorts of reasons why some Democrats might object to a Biden candidacy, there's still apparently a takes-all-kinds contingency who will greet him and send him off with a standing ovation, and he has to be listening to that.
While it's not really clear what this appearance will lead to, it sure didn't feel like a victory lap.