The worst news for Joe Biden just happened to be the news of Trump’s historic first State of the Union address.
It didn’t matter that Trump’s ambitious speech was both interrupted and over-ran by protestors.
It didn’t matter that the president had traveled to Africa, Russia and in the Oval Office to embrace a landmark U.S.-China trade deal or that his administration announced a groundbreaking plan to modernize America’s aging nuclear arsenal.
All that mattered to Biden, a former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Democratic vice president in the Obama administration, is that his party’s new bench of potential candidates was going to so soon be facing a threat from a higher echelon – Donald Trump himself.
With six weeks to go before Trump’s third State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress, Biden’s public and private feelings about the future are among the most notable storylines in a political landscape suddenly full of them.
Biden is trying to wage a second presidential campaign – a tall order for a person who suffers from fatigue, pinched tendons in his shoulder and depression-and has created a separation from a family that could pose a problem for the campaign. But few stories in Washington are more relevant to Democrats’ 2018 midterm election strategy than this one.
Democratic strategists on both sides of the aisle say Biden is at risk of wasting away in the 2020 field should he lack a candidate willing to take a chance on him sooner than later. They say Biden is accelerating a parallel decision-making process with the blessing of key party leaders to evaluate his political strengths, weaknesses and own vulnerabilities.
Biden wants to run, but he has run for president only once before, and that didn’t go well. By the time most Democrats have filled out their policies for 2020, they might know whether Biden’s political punch is strong enough to last through February 2020, when the Iowa caucuses begin the presidential nominating process.
Biden’s public explanations for his continued interest in seeking the Democratic nomination are quiet and guarded.
Mostly, he is saying he is considering his options. But privately, aides say, he often acknowledges something grimmer: that the process is brutal, that it’s a gruelling slog, and that he might need a broader and fresher field to defend him more effectively from Trump.
For Democrats after all that has happened in the last year, the line is deafening.
“When the time comes, I will make my decision,” Biden said Tuesday, when asked about the 2020 campaign by a CNN anchor. “It’s a tough race. It’s tough on anyone who does it.”
After the Durbin, Biden spokesperson Isaac Baker told reporters that the vice president has “always planned to take the time to do this (a second presidential run) right, and we’re going to do that.”
For now, Biden remains in the thick of conversations at a series of DNC meetings in Washington this week that have included Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, at least one potential presidential candidate and several senior congressional Democrats, including Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
They all say Biden is running again. But Biden insists that he’s mulling over his options, and nothing about this week’s meetings was an official campaign kickoff. He’s simply analyzing his potential strengths, flaws and vulnerabilities as he mulls his own.
Democratic officials on both sides of the aisle say Biden’s focus this week was on considering the work ahead of him as he weighs his own re-entry into politics and picking his battles, including who should also run.
Biden’s oft-repeated characterization of his 2010 campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination as the toughest campaign he has ever run (he lost to Obama), his unmistakable enthusiasm in spending time with party leaders this week and a healthy belief that he can overcome 2016’s loss are as much a concern for party insiders as they are a preview of his own political future.
“I think he’s analyzing his team, I think he’s reflecting, and I think he’s preparing,” one senior Democratic senator said of Biden on the condition of anonymity to talk candidly about the former vice president. “He knows he needs a team, that he’s got to invest the time and the money to be successful.
“I think a lot of people see him coming,” the senator added. “And for Biden, it’s been a long way to come.”