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The VICE Guide to the 2016 Election

We Asked an Expert What Would Have Happened if Joe Biden Became President

So, Biden decided to not run after all. But what would have happened if he'd won?
October 21, 2015, 5:00pm

Until this morning, it looked like it was for real happening: Joe Biden was gonna run for president. Definitely, totally, 100 percent happening. On Monday, Pennsylvania Congressman Brendan Boyle tweeted, "I have a very good source close to Joe that tells me VP Biden will run for Prez," setting off a flurry of speculation about Biden's forthcoming announcement. The Washington Post even erroneously published a shell story with the headline, "Biden to Launch a Presidential Campaign." The following day, CNN reported that Biden's team is in the process of interviewing potential campaign staffers. Meanwhile, ABC learned that a Biden associate was looking into renting office space in downtown DC that might have served as Biden's campaign HQ.

Clearly, people were interested in Biden running. Hell, he's polling at 17 percent—third overall, behind Hillary Clinton's 47 percent and Bernie Sanders's 25 percent—without having entered the race. An Ipsos/Reuters poll released last week found that nearly half of Democrats—including some that don't want Biden to win—at least want him to take a shot at it.

Alas, it didn't happen. This morning in front of America, Barack Obama, and a buttload of news teams, Biden announced that he was not running for president after all. Biden, whose eldest son Beau died in May from brain cancer, said the timing just wasn't right. "As my family and I have worked through the grieving process, I've said all along what I've said time and again to others, that it may very well be that the process by the time we get through it closes the window," Biden said. "I've concluded it has closed."

But, for the sake of speculation, let's just assume that Biden was about to launch his campaign. What would have happened if he'd actually become the president?

A few weeks ago, I called up Duke University's Michael Munger, a political science professor and head of the school's Philosophy, Politics, and Economics program to chat about what a Biden candidacy might look like. Munger gave me his thoughts on what America's avuncular VP might have done if he'd been handed the keys to the Oval Office.

VICE: Let's say Biden wins. What does he talk about in his inaugural address?
Michael Munger: If you look at his policy positions, they tend to be moderate, progressive positions. He doesn't have any encompassing vision. He mostly would play defense, I think.

Before we get into that, we need to make some assumptions of what would happen in the House and the Senate [in 2016]. It's likely, given how gerrymandered the Republican states are, that the Republicans will keep substantial control of the House. The Senate could go either way, but some of that's going to depend on whether the Republicans insist on [picking candidates] that are just going to shoot themselves in the foot.

But let's suppose that both the House and the Senate are in the control of the Republicans. I think what Biden would probably do is emphasize his experience as a senator, as someone who is capable of reaching across the aisle. If he makes it to that point, then his experience will be a benefit. He really does know a lot of people in the Senate. He's very well-met; he always talks to people. He has a bunch of people who'll take his calls. [People] Obama wouldn't even have called.

I think Biden would be in some ways a much more effective legislative leader than Obama has been, and that's probably what I would emphasize if I were him. Let's try to get some things passed to help the country, not too many specifics. In a way, it's a veiled threat, saying, "You'll need to work with me or I'll use my veto pen."

Image via the White House on Flickr

So from a legislative standpoint he would be more productive than Obama has been?
Well Obama frittered away everything he had. He had the House and the Senate in Democratic hands because people were so sick of the Republicans. Then the Democrats interpreted people's revulsion towards the Republicans as support for the Democratic platform. They lost the house in 2010 by overplaying their hand. I don't think Biden would do that because he isn't grandiose in the way Obama is.

Talk a bit more about this idea of people misinterpreting revulsion of the other party for love for their own party.
Well there's an asymmetry in the way we access information. If I'm a politician and say, "Look at me, this is good," you think, "Eh, OK, you're a politician, of course you're gonna say that." If I say, "My opponent takes a hammer and kills babies then barbeques and eats them," you'll at least pay attention to that. The problem is both parties end up running negative campaigns—each of them say the other is unqualified, and voters believe them. The people that are really motivated to vote are the ones that are persuaded that the other side, whatever it is, is Satan. For most of the 19th century it was open season—politicians said awful things about each other. We have returned to a situation where you try to motivate your voters by scaring them.

If President Biden were to get a curveball—say some country develops a nuclear weapon, or the economy tanks—how would he react?
I don't think he has that many foreign policy interests. He has quite a bit of experience—he's watched quite a bit. I've tried to think what his great initiatives are and what things he would want, and I don't think that he's ever talked about that stuff. To be fair, he's been vice president for a long time now and as "Cactus Jack" Nance once said when he was vice president, "This office isn't worth a pitcher of warm spit."

Image via the White House on Flickr

Would Biden's age be an issue if he were president?
He would be 74 when he was sworn in. What if he's incapacitated? What if he lacks the vigor? What if he's taking naps at meetings while they're talking about national defense? Seventy-four is old. It's not incredibly old, but it's too old. It's a big drawback particularly when we've had a president who could have been his son. It seems there's been a generational passing of the torch. It's a little hard for our uncle to say, "It's my turn."

Didn't Reagan start falling asleep towards the end of his presidency?
Of course. Yes. Well, given Reagan's second term, that was probably a good thing.

Which presidency would Biden's look the most like?
Well in age and avuncularity, Reagan. You probably remember in 1984, the debate with Mondale, Reagan said, "I promise to not use my opponent's age and youth against him." You sort of play that and I think Biden could do that. He's funny, he's fun to talk to, he tells jokes, and he owns the fact that he's an old guy and has a lot of experience. As for his presidency, it's tempting for me to compare him to Truman. Truman had been vice president after Nance resigned. Truman had been a senator, was a wise-cracker, often said things that were caustic, and had some trouble with the media as a result.

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Would someone who fits that personality archetype be able to stand up against, say, Vladimir Putin?
I don't think Biden lacks toughness. He lacks considered judgment. I think Biden is a pretty tough guy. As long as he is advised, I don't think he would have any problem standing up against Putin.

But if Putin said something and someone asked Biden, "Well, Putin said this. What do you think?" What he should say is, "Well, we are reviewing that and we're not really sure what it means." He might just say, "We're gonna send ships!" The generals would put their heads in their hands and say, "Shut up!" When you're a senator you can say stuff like that. When you're a president and you say something and don't do it, that's disastrous.

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