Vice President Joe Biden subtly contrasted himself with Hillary Clinton, a prospective 2016 presidential rival, and offered a populist message about boosting the middle class in an Iowa speech likely to spur speculation that he is eying a third White House bid.
Biden drew a distinction with the former U.S. secretary of state, without mentioning her name, in comments yesterday at an annual Democratic event in the state that traditionally starts the nomination voting. Biden said it was he and President Barack Obama who shared the same policy views during debates the three participated in as they battled for their party’s 2008 presidential nomination.
“I have great respect for everyone with whom I ran” against in that campaign, the vice president said at a steak fry sponsored by Senator Tom Harkin, a five-term Iowa Democrat. “But if you go back and look at those 13 debates, the only two people who never disagreed on a single solitary subject in those debates were Barack Obama and Joe Biden.”
Biden, 70, also extolled the work of Secretary of State John Kerry -- less than eight months into his current post -- while never taking note of the four years Clinton served in the post under Obama.
“I think John Kerry has been one of the best secretaries of state, so far, in the history of the United States,” Biden said as he spoke in front of a red barn and an American flag.
He said Kerry -- like Biden and Clinton, a former U.S. senator -- had shown his talents in talks that led over the weekend to an agreement with Russia aimed at eliminating Syria’s chemical weapons.
The accord, negotiated by Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, sets a framework for finding, securing and destroying the Syrian government’s stocks of poison gas. It quelled the prospect of a U.S. military strike on Syria in response to an Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack outside Damascus.
Asked by a reporter whether, if needed, he would be able to help rally war-weary Democrats to back a military strike in Syria, Biden said, “I think we are going to be OK.”
Harkin, who isn’t seeking a sixth term in 2014, has hosted the steak fry for 36 years. While designed to build the state party’s grassroots, the event has evolved into a popular stop for aspiring Democratic presidential candidates. Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, who has signaled interest in a 2016 presidential bid, attended last year.
Biden, elected to the Senate from Delaware in 1972, told reporters he made his first political trip to Iowa in 1974. His links to the state were obvious as he greeted friends and supporters by first name at yesterday’s gathering, held on fairgrounds in Indianola, southeast of Des Moines, and attended by several hundred.
“This is old home week for Biden,” Harkin said, after the two men flipped a few steaks on a grill for the benefit of the news cameras.
Asked by a reporter whether he’s ready to start campaigning for a 2016 presidential bid, Biden focused on the 2014 midterm elections. “I’m ready for winning some House and Senate seats,” he said.
In his speech, Biden depicted himself as a friend to working Americans -- an image he cultivated as a senator and the theme of his two previous presidential bids.
“The measure of the success of our administration will be whether or not the middle class is growing,” Biden said.
Those close to Biden cautioned against reading too much into his appearance at an event sponsored by a longtime friend and colleague.
“I don’t see anything where he has made that next step” toward a White House bid, said former Senator Ted Kaufman, a Democrat and longtime confidant who succeeded Biden after his 2008 election as vice president.
Biden has been mostly silent on possible presidential aspirations -- with a few exceptions.
“I can die a happy man never having been president of the United States of America,” Biden told GQ magazine in an interview published in July. “But it doesn’t mean I won’t run.”
Kendra Barkoff, a Biden spokeswoman, said in an e-mail statement last week that her boss “is focusing on being vice president, and making the president’s second term as productive as possible. Any talk of other future plans is complete speculation.”
Sitting or former vice presidents who have sought their party’s nomination for the top job over the last 53 years have gotten it. Comprising that list are Richard Nixon in 1960, Hubert Humphrey in 1968, Walter Mondale in 1984, George H.W. Bush in 1988 and Al Gore in 2000. Bush was the only one who went on to win the presidency in those races. Nixon, after John F. Kennedy beat him in 1960, won the White House in 1968.
Biden, should he make a 2016 president bid, likely would start out as the underdog should Clinton decide to run. A July WMUR Granite State Poll in New Hampshire -- typically the second state to hold nomination voting -- showed Clinton, 65, with the support of 62 percent of likely Democratic primary voters, compared with 8 percent for Biden.
Eight other potential candidates were offered in the survey, with Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick placing third at 5 percent backing. None of the others -- who included O’Malley, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and Virginia Senator Mark Warner -- broke 2 percent support.
In another sign of how Clinton overshadows all other prospective Democratic candidates, independent groups already have organized nationally to promote her possible candidacy.
Susie Schwieger, 61, a Waterloo, Iowa resident and a steak fry attendee, had more things to say about Clinton than Biden.
“I like her and think she had really proven herself time and time again,” she said. “It’s time. White men should not have a monopoly on the White House.”
Biden last attended the Harkin steak fry in 2007, where he was joined by several of the other contenders for the 2008 Democratic nomination, including then-Senators Obama, of Illinois, and Clinton, of New York.
This January, during the festivities surrounding his and Obama’s second-term inaugurations, he attended the Iowa ball and invited influential Democrats from that state and others with early primaries or caucuses to a reception at his official residence. In May, he spoke at a Democratic dinner in South Carolina, which typically holds the third nomination contest.
Biden’s previous presidential campaigns weren’t notable for their duration.
He exited the 2008 campaign after receiving less than 1 percent of the vote in the Iowa caucuses. His race for the 1988 nomination ended even more quickly -- he withdrew in September 1987, before any vote had been cast, after a plagiarism scandal.