Looking for Signs on the Road with Joe Biden

Questions of whether the vice president would join the 2016 race for the White House follow him wherever he goes.

On Vice President Joe Biden’s two-day campaign-trip-that’s-not-a-campaign-trip, every move he makes, every word he utters, seems imbued with clues, symbolism, and double meaning.

Biden, who’s expected to say around month’s end whether he will take on Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders for the Democratic nomination for president, is dispatched on official business. He’s spending Thursday mingling with Jewish voters in South Florida and Atlanta as he promotes President Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran. He spent Wednesday promoting the economic benefits of community colleges during the day, and raising money for Senate Democrats at night.

At a Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee fundraiser at the home of developer Stephen Bittel, Biden did mention Sanders by name. “I'm not a populist like Bernie,” he told guests, while granting that the Vermont senator was “doing a great job exciting his crowds.”

From the moment Air Force Two touched down in Miami midday Wednesday, everyone, including the vice president himself, seemed distracted by that other topic: Should he jump into the 2016 contest or not?

As the plane descended over a sparking aqua coastline, the September sky, sun-dappled and blue, looked to be beckoning Biden. But as the press traveling with him were positioned on the tarmac to capture images of him emerging from the aircraft, it suddenly became apparent that a stealth rain shower was in progress right through those sunbeams—with no rainbow in sight.

Biden toured a student science lab at Miami Dade College before giving a speech on the merits of  government investment in higher education and the positive synergies possible between community colleges and local employers. He schmoozed a dozen or so students gathered in lab coats and holding vials. In classic Biden form, he asked each about his or her career plans, gregariously relating the job interests of a niece of his or some other member of the Biden clan.

But he turned down an invitation to handle one of the experiments in progress. With a nod to his larger-than-normal press entourage, he joked that he'd do better to simply watch because he could already see the headline otherwise: “Biden Screws Up Experiment.”

More possible innuendo followed as he ambled through the community college speech.

“People who aren’t willing to risk failing never succeed,” Biden said at one point.

He was talking about how much courage it takes adults who’ve been out of high school for several years to return for a college education.

Or was he referring to his failed 1988 and 2008 presidential runs and his optimism about redemption?

“It’s amazing how good this school is: Look at all the press you’ve attracted,” he joked to the students. “Their interest in community college has impressed me greatly. I hope that’s what they’re going to write about.”

Biden, 72, has for months been grieving his son Beau’s death from brain cancer, and friends and aides have worried that he isn’t himself, and that he and his family might not be able to withstand another campaign.

On this road trip, though, the vice president seems to have a spring in his step, buoyed by well-wishers and inspired by that aura of possibility that may be fleeting for any candidate after he or she declares.

Biden was making the case for why Congress should embrace an administration proposal to make two years of college free to U.S. students when he became captivated by a winged creature that flew past him in the speech hall.

“What is the possible rationale—” he trailed off, “for that butterfly? The butterfly agrees with me!” Within the audience, though, there was some debate about what had actually flown past. One woman insisted it was a bat. As it flew toward the ceiling, in a different light, it looked to be a large, black moth.

As his remarks ended, he ignored shouted questions from the press about whether he was going to run. He hung around a few minutes to sign some of the students' lab coats.

Biden also told the college audience how one of his nicknames in the Obama administration is “the White House optimist.”

“I’m optimistic, “ he said, “and I’ve been around longer than all of you.” 

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