Vice President Biden hasn’t announced his 2016 presidential plans. It’s far too early for that; we haven’t even hit the first anniversary of President Obama’s second inaugural, after all.
But as Biden traveled this week to Japan, China and South Korea where he met top leaders, he certainly gave the impression of a man doing a full dress rehearsal for the presidency.
Of course, if Hillary Clinton decides to run for president, rehearsing for the presidency may be as close as Biden gets to the Democratic nomination.
Still, the Asia trip is certainly generating the kind of moments, video and headlines that could prove useful to his image makers if Biden decides to run for president.
On Tuesday, Biden was in Tokyo commiserating with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe over the regional tensions caused by China’s assertion of a new air defense zone. Then there was the separate meeting with female Japanese workers, in which Biden was accompanied by Ambassador Caroline Kennedy.
The next day he was with Chinese President Xi Jinping, who called Biden “my old friend” — the two men having spent time together in recent years. And Biden talked up the importance of a U.S.-Chinese relationship built on “candor” and “trust.”
But in a moment that may have made Xi feel somewhat less cordial, Biden seemed to tell Chinese citizens waiting in the U.S. Embassy visa line in Beijing to challenge state authority.
“Children in America are rewarded, not punished, for challenging the status quo,” he told the visa applicants. Dubious as that message was (plenty of U.S. children aren’t rewarded for challenging conventions), Biden’s ideal vision of America would certainly play well back home, if not with the Chinese politburo.
In any event, the trip has been a chance for Biden to be seen on the world stage in his own right, as Biden might say “literally and figuratively.” It reinforced his strong foreign policy chops, earned from years on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the panel he chaired before entering the White House with Obama.
It was also a reminder that if both Biden and Clinton were to vie for the Democratic nomination, Biden would, more than any other Democrat mentioned as a 2016 possibility, match the former secretary of state’s foreign policy gravitas.
“I’ve had dinner with Biden, and the list of people he says he’s met and has decent relationships with, in terms of other countries’ leaders, is quite impressive,” says Jody Baumgartner, an associate professor of political philosophy at East Carolina University who has written a book on the vice presidency and is presently at work on a second.
Baumgartner has twice met with Biden at the vice president’s Naval Observatory home, part of a small group of scholars Biden invited to visit him in 2009 and 2011 because they had written books on the vice presidency, not the hottest topic in presidential scholarship.
Impressed by Biden’s global network, Baumgartner sees it as part of the former Delaware senator’s approach to government service. “It’s very clear that he’s been doing this job, let’s call it government, for 30-plus years, and that he’s worked hard and paid attention. He knows a lot. And he loves it. He believes in it. And there’s a passion there.”
Combine that with Biden being a natural glad-hander who’s willing to chat up just about anyone, and you get a politician who treats the world stage like a visit to his old Scranton neighborhood, a quality well captured in Jeanne Marie Laskas’ GQ profile of Biden.
It’s also captured in reports written by journalists accompanying Biden in Asia as part of the traveling press pool. When Biden met Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, for instance, he joked as he introduced members of the Obama administration who accompanied him. He mirthfully introduced one U.S. official as being from Hollywood because he wore sunglasses indoors. And he playfully introduced an official on the White House National Security Council, or NSC, as being from the ever-much-in-the-news NSA. Li smiled.