Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, And The Pundit’s Fantasy That Will Not Die

Yes, it's time to talk about that again.

Wasn’t it just about two weeks ago that we were fed another “Hillary Replaces Biden On The 2012 Ticket” Op-Ed? Why yes, it was. It wasn’t the first time that argument has been made, of course, and it probably won’t be the last either. This time, it’s Bill Keller who takes to his New York Times column to argue the same tired old premise that countless pundits looking for a topic to write about have made at one point or another over the past three years:

I know the arguments against this scenario, and we’ll get to those. But the arguments in favor are as simple as one-two-three. One: it does more to guarantee Obama’s re-election than anything else the Democrats can do. Two: it improves the chances that, come next January, he will not be a lame duck with a gridlocked Congress but a rejuvenated president with a mandate and a Congress that may be a little less forbidding. Three: it makes Hillary the party’s heir apparent in 2016. If she sits out politics for the next four years, other Democrats (yes, Governor Cuomo, we see your hand up) will fill the void.

She would bring to this year’s campaign a missing warmth and some of the voltage that has dissipated as Obama moved from campaigning to governing. What excites is not just the prospect of having a woman a heartbeat — and four years — away from the presidency, although she certainly embodies the aspirations of many women. It’s the possibility that the first woman at the top would have qualifications so manifest that her first-ness was a secondary consideration.

We’ve heard most of this before from others, of course, and there is something compelling to the positive case that Keller and others make for putting Hillary Clinton on the ticket. Of course, most of those arguments existed in 2008 when Obama decided against doing just that, so it’s unclear why he would take the historically extraordinary step of replacing his Vice-President with a person he had previously decided didn’t belong in the job. Moreover, as I noted when I wrote about this last month the arguments against the scenario are rather overwhelming.

The Obama Administration has consistently shot down any of the Biden-Clinton swap rumors that have come up over the past three years. Moreover, Vice-President Biden has said more than once that he intends to run with the President in 2012, while Hillary Clinton has made clear that she considers Secretary of State to be her last public job and that she has no interest in running for political office again. Therefore, Reich’s “prediction” has no more value or substance to it than any of the other similar predictions we’ve heard before. Right now, it is as close as possible to a certainty that Joe Biden will be the Democratic nominee for Vice-President in 2012, unless something extraordinary or catastrophic happens.

There’s another argument that comes to mind, though, and I think it may be the most important reason why the President would not take this step absent something truly extraordinary. Virtually from the day he secured the Democratic Party’s nomination in 2008, there has been speculation about what the relationship between the Obama and Clinton camps would be after what had been one of the most contentious primary battles in recent memory. It was fairly well-known by that point that there were many in the Obama camp who resented some of the actions taken by former President Clinton while he was stumping for his wife in states like South Carolina, including comments that some interpreted rightly or wrongly as having a racial overtone. On the other side of the equation, we’ve learned from campaign books like Game Change that Hillary herself looked upon then candidate Obama as something of a rank amateur. There was, you will recall, a somewhat tense kabuki dance in early summer 2008 as the two camps negotiated over the terms of a Clinton unity rally with Obama, which ultimately did take place after some arrangements were made to help Clinton retire her campaign debt. By the time Vice-Presidential consideration came around, that tension was still there as well as the question of whether Bill Clinton would ever agree to open his financial records for the vetting that would have to take place for Hillary to be considered for the spot.

The Clinton’s campaigned for Obama in the General Election, of course. They are, after all, loyal Democrats, but the Obama Campaign seemed to be careful about not creating the impression that either Hillary or the former President would in some way be responsible for an Obama victory. In the end, Barack Obama won the election on his own and turned to Hillary Clinton to be his Secretary of State in what what simultaneously a display of magnanimity and the political genius of removing an intra-party from the playing field.

Why, after all that, would the President turn to Hillary Clinton four years later? Given all the speculation we’ve had about this scenario over the past three years or so, would it not be seen as a sign of weakness on Obama’s part, a tacit admission that in order to win re-election he needs Hillary’s help? And, assuming for just a second that all her demurring about running again is untrue, what price might Hillary set for agreeing to save Obama? The perception of having to come to Hillary to save your Presidency is one that would be hard for the President to live down.

Keller reveals the utter absurdity of his position by positing how this change might happen:

A political scientist I know proposes the following choreography: In the late winter or early spring, Hillary steps down as secretary of state to rest and write that book. The president assigns Biden — the former chairman of Senate Foreign Relations — to add State to his portfolio, making him the most powerful vice president in history. Come the party convention in September, Obama swallows his considerable pride and invites a refreshed Hillary to join the ticket. Biden keeps State. The musicians play “Happy Days Are Here Again” as if they really mean it.

If anything, this would make Obama’s position even worse. Not only does the public see him coming to Hillary to save him, but they see him calling her out of retirement to do so. Absurd, simply absurd.

And the Biden half of this scenario? There’s a fairly good argument that it would be unconstitutional, or at least highly inadvisable for a Vice-President to simultaneously serve as Secretary of State. For one thing, doing so officially would make him subject to the oversight of Congress despite the fact that he is a Constitutional officer, creating real problems for Separation Of Powers. For another, a Secretary of State can be fired, a Vice-President cannot. Do neither Keller nor his “political scientist” see the problem there?

Perhaps all these pundits will turn out to be right. Perhaps for only the seventh time in American history1 a President will replace his Vice-President on the ticket before an election. Anything’s possible after all, just ask the guys who wrote for The West Wing. Here in the real world, though, it’s pretty unlikely that, barring tragedy or extraordinary illness,  Joe Biden will be anywhere but right at Barack Obama’s side come September 2012.

1The previous six occasions are: Jefferson (who replaced Aaron Burr with George Clinton in 1804), Lincoln (who replaced Hannibal Hamlin with Andrew Johnson in 1864), Ulysses S. Grant (who replaced Schuyler Colfax with Henry Wilson in 1872), Franklin Roosevelt (who replaced John Nance Garner with Henry Wallace in 1940 and Henry Wallace with Harry S Truman in 1944), and Gerald Ford (who replaced Nelson Rockefeller with Bob Dole in 1976)

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2012, The Presidency, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Budgie93 says:

    I can’t believe people are still talking about this tripe. Biden will be the VP nominee and Hillary will fuel speculation for a few more years, but ultimately won’t do anything else in her public career.

  2. James H says:

    I only see the “Hillary as VP” scenario coming to fruition if Joe Biden changes his name to Spiro Agnew.

  3. Hey Norm says:

    Isn’t that the same Bill Keller who bent over and grabbed his ankles when the Bush Administration told him to and directed his staff not to use the word torture…even though newspapers have always called waterboarding torture?
    Yeah…thought so.
    So a partisan hack and really bad columnist wrote another really bad column.
    Keep walking…nothing to see here.

  4. @James H:

    The only way I see it coming about is if Biden becomes so ill that he cannot campaign or do his job.

  5. Tano says:

    I agree that it is highly unlikely, but I would not use all the denials as evidence of that. Even if they actually have agreed to do it, they would have to deny it. If they even gave hints that it might happen, both Clinton and Biden would be seen as lame-ducks in their offices, and the media would be spending the next six months gaming it out.

    I also would not look to the tensions from the 2008 campaign as a reason not to do it. I sense that the two of them have put their personal issues behind them and have a good working relationship now.

    Although the opposition would try to spin it as Obama going to HIllary to save his presidency, his supporters would see it as a sensible move to unite and strengthen the party. I don’t quite know how the independents (the ones who decide elections) would see it, but I doubt they would buy the GOP line.

  6. sherifffruitfly says:

    Only white pundits.

  7. Well, once we see who the GOP nominee is, shuffling people around at the top might make some sense. But seriously:

    1. I don’t think the Vice Presidency is a fitting job for a woman as strong as Hillary Rodham Clinton.

    2. If Biden is to be replaced, a much better choice IMHO would be a young fiery progressive to energize those who are disappointed with how far right the GOP has dragged Obama.

  8. Dazedandconfused says:

    I have a hunch the media is panicking over the thought of a “Super Tuesday” sheared clean of all drama. Who would transfer those big campaign contributions to them under that scenario?