Why would the last certifiably sane occupant of the White House consider a run for the Vice-Presidency, an office that Vice-President John Nance Garner derided as “not worth a pitcher of warm spit” and John Adams scorned as “the most insignificant office that the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived?” In a word, Trump. The former President told voters in 2016 that his legacy and life’s work would be threatened by a Trump presidency. That would be doubly true of a second Trump term.
Federal law poses no obstacle to the Democrats’ dream ticket. The 22nd amendment, ratified in the wake of FDR’s four electoral victories, prohibits the election of a president to more than two terms. No provision prevents a former president from assuming the office through succession nor from running for the vice-presidency. Securing Obama’s assent for the race would likely require Biden to offer him a virtual “co-presidency.” The notion has been raised before. In 1980, Ronald Reagan, also facing a challenging run against an incumbent president, briefly considered former President Gerald Ford for his running mate and “co-president.” Ultimately, Reagan lacked sufficient comfort with his former opponent to test such uncharted political waters.
In contrast, the eight year partnership between Obama and Biden fostered a friendship that would help overcome the obstacles to such a unique collaboration. The scant official responsibilities of the Vice-Presidency would allow the two to tailor the vice-presidential role to their needs. Vice-President Obama might emerge as “minister without portfolio” and a uniquely qualified trouble-shooter for both national and international issues.
Biden’s candidacy would stand on its own merits. With over five decades of Washington relationships the genial two-term vice-president and six-term Senate veteran would be a good choice to ease the current pattern of mutually destructive partisan brinkmanship. Beyond the hope for improved governance, a Biden-Obama ticket offers three major benefits for Democrats. First, securing Obama’s agreement to run for the Vice-Presidency would significantly improve Biden’s chances for gaining the nomination without a series of primary battles. Absent a Sanders-Clinton style face-off, the Democrats could conserve their financial resources and avoid the divisiveness that played to Trump’s advantage in 2016.
Secondly, an Obama Vice-Presidency would help defuse Biden’s age problem. The former Vice-President would take office in 2021 less than one month short of his 79th birthday. By comparison, Ronald Reagan, the oldest President in U.S. history, was “only” 77 when he left office. Although Biden’s life expectancy at that point — over nine years — would extend beyond even two terms, the risks of debility or death would remain an issue. The security of a “co-president” still in his fifties with two terms of presidential experience would allay fears that Biden, like Woodrow Wilson, might become a caretaker president handicapped by infirmity.
The most important reason for Democrats to pursue an Obama VP run would be the electoral strength of the ticket. Biden, with his roots in hard scrapple Scranton, PA, could effectively compete for Trump’s base of white, blue collar voters. President Obama would deliver the “charisma factor” so critical to boosting turnout among the younger voters and minorities whose participation lagged in 2016.
Trump’s apparent delight in undermining his signature accomplishments might tempt the former President back to the campaign trail. Obamacare brought the rate of the uninsured to a record low. Trump’s threats to the financial security of the insurance exchanges have already reduced the number of insured by 3.5 million. Environmental protections have been challenged. National Park space has been trimmed. Coastal oil drilling is being promoted.
If these policy differences were not sufficient to lure Obama into the race, he might be influenced by Trump’s destruction of long standing customs and protocols. Despite remarkable restraint in avoiding criticism of his successor, Obama must share the public concern about a chaotic President who attacks his own cabinet members, ridicules foreign leaders and alienates the legislators on both sides of the aisle. The challenges to restoring the traditions and dignity of the office while shoring up international relations will make the next administration one of the most consequential in history. Could the former President shrink from such a challenge?
Americans once compared George Washington to Cincinnatus, the Roman general who abandoned his farm to return to Rome and save the Republic. Democrats now need to recruit Obama, to assume the Cincinnatus role.
His participation in a Biden-Obama ticket offers the best chance to energize Democrats to sweep both houses of Congress and definitively relegate Trumpism to the ash heap of history. Democrats have less than three years to convince him to join his former colleague and take on this crucial struggle. They should begin now.
Daniel Stone is a practicing geriatrician in Los Angeles.