As Hillary Clinton spent the first weeks of her presidential campaign meeting voters in Iowa, her closest potential rival for the Democratic nomination – Vice President Joe Biden – was a thousand miles away, meeting in Washington with the leaders of five different foreign countries, delivering an update on U.S. strategy in Iraq, and rallying elected Democrats behind the administration’s economic agenda.
If Biden has his way, that’s what his schedule will look like for months to come as he mulls a third bid for president.
Unlike other Democratic and Republican competitors, the vice president has said he won’t decide until the end of the summer whether or not to run. He hasn’t taken any preliminary steps toward setting up a campaign apparatus, and supporters say they haven’t heard one way or the other whether he’s planning to jump in.
Biden has consistently left his options open; in his latest update, he told a group of regional reporters at the White House he had “plenty of time” to make a decision about getting into the race.
But with Clinton leading by huge margins in polls – the latest survey from CNN/ORC put her at 69% among Democrats, compared to 11% for Biden – analysts say there’s little risk in Biden staying out of the fray as the race begins in earnest.
“Given the apparent lack of interest in a Clinton alternative, it hurts Biden little just to wait and see as long as he can, in the hope of an unexpected event that changes many, many Democrats’ minds about Hillary,” said Dante Scala, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire.
Unlike Clinton, Biden has a busy day job in the West Wing, regularly attending meetings alongside President Barack Obama and traveling the country to announce new projects. On Monday alone, Biden was slated to sit in on Obama’s presidential daily briefing, a meeting with Secretary of State John Kerry, a working lunch with the crown prince of the United Arab Emirates and a session with Treasury Secretary Jack Lew.
Aides have said Biden views his role as essential in advising Obama during the final quarter of his presidency, a two-year period that’s emerging as a policy-making bonanza.
During his tenure, Biden has taken responsibility for the White House’s Iraq portfolio, acting as the main contact for former President Nouri al-Maliki before he relinquished power last year. As the country has formed a new government, Biden has been the administration point-man for the various factions working to form an effective defense against ISIS.
In early April, when the White House wanted to provide an update on its strategy in Iraq, it chose Biden to deliver the address. He’s similarly become the face of Obama’s initiative combating campus rape, the White House push for LGBT equality and a flurry of new job training programs spread across the country.
Like any worker who feels valued in their job, Biden appears wary of scaling back his official duties while staging a run for president — an exhausting and all-consuming endeavor.
“There’s a lot the President and I care about that has to get done in the next two to three months,” Biden told regional reporters last week during a surprise appearance at the White House. “When you run for president you’ve got to run for president, and I’m not ready to do that, if I’m ever going to be ready to do that.”
Waiting to make a decision gives Biden a chance to assess Clinton’s campaign — and position himself as an alternative candidate if it appears Democrats are souring on the former secretary of state.
“Hypothetically, Biden has the name ID to wait until the end of the summer. He’s certainly well known among Democratic voters,” said Scala.
But that scenario isn’t without its pitfalls.
A Clinton backlash – an establishment candidate with a previous presidential bid to her name – could lead voters to seek out a fresher face. Seventy-two-year-old Biden may not meet those standards.
“At the very least I would say that his chances are minimal against Hillary Clinton unless she somehow becomes so weakened as a candidate that the Democratic base begins actively looking for an alternative,” said Tim Hagle, a political science professor at the University of Iowa. “That would give him an opening, but it would also open the door for, in particular, (Democratic Sen. Elizabeth) Warren to run.”
“As a fresher political face Warren would likely have the advantage,” he said.
Biden, like Warren, has taken a populist tone of late, telling a meeting of the New Democratic Coalition last week “it’s time we restore the basic bargain” for American taxpayers.
But he attempted to strike a middle ground between the anti-Wall Street Warren and the finance-friendly Clinton.
“There are still things within our power as a nation we can do by returning to basics. Not left-leaning, liberal ideas that are bordering on confiscation, wealth-envy,” Biden said. “Basic, basic things: build roads, bridges, technology, invest in research and development and generate more educational achievement.”
“This is no time to turn back,” he said. “The only thing we should turn back is the Republican budget.”
Biden does enjoy the support of a super PAC meant to provide a cheering section ahead of an official announcement. The Draft Biden group was planning to send its executive director to Iowa this week.
“With Iowa being the first true test of a candidate’s organization and support, it is vital that Vice President Biden have a team ready, once he announces his decision to run,” said the group’s executive director Will Pierce.
But even the vice president himself acknowledged delaying a decision was a roll of the dice.
“If I am wrong, I’m dead wrong,” he told the regional reporters, according to the Albuquerque Journal.