Vice President Biden announced Wednesday afternoon he had decided not to seek the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, ending months of speculation that he might roil the party’s race.
“I have concluded that it has closed,” he said of the window to make another White House bid, speaking in a hastily called Rose Garden appearance with his wife, Jill Biden, and President Obama by his side.
“Beau is our inspiration,” the vice president said of his eldest son, who died earlier this year of brain cancer. “Unfortunately, I believe we are out of time — the time necessary to mount a campaign for the nomination.”
Biden pointed to the impact of the grieving process on his presidential plans. “I know from previous experience that there’s no timetable for this process,” he said. “The process doesn’t respect or much care about things like filing deadlines or debates and primaries and caucuses.”
In a wide-ranging speech that at times came across as the announcement speech he would never deliver, Biden encouraged Democrats to run on Obama’s record next year. He touched on a host of policy goals and priorities he said he intended to fight for in the home stretch of the president’s second term, from fighting money in politics to finding a cure for cancer.
“While I will not be a candidate, I will not be silent,” he said. “I intend to speak out clearly and forcefully, to influence as much as I can where we stand as a party and where we need to go as a nation.”
Biden spent last weekend with his family in Delaware, a final, critical gut-check moment to decide whether to make a late entry into the race.
Despite a growing public show of support, he had repeatedly said in appearances over the past five weeks that he and his family had not reached the emotional standing for him to mount a competitive White House bid.
In a letter to current and former staff members late last Thursday, before the decision was made, Biden’s longest serving adviser reiterated that the family pain remains a central block against running.
“All of you know well that the first and foremost consideration will be the welfare and support of his family. That’s Joe Biden. He has been clear about this and it is as true today as it has been for the past several months. He is determined to take, and to give his family, as much time as possible to work this through,” Ted Kaufman, Biden’s former chief of staff who once filled his Senate seat, wrote to the vice president’s alumni network.
On the eve of Pope Francis’s historic visit to Washington late last month, Biden said he was “not quite there yet” and was not sure that his family would ever be ready, suggesting that he might be done with electoral politics after a career spanning more than four decades in the nation’s capital.
“If that’s it, that’s it. But it’s not like I can rush it,” Biden said of his grief in an interview with “America,” the nation’s leading Jesuit news organization.
Biden’s decision came as former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton reasserted herself in the Democratic nominating contest with a dominating performance in the party’s first presidential debate of the 2016 race, viewed by nearly 16 million people. Polls in the days after the faceoff showed her the clear winner, although Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) also won high grades from Democratic voters who tuned in.
Although Biden is widely popular among Democrats, polls show that he would have entered the race as a significant underdog. In a Washington Post-ABC News poll released Tuesday, 16 percent of Democratic-leaning voters said they would support him for the nomination, putting him in third place behind Clinton at 54 percent and Sanders at 23 percent.
Clinton figures to benefit from Biden’s decision not to run, as most of his supporters say she is their second choice. Clinton’s support rises to 64 percent when Biden’s supporters assigned their second choice, compared with 25 percent for Sanders, who gains just two percentage points.
Without Biden, the field is likely to settle into a head-to-head contest pitting an establishment favorite, Clinton, against the iconoclastic outsider, Sanders.
Biden’s consideration of a presidential campaign had intensified over the last month, as Clinton was dogged by an FBI investigation related to the security of the private e-mail server she used as secretary of state.
The vice president’s possible late entry into the race evolved from something that many Washington insiders originally brushed off as a mechanism to help cope with the death of Beau Biden, a former Delaware attorney general, into the plausible candidacy of an elder statesman. Some establishment figures began encouraging him to run, to provide the party another option should Clinton’s free-fall continue.
In recent weeks, his inner circle began to believe that there was a political path toward mounting a credible campaign, but the remaining factor was always considered the most difficult: gauging whether he and his family were emotionally ready for the rigors of another presidential bid.
Biden’s story — one of overcoming repeated family tragedy — had provided a potential campaign theme that distinguished him from his possible primary-season rivals. But the latest tragedy — the death of Beau, who was very close to his father and expected to pick up the political legacy — had also left the vice president and his family reeling.
“No one owes you anything. You gotta get up,” the vice president said in mid-September on CBS’s “Late Show.” Despite his repeated expression of emotional pain, he lit a fire under the movement to bring him into the 2016 race.
“I feel like I was letting down Beau, letting down my parents, letting down my family if I didn’t just get up,” Biden told host Stephen Colbert.
Biden’s inner circle of advisers helped him make the decision without the benefit of any of their own polling, focus groups or other standard practices of modern campaigns. As of last week, Biden’s team had not even opened a bank account for campaign donations, said two party strategists who had offered advice during the decision-making process.
By contrast, Clinton’s campaign has raised $75 million and has paid staff members in dozens of states. Over the three-month fundraising period that ended Sept. 30, Sanders pulled in $26 million, a large portion of it small donations from liberal activists who seem poised to continue pouring money into his bid.
More than 50 large donors who have a history of raising big money had pledged to support Biden via the Draft Biden super PAC. Some insiders suggested that the vice president’s team could have amassed $30 million in the next four months, which could have made him competitive in the first four contests, although it would have left him relying on momentum after that.
But the vice president demonstrated that he was unwilling to delve too deeply into his personal history for a presidential campaign when his advisers told the Los Angeles Times last week that he did not want the Draft Biden PAC to air a 90-second commercial that focused on a family tragedy.
That ad, originally slated for national cable TV and debuted on NBC’s “Today Show,” traced Biden’s career from the December 1972 car crash that killed his first wife and young daughter and injured and his two sons, Beau and Hunter. It used his own words from a speech delivered at Yale University two weeks before Beau Biden died at Walter Reed Army Medical Center after aggressive treatment for brain cancer.
In a sign that the family was still struggling, Biden’s advisers said the ad trod on what the vice president considered “sacred ground.” The group switched its planned ad buy and replaced it with a different spot that focused on Biden’s middle class roots.
During the past three presidential campaigns, several candidates in both parties have made late breaks into the race, only to find that their best moment was the day they announced their bids. Some of his former colleagues feared that his public image would have shifted from that of sympathetic grieving father into that of a typical presidential candidate.
“I’ve watched you all suck people into races and then shred them,” said Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), a Clinton supporter who considers Biden a friend.
But the 2016 contest has defied many of the standard expectations of White House bids, with large blocs of voters in both parties shunning insider establishment candidates, searching for non-traditional political leaders with voices that sound authentic.
That’s where advisers thought that Biden, 72, a veteran of inside-the-Beltway politics from his 36 years in the Senate and his tenure as Obama’s lieutenant, could have shined.
Biden was born in Scranton, Pa., and raised outside Wilmington, Del., and his appeal has always been as a middle-class guy. He has a tendency to say the right thing at the wrong time, perhaps most famously when he endorsed same-sex marriage during the 2012 reelection campaign before Obama took that position. His political advisers had hoped to highlight those purported gaffes as demonstrations of his authenticity.
Instead, the vice president is likely to end his long career — in which he was elected at 29 to the Senate, served as chairman of two important committees, made two presidential bids and served two terms as vice president — almost 15 months from now and move into the role of Democratic elder statesman.
In his emotional interview, with Colbert weeks before his final decision, Biden that he might not be up for the fight.
“I don’t think any man or woman should run for president unless, number one, they know exactly why they would want to be president and, number two, they can look at folks out there and say, ‘I promise you, you have my whole heart, my whole soul, my energy, and my passion to do this,” he said. “I’d be lying if I said that I knew I was there.”
On Wednesday, he said that, if nothing else, his family had journeyed beyond the grief that had helped keep him locked in a state of indecision for the past several months.
“As I’ve said many times, my family has suffered loss, and…I hope[d] there would come a time — and I’ve said this to many other families — that, sooner rather than later, when you think of your loved one, it brings a smile to your lips before it brings a tear to your eyes,” he added.
“Well, that’s where the Bidens are today. Thank God.”
Scott Clement and Greg Jaffe contributed to this report.