Biden and Obama’s ‘Odd Couple’ Relationship Aged Into Family Ties

WASHINGTON — Barack Obama did not think Joseph R. Biden Jr. should run for president — he hardly needed to say it out loud for aides to understand that. The trick that summer of 2015 was finding a way to nudge Mr. Biden to stay out of the race without looking as if he was nudging Mr. Biden to stay out of the race.

By the time that Mr. Biden began weighing a campaign, the president had long since concluded that Hillary Clinton had the best chance of winning in 2016. Beyond that, Mr. Biden was awash in grief over the death of his son, hardly the state of mind for a grueling presidential marathon.

But Mr. Obama did not want to push and sought to give his vice president room to come to the decision himself. Over the course of weekly lunches, he gently pressed Mr. Biden on his thinking. Eventually, the president arranged for his own strategist to deliver a daunting assessment of the odds against a race. Mr. Biden got the message. “The president was not encouraging,” he later acknowledged.

Those difficult days in the seventh year of their partnership illustrated just how far the two had come — and the limits of their alliance, as well. What started out as a Felix-and-Oscar odd couple bringing together a reserved, no-drama, new-generation intellectual and a gregarious, shoulder-squeezing, old-generation pol evolved into a surprisingly close friendship unlike any between a president and vice president in modern times.

The relationship between Mr. Obama and Mr. Biden, two men separated by temperament, upbringing, outlook and 19 years, did not get off to a strong start. Mr. Obama arrived in the Senate in 2005 the darling of Democrats, while Mr. Biden had been toiling away there since 1973, working his way through the ranks.

Mr. Obama was assigned to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee where Mr. Biden was the ranking Democrat, but the newcomer found the panel frustrating and his party’s leader maddeningly long-winded. At one hearing, while Mr. Biden pontificated at length, Mr. Obama passed a note to an aide: “Shoot. Me. Now.”

Soon enough, Mr. Obama escaped to the campaign trail, first stumping for other Democrats in the 2006 midterm elections and then for himself as 2008 approached. Mr. Biden, whose first run for the White House had blown up in a plagiarism scandal in 1988, jumped into the race, too. But he could hardly compete with Mr. Obama’s star power.

Nor could Mr. Biden discipline his own tongue, committing a gaffe on the very day he announced his campaign when he described Mr. Obama’s appeal. “I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy,” Mr. Biden said.

When the comment blew up, Mr. Biden expressed regret and called Mr. Obama, who publicly let him off the hook. “I have no problem with Joe Biden,” he told reporters.

He had no problem with Joe Biden on the hustings, either, easily outpacing the older man among Democratic voters. As Mr. Obama handily won Iowa’s caucuses, Mr. Biden could not muster even 1 percent of the vote, forcing him to drop out.

He grew particularly exasperated by Mr. Obama’s reluctance to engage Congress. He thought the president’s team of advisers was not always deft in their handling of legislation or the politics of governance.

But he was careful to defer to Mr. Obama. “Every old hand is going to look askance at the judgments of the youngster,” said Jared Bernstein, Mr. Biden’s economics adviser, “but I never picked up any resentment or hostility at all.”

Mr. Biden was given some of the highest-profile assignments of Mr. Obama’s presidency, including overseeing the stimulus program, managing the withdrawal of troops from Iraq and drafting an ultimately failed gun control package.

“Dealing with President Obama was like traveling on a one-way street — it was his way or the highway,” said former Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia, the House Republican leader during the Obama administration. “When you dealt with Joe Biden, you actually had the opportunity to be heard. He was interested in understanding your viewpoint.”

That did not always sit well with congressional Democrats, who at one point barred the vice president from budget talks for fear that he was not holding fast enough. And the president’s team often seemed more skeptical of Mr. Biden than of their own boss. Heading into the 2012 re-election campaign, Mr. Obama’s political advisers secretly explored replacing Mr. Biden with Mrs. Clinton on the ticket.

But Mr. Obama brushed off the idea. Not only would it call into question his judgment in putting Mr. Biden on the original ticket, but also the vice president was a useful surrogate in working-class communities where he connected with voters more than Mr. Obama did.

“He was able to go and campaign in places where it just didn’t make sense to send the president,” said Anita Dunn, an adviser to the White House.

Mr. Biden still veered off course. In response to a question during a television interview as the campaign heated up, he changed his position and endorsed same-sex marriage. Mr. Obama was still on record opposing it, but aides had created a careful plan to flip-flop without, they hoped, it looking like flip-flopping.

Mr. Biden’s staff knew instantly that he had upended that plan and sent a highlighted interview transcript to the president’s strategists to warn them. “I was really angry about this,” David Plouffe, the president’s senior adviser, recalled in an oral history. “We were completely shocked.”

Mr. Biden was unapologetic. “There was a little apoplexy around here,” he admitted later to The Times. “I answered as antiseptically as I could. But I was going to sit there and not say what I believe at this point in my career? They can have the goddamn job.”

For all of that, Mr. Obama grew genuinely fond of his vice president, learning to appreciate Mr. Biden’s authenticity and embrace his contrary voice.

“You know what has surprised me?” Mr. Obama said at one of their lunches. “How we have become such good friends.”

“Surprised you?” Mr. Biden joked.

“Both of them came to understand that neither was going to change,” Mr. Rhodes said in an interview. “Obama came to understand that Biden was going to speak his mind and sometimes he was going to say things that weren’t on the script. That’s both his strength and his vulnerability, but you take someone for who they are.”

“And Biden,” he added, “came to understand that Obama was a different kind of politician than those people he served with in the Senate for all those years, but Obama had his strengths.”

Mr. McDonough said Mr. Obama genuinely believed picking Mr. Biden was his best decision. “It doesn’t mean there’s no tension,” he said. “That’s kind of the point. If you’re going to have a partner, there’s going to be tension. And it’s in the tension and in the turbulence that the relationship strengthens and ideas get better.”

The bond grew tighter when the vice president learned his son Beau had a brain tumor. Mr. Biden confided in the president, but few others. If the vice president arrived late for a morning intelligence briefing, Mr. Obama made eye contact as if to say, “Are you O.K.?”

Mr. Biden has never publicly expressed unhappiness with the president for discouraging him, but some who worked with him assume he felt it.

“In some ways, Joe felt the loyalty he had shown to the president and the fact that he was willing to go to bat on things he didn’t agree with should have earned him greater support from the president in terms of his own political career,” Mr. Panetta said.

Mrs. Clinton, of course, lost, and many wonder if Mr. Biden would have been the stronger candidate after all. As Mr. Rhodes put it, “One of the great what-ifs of history for me and a lot of people is if not for the Beau Biden tragedy, what would have happened?”

Mr. Biden would like to know, too. In his own way, he is trying to find out now.

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