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.
Yet when the moment arrived, it did not fall to Mr. Biden to carry on Mr. Obama’s legacy — at least not then. The question now, as Mr. Biden kicks off the campaign that Mr. Obama helped talk him out of four years ago, is whether he can parlay his service for the last Democratic president into his own successful quest.
Mr. Biden, 76, may position himself as Mr. Obama’s natural heir, but he has yet to convince Democrats. Younger candidates like Pete Buttigieg and Beto O’Rourke are often described as the new Mr. Obama. While the former president praised Mr. Biden after his announcement, he does not plan to endorse any candidate for the nomination.
“Biden was a strong partner to Obama as vice president and, as he begins, clearly is deriving the political benefit of it within the Democratic electorate,” said David Axelrod, who was Mr. Obama’s senior adviser. “But others will claim pieces of that legacy, and it would be a mistake to assume that this alone will deliver the nomination to him.”
Denis R. McDonough, the former White House chief of staff, said Mr. Obama clearly thinks Mr. Biden is prepared to be president, otherwise he never would have picked him for vice president. “But the president has also said there are a lot of good candidates in the race, and he thinks it’s important for the party to make this choice about moving forward. A full primary contest is good for the party.”
‘Articulate and Bright’
Presidents and vice presidents are rarely friends, but often onetime rivals thrown together to unify a party for a general election, as with John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson or Ronald Reagan and George Bush. Kennedy and Johnson never grew close. Reagan and Bush did, at least on some level. Others started out close only to grow apart by the end, as with Bill Clinton and Al Gore or George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.
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.
By summertime, after Mr. Obama dispatched Mrs. Clinton to clinch the nomination, Mr. Biden came back on the radar screen as his first choice among three finalists for running mate. When Mr. Biden resisted, Mr. Obama persisted.
“He didn’t really want to be vice president, and they talked back and forth and Obama convinced him,” said former Senator Ted Kaufman, a longtime adviser who took Mr. Biden’s seat. “And the centerpiece was he’d be the last person in the room” for any decision.
‘Heading in Direction Z’
It was an odd choice for a candidate running as an outsider, but Mr. Obama hoped to reassure voters concerned about his inexperience and, perhaps, his racial background.
It was an odd choice, too, for Mr. Biden, who had never really worked for anyone else. But his family pressed him to say yes. When he expressed misgivings to his wife, Jill, he told friends, she replied, “Grow up.” His mother said he could not turn down the chance to help elect the first African-American president.
Their partnership sealed at their party’s convention, the two went their separate ways, crisscrossing the country on their own planes. It was not until they won that they really began to spend time together and get to know each other.
Mr. Biden was to play the sage mentor, helping an unseasoned president navigate the treacherous politics of the capital. But the first months were difficult. The two crossed wires more than once.
When the speak-first, think-later vice president said that in fashioning an economic stimulus program there was a “30 percent chance we’re going to get it wrong,” an irritated president dismissed it — and him. “I don’t remember exactly what Joe was referring to — not surprisingly,” Mr. Obama told reporters.
Mr. Biden was peeved and raised it at their next private lunch. He should not be portrayed as the wacky “Uncle Joe” of the administration, he told Mr. Obama. The president agreed to not diminish his partner in public.
But they were still on different wavelengths. At meetings, there was usually a good deal of eye rolling when Mr. Biden began one of his long monologues. The vice president was the only person who would say “finally” four or five times before actually stopping, as one person in the room put it.
James B. Comey, then the F.B.I. director, described the dynamic in his memoir: “President Obama would have a series of exchanges heading a conversation very clearly and crisply in Direction A. Then, at some point, Biden would jump in with, ‘Can I ask something, Mr. President?’”
“Obama would politely agree,” Mr. Comey continued, “but something in his expression suggested he knew full well that for the next five or 10 minutes we would all be heading in Direction Z. After listening and patiently waiting, President Obama would then bring the conversation back on course.”
For his part, Mr. Biden grew frustrated by Mr. Obama’s ponderous decision-making process. “He was deliberate to a fault,” Mr. Biden wrote diplomatically in his book, “Promise Me, Dad.”
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.
He was also the in-house skeptic on the use of force, arguing against a troop surge to Afghanistan, military intervention in Libya and the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. That put him on the opposite side of many debates with Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who in his memoir called the vice president “wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.”
Mr. Obama did not see it that way, but as Benjamin J. Rhodes, his deputy national security adviser, put it in his own book, “In the Situation Room, Biden could be something of an unguided missile.”
In the debate over Afghanistan, Mr. Biden argued against sending 40,000 troops requested by the generals on top of 68,000 already deployed, and he promoted a more limited counterterrorism strategy. Over months of debate, other officials concluded that Mr. Biden was deliberately taking a more aggressive position to let the president keep his own thoughts to himself.
“Biden really played a role of challenging assumptions from the Pentagon and being the bad guy in the Situation Room that allowed the president a lot more decision-making space,” said Jay Carney, Mr. Biden’s communications director before becoming White House press secretary.
In the end, Mr. Obama gave the military most but not all of the troops requested while setting a two-year timeline for withdrawal. Mr. Biden’s contrarian position, Mr. Obama later said, was useful. “Joe, in that sense, can help stir the pot,” he told The New York Times.
‘I Was Really Angry’
In some ways, Mr. Biden became the human face of an administration led by a president known for robotic stoicism. Where Mr. Obama rarely revealed any inner life, Mr. Biden rarely disguised his. Anger, joy, frustration, eagerness — if he felt it, he expressed it.
Nor did he hide when he disagreed with the president. “Joe did not hesitate to say, ‘I think he’s going in the wrong direction,’” said Leon E. Panetta, who succeeded Mr. Gates at the Pentagon. As an example, he cited the vice president’s feeling that the president’s team was not sufficiently sensitive to concerns of Catholics about abortion and contraceptive coverage by insurance companies.
But Mr. Panetta said Mr. Biden never took defeat personally. “He didn’t bear it on his back,” he said. “He didn’t pout. He didn’t show that somehow he had been offended or have this hangdog look. He basically would come in the next day and it was Joe Biden all over again.”
Mr. Obama ceded to Mr. Biden tasks he clearly did not care for himself, most prominently negotiations with Congress. Time and again, it fell to Mr. Biden to parachute in to cut a deal that had eluded the president. In Mr. Biden, Republicans saw someone they could do business with when they gave up on Mr. Obama.
“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.”
‘You Are My Brother’
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.?”
“They got to the point that they could speak without actually saying anything,” Mr. Rhodes said.
When Mr. Biden weighed selling his house in Delaware to help Beau’s family, Mr. Obama offered to pay off the mortgage himself. When Beau died at age 46, it felt like a blow to Mr. Obama, too. “Joe,” an uncharacteristically emotional president told him during the eulogy, “you are my brother.”
‘The Great What-Ifs’
But Mr. Obama saw Mr. Biden’s exploration of a late presidential campaign as an expression of grief as much as anything else. Mr. Obama’s resistance “was from a good place,” said Mr. Rhodes, “from wanting the best for him in that moment.”
It was clear that Mr. Biden was not in an emotional state for a campaign for the White House. “His head was just someplace else,” Mr. Rhodes said. “And if you’re going to do three or four events a day in Iowa, it’s just hard to do that unless you’re all in.”
At their lunches, Mr. Obama cautioned Mr. Biden not to get too far out front so he did not look fickle if he did not run. “I’m very protective of your legacy,” Mr. Biden remembered the president telling him. “I really mean it.”
Mr. Obama urged the vice president to see Mr. Plouffe for some straight talk about his chances. Mr. Plouffe arrived with data suggesting that the vice president would not only lose, but he might also even finish third behind Mrs. Clinton and Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, as The Atlantic reported.
Ultimately, Mr. Biden got close enough that he had drafted an announcement speech, but he opted not to run. The president made a point of letting Mr. Biden disclose his decision in the Rose Garden while standing next to him. More than a year later, Mr. Obama surprised a teary-eyed Mr. Biden with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
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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