Don’t worry, Joe: It ain’t so. Why Obama won’t run with Hillary Clinton

Jeff Greenfield
Yahoo News

No.

Not even if you see an airborne swine. Not even if they’re driving a Zamboni in Hades.

When you read a rumination–or recommendation, or prediction–that President Barack Obama will replace Vice President Joe Biden with Hillary Clinton on the Democratic ticket–the odds are overwhelming that its creator was inspired by two thoughts:

1. My deadline is an hour away.

2. I got nothing.

Yes, the Weekly Standard’s William Kristol correctly notes that Clinton’s favorability ratings are very high–higher than those of Obama, Joe Biden, and Mitt Romney. And we should not lightly dismiss the predictive powers of Mr. Kristol, who asserted on Dec. 17, 2006: “Barack Obama is not going to beat Hillary Clinton in a single Democratic primary. I’ll predict that right now.”

Yes, the White House is all but publicly grousing about the way the vice president forced the president’s hand on gay marriage.

And yes, Biden has proven to be a much juicier target for the late-night comedians than the more phlegmatic president. (Jason Sudeikis’ flannel-mouthed glad-handing veep trumps Fred Armisen’s Obama.)

[Related: Democratic voters weigh in on how they feel about Biden]

But grab yourself a cup of decaf and ask yourself two simple questions:

First, when have presidents who are up for re-election dumped their vice presidents, and why have they done it? The difference between the reality and the Hillary-for-Joe fantasy can be measured in light-years.

Second, if Obama were to attempt this, how would he explain it? Trying to answer this question with a straight face is the best way to understand why (assuming accident or illness does not intervene) it’s not going to happen.



In more-or-less modern times, presidents have dumped their veeps three times.

Franklin Roosevelt did it in 1940. His two-term vice president, the former House Speaker John Nance Garner, was far more conservative than his president, and had broken with him on issues like the packing of the Supreme Court. The Democratic Party’s liberal wing despised Garner. At a congressional hearing, labor leader John L. Lewis called him "a labor-baiting, poker-playing, whiskey-drinking, evil old man." When Garner showed signs that he might challenge FDR’s nomination for a third term in office with his own presidential candidacy, the Democrats replaced him on the ticket with Henry Wallace, the secretary of agriculture. (Garner retired to Texas, his place in history assured by his famous aphorism–often censored–that the job he held was “not worth a bucket of warm piss.”)

Four years later, it was Wallace’s turn to walk the plank. His liberal views on race and social justice, along with a very sympathetic attitude toward the Soviet Union, unsettled Democrats who were well aware that FDR might not survive his fourth term. Out went Wallace, in came Harry Truman. Wallace got the consolation prize of secretary of commerce, until his increasingly open hostility to Truman’s Cold War policies got him booted. In 1948, he ran for president as a member of the very-left Progressive Party; he got 2.4 percent of the vote, but the 8 percent he captured in New York likely cost Truman that state, and he surely made the results in California and Ohio far closer than they otherwise would have been.

The only other example came in 1976, when Gerald Ford was facing a strong challenge to his renomination from Ronald Reagan. Ford had to have the support of prominent conservatives such as Strom Thurmond–and the price of their support was the dumping of Vice President Nelson Rockefeller. To help Ford, Rockefeller fell on his own sword by taking himself out of the running early–in November 1975–saying, "I didn't come down (to Washington) to get caught up in party squabbles which only make it more difficult for the president in a very difficult time, when the problems of the country require his fullest possible attention.” He left the political stage dramatically, caught on camera giving the middle-finger salute at a campaign rally; and left life even more dramatically, having given up the ghost while engaged in intercourse–perhaps social, perhaps otherwise–with a woman 45 years his junior.

[Related slideshow: Obama speaks at Joplin high school graduation]

(Unelected running mates have been tossed as well: George McGovern jettisoned Tom Eagleton as his running mate in 1972 after news of Eagleton’s history of depression–including electroshock therapy–emerged. And “The Passage of Power,” the new volume of Robert Caro’s Lyndon B. Johnson biography, suggests JFK might have turned elsewhere in 1964 because LBJ was no longer able to deliver a Southern state, and because journalists and Senate investigators were in hot pursuit of Johnson’s shady finances.)

All of these examples, unlike Biden’s situation, involved a vice president who became anathema to a significant segment of his party. Other veeps have been retained even though they were polarizing figures: Spiro Agnew in ’72, Dan Quayle in ’92, Dick Cheney in ’04.

Which brings us to the second question.

Imagine the press conference where President Obama has to explain his decision to replace Joe Biden with Hillary Clinton. It is, to put it mildly, not likely that the press will accept at face value a Biden announcement that he has decided to step down to run Amtrak, or to retire to his beloved Scranton, Pa.

So what would the president say? That he made a mistake the first time? That he is tired of clicking on yet another website to read, “Biden later explained...”?

The one thing he could not say is what everyone with a pulse will believe: "I’ve concluded that my re-election will be much more likely if I run with Hillary Clinton.”

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A Clinton-for-Biden switch would stamp Obama as a president who is acting just like any other politician. This perception is already eating away at the most potent appeal of his first run for the White House: that he was different from the standard political mold. Of all the poll numbers that smother the landscape, the most troubling for Obama was the CBS/New York Times finding that–by a huge margin of 67 percent to 24 percent–voters believe he changed his position on gay marriage for political reasons. (Never mind what that tells us about how remarkably the ground has shifted on that issue.)

Without question, most folks believe that anything and everything a candidate says is shaped by tactical considerations. But the public manifestly does not want to hear a candidate admit that. Remember what happened to Arlen Specter, who switched parties in 2009, explaining that becoming a Democrat would make it easier for him to be re-elected as senator from Pennsylvania? That video clip was one big reason why Specter lost the 2010 Democratic primary to Rep. Joe Sestak. For Obama to take such a momentous step to strengthen his chances for survival would, paradoxically, do him significant damage.

There’s one way to know if I’m wrong about this. If sometime in the next month or two Biden comes out for an anti-abortion amendment to the Constitution, the end to collective bargaining for public employee unions, and the cutoff of all aid to Israel, it means he’s decided to give his boss the running room he would need to make the switch.