Vice President Joe Biden is the most popular person in Washington these days. That’s right, the guy who spilled the beans on gay marriage and got caught telling a big bleep*%^ing swear word on national television is now being lauded by many in the DC for being the only real grown up in town.
Where President Obama and Speaker John Boehner are no longer on speaking terms, Biden is the "McConnell whisperer." Obama distances himself from Capitol Hill, while Biden pulls members of Congress real close. Literally.
As Boehner awkwardly posed for pictures with his new House colleagues on the first day of the 113th Congress, Biden back-slapped, hugged and squeezed his way through the new class of Senators. While columnists and reporters gushed over the "Biden Show" (broadcast for the dorkiest of us to watch on C-SPAN), Obama was thousands of miles away in Hawaii.
This week Joe Biden was once again front and center, pledging to help the President push sweeping gun control legislation through a recalcitrant Congress.
The most recent CNN poll showed Biden with a 59 percent job approval rating. Victory at the ballot box in November and on the tax fight in early January were key to his approval rating surge. The fact that the GOP has been floundering and flailing about since Election Day also helps the White House look better by comparison.
Biden's success at playing the inside game, however, isn’t the kind of thing that voters are pining for in a presidential candidate. That is, if the Vice President is indeed thinking about running in 2016.
Campaigning as an 'insider' has never been a particularly promising path to the presidency. There's a reason that most presidents in the modern era haven't been members of Congress. Those of us who work in Washington have tremendous respect for the guys (and let’s face it they are mostly guys), who know how to work the system, grease the skids and get things done. And, while voters may be frustrated with the paralysis and partisanship in Washington, they don’t see a creature of Washington as the solution.
Moreover, while plenty of national columnists love the idea of a guy who can work well with those on the other side of the aisle, it's not something that plays all that well with partisans. Being known as the guy who can cut deals with Republicans doesn't get primary voters' blood pumping in the same way as being the guy who is willing to punch the other side in the mouth (metaphorically, of course).
Democrats love the Biden they saw on the debate stage this fall with Paul Ryan. They'll want more 'malarkey' and less 'McConnell.’
More important, while the inside-the-Beltway crowd is warming to this Biden, it's not at all clear that regular voters have reached the same conclusions. Biden's image make-over in Washington is not as important as the one he has to do in places like suburban Denver, Milwaukee and Columbus.
During the 2012 campaign I was fortunate to be invited to watch pollster Peter Hart conduct focus groups with swaths of swing voters across the country for the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. During these two-hour long discussions of the presidential campaign, Hart would ask the participants to give him a word or phrase the described different political figures.
Most saw Biden as more silly than serious. Terms used to describe him include: "gaffe-a-saurus", "dipstick," "entertaining'" and "goofy." Many observed his everyman appeal calling him "empathetic," "blue collar'" and "good at making people feel at ease.” Those are the characteristics that made him a good addition to the ticket in 2008 and make him an attractive candidate in the future.
But, compare that with what these swing voters said about Hillary Clinton. Among a group of college educated women in Milwaukee this August, Hillary was seen as "smart," "strong," "brilliant," and "focused." Even back in October of 2011 among a cross-section of voters in Cincinnati, Hillary Clinton was described as “strong” and “wise”, while Biden was seen as an “entertainer” and “black-slapper.”
An early January poll by Pew Research Center showed Biden's favorable rating at just 42 percent.
To be sure, 2016 is still a long way off. And, with the 2012 campaign in the rear view mirror, Biden can now focus much more on his own political future instead of the guy on the top of the ticket. Even if Biden decides not to run, it would do him well to try and fix his image. After all, this is the last chance he has to shape his own legacy before it gets defined for him in 2017 and beyond.
Even so, it's good to remember that winning over Washington is not the same as winning over America. If Biden is serious about 2016, perhaps he should spend less time with senators and more time with Saturday Night Live's Jason Sudekis. The caricature of him that Sudekis has perfected will have a more profound impact on the way that he’s viewed by regular voters than the image he’s built here in Washington.