Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, who gave the keynote address at the South Carolina Democratic Party’s Palmetto Dinner in April, said he’s also spoken with Biden but not explicitly about 2020.
“I don’t think I’ll be out of school saying that he thinks I’m a good voice to be out there for us,” said Ryan, who represents a Rust Belt seat where Biden has campaigned often.
Ryan and Garcetti are among the dozens of potential candidates hard at work testing the waters in early voting states. But Biden’s team has largely worked to avoid public engagement in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, knowing that any moves he makes there for candidates will only generate more speculation about his future.
There are exceptions, like his video endorsement in South Carolina for Smith, who had become close with him and his late son. On Sunday he made his first endorsement in Iowa, for Abby Finkenauer, a state representative and one of four Democratic candidates running in Tuesday’s 1st Congressional District primary. Finkenauer helped organize volunteers in Iowa for Biden’s 2008 presidential campaign.
Biden has already campaigned and raised money for more than a half-dozen Senate candidates, while American Possibilities, his political action committee, has rolled out other endorsements and financial contributions for Democrats.
Beyond the Senate, his team is working to identify candidates in other key races — especially in Midwestern states and suburban districts — that line up with his political philosophy. Biden is very much involved in that vetting process, and has made personal calls to all of his endorsed candidates each election night.
Biden even traveled to New York to boost a close ally who had been seen as a potential 2020 hopeful, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, now facing a re-election challenge from his left.
“We’re being told by many that we have to make what I call a false choice: Do we yield only to our progressive values, or do we work on those things that affect high school-educated working people who are under siege? As if they’re different!” Biden said, later adding, “I take a back seat to no one on my progressive values.”
The Biden kitchen cabinet
Any discussions among Biden’s political inner circle — Greg Schultz, executive director of American Possibilities; Valerie Biden Owens, his sister; longtime consultant Mike Donilon; former Sen. Ted Kaufman; former chief of staff Steve Ricchetti; and former communications director Kate Bedingfield — have been in broad strokes, aides say, and are secondary to the focus on the midterms.
And any blueprint for 2020 likely would closely resemble what they readied for 2016, but with an added emphasis on Biden’s perhaps unique potential to unify the party and ultimately the country after the turbulent Trump era.
The North Star for any Biden campaign would be revitalizing the middle class, a subject Biden spoke to at length in a recent address at the Brookings Institution that was one of his most expansive policy speeches since leaving office. He called for a more progressive tax code, free tuition at community colleges and state universities, stronger labor protections and expanded skills training for American workers, and a major infrastructure package.
“Folks in the middle class are in trouble,” he said in the speech, in which he quoted Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., in decrying the “phony populism” that fueled Trump’s rise.
“If we have a weak middle class, we become a fractured country,” Biden said. “When opportunity fades, people feel left out. … And it’s the lack of hope, the lack of opportunity that’s driving so much of what’s happening today.”
Politically, Biden would promote his record on civil and women’s rights as well as tougher gun laws, highlight decades’ of relationships both with Republicans and foreign leaders to show how he can rebuild unity at home and abroad, and reject super PAC contributions.
They’re also aware of potential vulnerabilities, first among them his age. Now 75, Biden would be 78 by the time the next president is sworn in. As it did ahead of a potential 2016 race, Biden’s team has discussed announcing his candidacy early along with a pledge to serve just one term, and maybe even naming a running mate at the same time.
But sources close to Biden stressed that such decisions about 2020 won’t come until after the midterms, in part because of how much could change by the fall.
D’Allesandro, the New Hampshire state senator, said Biden’s team checked in recently to make sure it had his most up-to-date contact information, but he urged the former VP to make his decision known quickly.
“I think you can’t delay the game anymore,” D’Allesandro said. “If you’re going to do it, you have to do it.”