Who will be presumptive Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden’s running mate? The answer to this question will reveal much about the remainder of this year’s election campaign in the United States, the policy direction of a potential Biden administration and the future of the Democratic Party post-2024. In many ways, Biden’s decision may be a more consequential vice presidential choice than in any election in recent American history.
For Biden, five criteria will be key in choosing his running mate: (1) Who can best help him win the election on Nov. 3? (2) Assuming he wins, who can best support him in the White House as vice president? (3) Who is best prepared to step in as president were Biden to be incapacitated during his time as president? (4) Who is best suited to run for the presidency in 2024 and provide the Democratic Party its next generation of leadership? and (5) With whom does Biden feel “simpatico”?
As of mid-June, the following eleven individuals (in alphabetical order) are seen as the leading candidates: Former Georgia state legislator Stacey Abrams (46); Wisconsin Sen. Tammy Baldwin (58); Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms (50); Florida Rep. Val Demings (63); Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth (52); New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (60); California Sen. Kamala Harris (55); Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo (49); former National Security Adviser Susan Rice (55); Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren (71); and Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (48). Abrams, Bottoms, Demings, Harris and Rice are African-American, Duckworth is Asian-American and Grisham is Latina.
Winning the election
After Biden won the South Carolina primary on Feb. 29, Democrats coalesced behind him in part because they felt that he, rather than Sen. Bernie Sanders, had the best chance of beating Donald Trump in the general election on Nov. 3. But they also realized that as a 77-year-old white male from a small East Coast state, Biden needed to boost his support among youth, women, people of color and voters outside the East Coast. Based on these criteria, the person most qualified might be Kamala Harris, since she could presumably garner votes from youth, women and people of color (her father is from Jamaica, her mother from India and she graduated from Howard University), and she is from California.
But weighing against Harris may be her record as attorney general of California, which some claim reveals that she is less progressive than is being required by advocates of fundamental reforms in America’s criminal justice system. In addition, California is a solidly blue state already assured to vote for Biden rather than for Trump. And some in Biden’s inner circle, including Biden’s wife Jill, have reportedly not forgiven Harris for attacking Biden in the Democratic presidential candidates’ debate televised last July for his stance against school busing in the 1970s.
To win additional votes, Biden may decide that it is important to choose a running mate who can help him win a crucial swing state such as Michigan (Whitmer’s home state), which Hillary Clinton lost to Trump in 2016 by a mere 10,000 votes; Wisconsin (Baldwin’s home state), which Clinton lost to Trump by 22,000 votes; Florida (Demings’s home state); or Georgia (home of Abrams and Bottoms). If Biden believes that raising the voter turnout of young African-Americans is key, especially given the urgency of Black Lives Matter, he may decide to select Abrams, Bottoms, Demings, Harris or Rice — although Abrams and Bottoms lack national political experience and Rice has never served in elective office.
Serving as a vice president or president
Walter Mondale, who served with great distinction under President Jimmy Carter (1977-1981), is usually credited as the model of the modern vice president. Given the plethora of complex issues, both domestic and foreign, that will confront Biden as president, he will want to select a vice president to whom he can delegate major issues and responsibilities, as Carter did to Mondale. If Biden thinks that Black Lives Matter is a top priority, he may choose one of the five African-American candidates. On the other hand, if Biden believes a structural change in the economy is necessary to remedy America’s huge economic disparities, Elizabeth Warren could be an attractive candidate, despite her age and race.
Duckworth would provide ethnic diversity as the first Asian-American vice president, and she would lend policy and legislative expertise especially on national security affairs based on her military service and experience as a congresswoman and senator from Illinois. Whitmer could provide executive leadership based on her service as governor of Michigan, as could Raimondo, governor of Rhode Island.
Because of his age, Biden will likely choose a running mate who is fully prepared to step in and govern if he were to be incapacitated during his time in office. Many thought that the best prepared candidate to do so was Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar because of her experience as a three-term senator and her deep knowledge of domestic and foreign policy.
However, the brutal murder of George Floyd by a white police officer in Minneapolis on May 25 and the ensuing Black Lives Matter protests led to additional scrutiny of Klobuchar’s record as Hennepin County attorney general before she became a senator. On June 18, she announced that she had called Biden the previous evening to withdraw from consideration and to urge him to choose a person of color to be his running mate. That would presumably include Duckworth and Grisham in addition to the five African-American candidates.
2024 and beyond
Because Biden would be 78 if he is inaugurated on Jan. 20, 2021 — the oldest president in American history — most observers believe that he will not seek re-election in 2024, when he will be 82 years old. This means that the person Biden chooses as his running mate will likely be the leading Democrat to vie for the presidency in 2024.
Biden has already announced that he will choose a woman as his running mate. This would be only the third woman to be a vice presidential candidate from a major party, following Walter Mondale’s choice of New York Rep. Geraldine Ferraro in 1984 and John McCain’s choice of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin in 2008. If elected, Biden’s pick would be America’s first woman vice president as well as the leading Democratic candidate for president in 2024. For these reasons as well, Biden’s choice could be historic.
The importance of simpatico
The four criteria discussed above — who can help Biden win, who can best serve him as vice president, who could best step in as president and who can best lead the Democratic Party post-2024 — are all important. But perhaps the most important criterion of all is what Biden himself has pointed to: simpatico, meaning someone with whom he is both personally and politically compatible and who can be trusted to help him both campaign and govern.
Richard Moe, who served as the chief of staff for Vice President Mondale, wrote in April 2020: “This intangible element (simpatico) is by far the most important factor in the equation and it should be decisive. The best politics for Joe Biden will be the selection of a woman who will be, and be seen as, qualified to be president of the United States.”
With almost five months still remaining until the election, predicting the outcome is risky, since anything can happen between now and Nov. 3. For instance, another book or two similar to that recently published by former National Security Adviser John Bolton exposing Trump’s incompetence and unfitness to be president could weaken his support even among Republicans. On the other hand, if history is any guide, a terrorist attack on the U.S. would almost inevitably lead to Americans rallying to support the incumbent president.
The president who emerges victorious from the Nov. 3 election will be confronted with four major challenges: conquering the COVID-19 public health crisis, fixing the ensuing economic catastrophe, rectifying the racial inequality symbolized by Black Lives Matter and restoring America’s role in the global community. To succeed, he will need the support of a capable, experienced and simpatico vice president. Trump has already made his choice. Now it’s Biden’s turn to decide.
Implications for Japan
Many people in Japan have told me that they have little interest in Biden’s running mate. Their explanation is that “Our prime minister deals with your president, not your vice president.” And although Biden served as a senator for 36 years (including as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee) and as vice president for 8 years, no one in Japan could cite a single Japanese political or business leader who knows him well.
This may reveal an underappreciation in Japan for the role of the American vice president. After all, out of 48 vice presidents, 14 have later gone on to assume the presidency, including five in the postwar era: Harry Truman, Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson, Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush. Biden may be the sixth. And if he is, his vice president will likely become the leading Democrat to run for the presidency in 2024. For this reason alone, Japan may find it in their interest to pay more attention to Biden’s choice and to get to know her.
Glen S. Fukushima is a writer based in Washington, San Francisco and Tokyo. He has served as deputy assistant United States trade representative for Japan and China and as president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan.