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What Is Joe Biden Thinking?

Vice President Biden (right) announces in the Rose Garden of the White House on Wednesday that he will not seek the presidency.

Joe Biden summoned the attention of the nation at noon Wednesday in the Rose Garden of the White House, where he shared his thoughts and feelings about running for president.

"Unfortunately," the vice president said, "I believe we're out of time — the time necessary to mount a winning campaign for the nomination."

Biden said he had thought that even this late in the year, the window of opportunity might still be open for him.

"I've concluded that it's closed," Biden said.

Everyone has been asking: "What is Joe thinking?" On Wednesday we found out. His political instincts, his ability to make a critical decision, told him not to run. And he listened.

But we also got a sense of what Joe Biden is feeling. And that version of the man was clearly ready to campaign. The expression "fire in the belly" might well have been coined for Joe Biden. And for 20 minutes Wednesday, Biden could share his passion for politics with a nation interrupting its business to pay attention to him. He may not have quite such an audience again.

"But while I will not be a candidate, I will not be silent," Biden promised. "I intend to speak out clearly and forcefully, to influence as much as I can where we stand as a party and where we need to go as a nation."

Biden has always been interested in health care policy, but when he talked Wednesday about "a moonshot to cure cancer" you knew he was talking about his son, Beau, who died from that disease this summer. When he added, "it's personal," you knew he meant it.

Biden also proceeded through a litany of progressive issues, centered primarily on income inequality. In fact, one could say his agenda is a great deal like that of his former Senate colleague, Bernie Sanders of Vermont. Biden is not expected to take sides in the Democratic primary contest, but if he did, he might well see much to like in Sanders' priorities.

"It isn't just a matter of fairness or economic growth," Biden said. "It's a matter of social stability for this nation. We cannot sustain the current levels of inequality that exist in this country."

Biden did not spare the campaign money system many populists and progressives consider a bête noire.

"I believe the huge sums of unlimited and often secret money pouring into our politics is a fundamental threat to our democracy," Biden said. "Because the middle class will never have a fighting chance as long as just several hundred families, the wealthiest families, control the process."

But most observers have expected that a late bid by Biden would mostly pose problems for Hillary Clinton. The two have both been high-profile symbols of the Obama administration. They would divide the loyalties of much of the Democratic establishment in ways Sanders does not — in Washington and elsewhere. Officeholders and other party insiders with doubts about Clinton would be far more willing to consider Biden as a plausible alternative than Sanders.

In the end, however, it was hard even for Biden to make the case for jumping in at this stage. He would be 74 on Election Day next year, two decades older than the average age of a newly elected president. He would be the oldest new president ever, breaking Ronald Reagan's previous record by four years. (Sanders is 74, Clinton will be 68 next Monday.)

Biden has run for president before, but the results both times were discouraging. His first bid 28 years ago fell apart amid accusations of plagiarism (and an on-camera meltdown). His second foray in 2008 got as far as Iowa, where he finished fifth in the caucuses and promptly dropped out.

To be sure, Biden has written a new history through eight years as Obama's loyal wing man. He could play the senior statesman instead of the ambitious Senate committee chairman who talked too much. He has benefited from an upwelling of national sympathy since the death of his son.

But he still lacks the campaign infrastructure serious candidates need with less than 15 weeks to go to Iowa's caucuses. That is not an oversight, it is a failure to plan. Biden has known for years that if he wants the Oval Office he must get past Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination. He has also known for years that others would contest that nomination as well. He might not have expected Sanders to matter as much as he has, but he did know there would be someone on the left.

Yet Biden has made no visible effort to mount a 2016 campaign through all these years of being "a heartbeat away." Nor has he made the minimal moves a vice president typically makes to signal an intent to run. This despite the fact that a sitting vice president is more or less assumed to be interested in succeeding his boss.

In fact, the previous eight Democrats to serve as vice president, dating back to the 1930s, (Al Gore, Walter Mondale, Hubert Humphrey, Lyndon Johnson, Alben Barkley, Harry Truman, Henry Wallace and "Cactus Jack" Garner) have all run for president. And since the 1960s, all who sought the Democratic nomination have been the nominee.

So there would have been nothing unseemly about Biden getting some machinery up and running during the past year (or even earlier in Obama's second term). Instead, he seems to have left it to a loosely organized group of longtime friends and backers to build a shadow campaign.

It is far easier to understand why Biden bowed out than to explain why it took him so long. But hearing him speak Wednesday shows once again how much he loves the chase. It is not too much to imagine him chafing on the sidelines as 2016 arrives and the primaries play out.

The next election may well be a watershed in U.S. political history. Biden can still be expected to do whatever he can to part of that fight.

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