WASHINGTON — Vice President Joe Biden ended months of intense speculation about his political future on Wednesday with a sudden announcement that he wouldn’t seek the presidency, abandoning a dream he’s harbored for decades and putting Hillary Clinton in a stronger position to capture the Democratic nomination.
With his wife, Jill, and President Barack Obama at his side in the White House Rose Garden, Biden said the window for a successful campaign “has closed,” noting his family’s grief following the death of his son, Beau.
Still, Biden, who a spokesman said made his decision Tuesday night, positioned himself as a defender of the Obama legacy, implicitly suggesting that he still views himself as the best possible successor to the president.
In tone, the remarks sounded like the kind of speech defending staunch Democratic values that he might have given had he reached the opposite conclusion.
The vice president sent a pointed warning to the Democratic front-runner in his remarks, again apparently rebuking her for her comment in last week’s CNN Democratic debate that Republicans were her enemies.
“I believe that we have to end the divisive partisan politics that is ripping this country apart, and I think we can,” said Biden, who, though a crafty partisan, often worked across the aisle during nearly four decades in the Senate.
“It’s mean spirited, it’s petty, and it’s gone on for much too long. I don’t believe, like some do, that it’s naive to talk to Republicans. I don’t think we should look at Republicans as our enemies. They are our opposition. They’re not our enemies.”
He added: “For the sake of the country, we have to work together.
“While I will not be a candidate, I will not be silent,” he said in a speech that highlighted Democratic themes on income inequality along with a call for a national movement to cure cancer. “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.”
The question of whether Biden, 72, would enter the race has consumed Democrats for months, but in recent days, the vice president’s long period of deliberation had begun to frustrate some in the party — and there was rising pressure for him to declare his intentions.
The prospect of a run seemed to decline further after Clinton’s commanding performance at the first Democratic presidential debate on Oct. 13. Her poised demeanor and deft handling of tough questions left many analysts convinced that Clinton effectively froze Biden out of the race.
Two political events may have affected the timing of Biden’s announcement. On Thursday, Clinton appeared before a Republican-led committee on Capitol Hill probing the deaths of four Americans in attacks on U.S. facilities in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11, 2012, when she was secretary of state. The vice president may not have wanted his decision to be seen as a judgment on her performance if it was made public after the hearing. Democrats are also gathering this weekend at an important party dinner in dinner in Iowa — a must stop for presidential candidates seeking the nomination and a Biden no show would likely have severely hampered his chances in the state.
Implicit in Biden’s remarks was a realization that Clinton’s position and organizational muscle in early voting states are just too strong for him to mount a credible challenge at such a late stage — just three-and-a-half months before first votes are cast.
The vice president’s running room has been further curtailed by the unexpected strength of progressive champion Bernie Sanders who is running a close race to Clinton, in the first-in-the-nation primary state of New Hampshire.
By starting a campaign so late, Biden would have faced significant obstacles in raising the millions of dollars needed to give him a chance to win, and in setting up grassroots political organizations to wage the nomination fight across the nation.
Clinton, however, had only praise for Biden, describing him in a Tweet as “a good friend and a great man. Today and always, inspired by his optimism and commitment to change the world for the better,” she wrote. ”
Sanders said in a statement that Biden had made a decision that he feels “is best for himself, his family and the country. I thank the vice president for a lifetime of public service and for all that he has done for our nation.”
Missouri Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Clinton ally, said that Biden’s move would further solidify the former secretary of state’s control of the Democratic race.
“You can see from the polling numbers that have come out this week how that has certainly reassured and solidified her support among Democrats across the country,” she said. “I think this will push her even further in that direction.”
Democratic Senate Minority leader Harry Reid told CNN that Biden would have been a good candidate “but he made the right decision.”
And Republican front-runner Donald Trump combined a comment on Biden with a swipe at Clinton.
“I think Joe Biden made correct decision for him & his family. Personally, I would rather run against Hillary because her record is so bad,” Trump wrote.
A CNN/ORC poll last week showed that Clinton held a 16 percentage point lead — 45 percent to Sanders’ 29 percent — with Biden in the race and drawing 18 percent of the support. But with Biden removed from the list of candidates, Clinton’s lead jumped to 56 percent to Sanders’ 33 percent.
CNN’s Ted Barrett, Eric Bradner and Jim Acosta contributed to this report.