WASHINGTON — Joe Biden wants to be president. And each day, he's closer to being ready to run for the office. But even as he weighs a campaign to unseat President Donald Trump, Biden is carefully considering a key question — what happens when the president or his top allies try to make his family an issue?
Conversations with aides to the former vice president and others who've spoken with him in recent weeks present the idea of a Biden candidacy as not if but when. Since the start of the year it's been like a "slow boil," as one aide put it, with Biden's answer on whether to run moving in a steady direction toward yes, incrementally warmer with each passing day.
Elected Democrats and key party figures who've spoken with Biden, in person or by phone, say he has been giving percentages of the likelihood of him running — from 70, to 80 and even more recently 90 percent. He speaks regularly with President Obama, who is acting as a sounding board to his former running mate. And he's even called several of his would-be opponents in the 2020 Democratic primary, congratulating them on their announcements and wishing them well even as he may soon face off against them.
Sources close to the former vice president say he's clear-eyed about the political challenge ahead if he runs, not taking anything for granted in a crowded race for the nomination even as he's confident he offers the party the best chance to be Trump.
But Biden knows and expects the president to fight as hard to stay in the White House as he did to win it in the first place — and that he's already shown nothing is off limits.
"I understand how anyone running could be concerned about the ways in which President Trump demonstrated in the 2016 election an enthusiasm for attacking not just his opponents but his family, including famously by making things up," said Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., who met with Biden recently to discuss the campaign.
"I offered my general advice that he should do what he does best, which is focus on the positive and let others take up the mantle of defending his family, his record and his honor to the extent that's at all necessary," Coons told NBC News.
No line of attack would be more reprehensible to the former vice president than one directed at his family and he and his team have been forced to consider that even as they also weigh the political dynamics.
Biden is the senior statesman and a largely popular figure in a Democratic Party eager to unite quickly behind someone who can win back the White House. But he's also a grandfather and a father trying to keep the family together.
Biden told his closest aides this week he has a few final "traps" to run before a final decision — including gut-check conversations with his children and grandchildren.
"Family is the beginning, the middle and the end. Everything revolves around family," Biden said at one of his few public events in recent weeks.
The initial shock over the passing of his eldest son, Beau, four years ago has passed. But the grieving process never ends — it just takes new forms, as Biden knows better than most. And weeks after the family marked what would have been Beau's 50th birthday, how his absence continues to weigh on the family is something Biden still is mindful of as the family patriarch.
Discussions among his inner circle have included simulating what would happen on the campaign trail if Biden were asked to respond to a fresh Trump tweet or public comment directed at Biden's family.
The trials Biden and his family have endured will undoubtedly be part of the discussion around his candidacy regardless of what the president does. His wife, Jill, has written a book due out in May that its publisher promises will be a "brave and vulnerable glimpse into the creation of a beloved American family."
Biden's second son, Hunter, has also acknowledged the complications of his personal life recently — a difficult divorce and battles with substance abuse. In a recent statement to Vanity Fair, he insisted they wouldn't affect his father's 2020 planning.
"The priority has always been clear for my dad, as it is, now, for me: Never run from a struggle," he said. "I can tell you that I wouldn't be alive today, if my dad hadn't kept fighting for me, too. So the idea that tragedy or tough times or any number of trials would dissuade a Biden from serving his fellow man— whether a friend or a fellow citizen — could not be more misguided."
Members of the Biden family
Members of the Biden family
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (C) takes the oath of office from Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor as his wife Jill Biden holds the family bible and family members look on at the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington January 20, 2013. Shown are R. Hunter Biden (front row), Maisy Biden (black cardigan), Noami Biden (red shirt), Finnegan Biden (maroon and black dress), Natalie Biden (front row, purple dress), Kathleen Biden, Hunter Biden, Ashley Biden, Howard Krein, Beau Biden and Hallie Biden.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden joined by his family members walk along the national road named after his late son Joseph R. "Beau" Biden III, in the village of Sojevo, Kosovo, August 17, 2016. President Joe Biden is the guest of honor during the street dedication ceremony naming the national road Joseph R. "Beau" Biden III.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (R) talks with his son, U.S. Army Capt Beau Biden, at Camp Victory on the outskirts of Baghdad July 4, 2009. Biden met U.S. troops preparing to mark their Independence Day holiday on Saturday, on the third day of a visit he has used to urge Iraqi politicians to do more to reconcile rival factions.
U.S. President Barack Obama (L-R), Vice President Joe Biden and Biden's son Hunter Biden attend an NCAA basketball game between Georgetown University and Duke University in Washington, January 30, 2010.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (L) is joined by his wife Jill Biden (4th L) and their family for remarks at a volunteer project to assemble care kits for U.S. military service members and veterans at a Unite America in Service event at the National Guard Armory in Washington, January 19, 2013. Biden and his family volunteered for the event during the National Day of Service as part of the 57th Presidential Inauguration.
Democratic vice-presidential candidate Joe Biden (D-DE) watches his grandson Hunter wave at the crowd after Biden spoke at the Democratic National Convention in Denver, Colorado August 27, 2008.
(REUTERS/ Rick Wilking)
Dr. Jill Biden (C), wife of U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, waves onstage with Biden family members at the Kids Inaugural concert for children and military families, one of the events ahead of the second-term inauguration of U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington January 19, 2013.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden walks with his sons Beau (L) and Hunter (2nd R) and his wife Jill down Pennsylvania Avenue during the inaugural parade in Washington January 20, 2009.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (R) holds hands with his wife Jill along with relatives as they walk on a road named after their late son Joseph 'Beau' Bide in the village of Sojevo on August 17, 2016. Biden said that the United States would remain a 'champion' of an independent Kosovo, but he firmly warned its leaders against the 'cancer' of corruption. On his first visit to Kosovo since 2009 -- the year after it unilaterally declared independence from Serbia -- Biden held talks with President Hashim Thaci and other leaders before a dedication ceremony naming a road after his late son.
(ARMEND NIMANI/AFP/Getty Images)
US vice president Joe Biden (C) walks with his son in law Howard Krien (L) during a visit to a local food court in Singapore on July 26, 2013. Biden is on a two-day official visit to Singapore after India where officials say he will tackle tensions over the disputed South China Sea 'head on.'
(MOHD FYROL/AFP/Getty Images)
US Vice President Joe Biden (3rd L) and his three grandchildren look at a koala during a visit to Taronga Zoo in Sydney on July 19, 2016. US and Australian troops plan to step up training so they are 'fully prepared' to answer challenges in the Pacific, Biden said amid rising tensions over Beijing's claims in the South China Sea.
(JESSICA HROMAS/AFP/Getty Images)
Vice President of the United States Joe Biden (C) and family attend the 2016 ESPYS at Microsoft Theater on July 13, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.
(Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images)
Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden, son of U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, addresses the final session of the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina September 6, 2012.
Chief Executive Officer of the AFL Gillon McLachlan, President of the MCC Stephen Smith and Chairman of the AFL Mike Fitzpatrick pose for a photograph with US Vice President Joe Biden and his granddaughters during the 2016 AFL Round 17 match between the Carlton Blues and the West Coast Eagles at the Melbourne Cricket Ground on July 17, 2016 in Melbourne, Australia.
(Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Media/Getty Images)
PARIS, FRANCE - JUNE 13: Dr. Jill Biden and her grand-daughter Natalie Biden try samples of food as they meet with students and staff during a visit to the Lycee Guillaume Tirel on June 13, 2016 in Paris, France. The college serves as a school for cooking and hotel services.
(Photo by Owen Franken/Corbis via Getty Images)
U.S. Vice President-elect Joe Biden, carrying his grandson Hunter Biden, departs following a Sunday morning service at Holy Trinity Church, a Roman Catholic congregation in Washington, January 18, 2009.
Second lady Dr. Jill Biden and her grand-daughter Natalie attend mass at Notre-Dame Cathedral on June 12, 2016 in Paris, France.
(Photo by Owen Franken/Corbis via Getty Images)
Vice-President Joe Biden and sons Hunter Biden (L) and Beau Biden walk in the Inaugural Parade January 20, 2009 in Washington, DC. Barack Obama was sworn in as the 44th President of the United States, becoming the first African-American to be elected President of the US.
(Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
Vice President of the United States Joe Biden, wife and Second Lady of the United States Dr. Jill Biden and family members attend University Of Pennsylvania Commencement keynote address delivered by Lin Manuel Miranda during University of Pennsylvania 260th Commencement Ceremony at Franklin Field at the University of Pennsylvania on May 16, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
(Photo by Gilbert Carrasquillo/WireImage)
US Vice President Joe Biden (C) leaves the Church of the Holy Sepulchre with his family on March 9, 2016 during his visit in Jerusalem's Old City.
(RONEN ZVULUN/AFP/Getty Images)
Vice President of the United States Joe Biden (C), his wife Dr. Jill Biden (C-L), and his granddaughter Naomi Biden (C-R) visit Arasta Bazaar, at Sultan Ahmed in Istanbul, Turkey on January 22, 2016.
(Photo by Salih Zeki Fazlioglu/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
US Vice President Joe Biden (2nd L) stands with his daughter Ashley Biden (L), his wife Jill Biden (2nd R) and son-in-law Howard Krien (R) after being being presented with a new orchid hybrid plant (pictured C) named 'Joe and Jill Biden' during a visit to the National Orchid Garden in Singapore on July 26, 2013. Biden is on a two-day official visit to Singapore after India where officials say he will tackle tensions over the disputed South China Sea 'head on.'
(MOHD FYROL/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and his wife Jill wave as they listen to Biden's son, Beau Biden, address the final session of the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, September 6, 2012.
(REUTERS/Philip Scott Andrews)
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (C) buys an ice-cream at a shop as he tours a Hutong alley with his granddaughter Finnegan Biden (R) and son Hunter Biden in Beijing December 5, 2013.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden as he is greeted by his daughter Ashley before accepting a Father of the Year award in New York, U.S., June 14, 2016. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson
Joe Biden (L) is sworn in as the Vice President of the U.S by Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens (not in photo) as the Biden children Beau (R), Hunter (C), and Ashley watch in Washington, January 20, 2009. REUTERS/Jason Reed (UNITED STATES)
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (2nd L) and his wife Jill Biden (2nd R), pose for a photo with their daughter Ashley and son-in-law Dr. Howard Krein in front of an orchid named "Dendrobium Joe and Jill Biden" in their honour, at the National Orchid Garden in Singapore July 26, 2013. REUTERS/Tim Chong (SINGAPORE - Tags: POLITICS ENVIRONMENT)
NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 7: Ashley Biden and Joe Biden attend Gilt x Livelihood Launch Event at 6 St. John's Lane on February 7, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Aurora Rose/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images)
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Biden, indeed, emerged from the holidays more convinced the family is ready for a campaign. They have taken great comfort in returning to their annual rituals, he said at a recent event discussing his 2017 book, "Promise Me, Dad."
That book's title is drawn from the conversation he had with Beau in his final months, when his son urged him not to withdraw from fighting for the causes that have animated him during his decades in public life. Remembering his son's commitment to duty is something Biden said brings him solace and a sense of purpose
"I get up every morning hoping that Beau's proud of me," Biden said at the event, adding later: "I want … Beau's son and daughter to know I was true to their dad's wishes."
When Biden passed on the 2016 race he did so understanding it may have been his last chance to seek the presidency. But Hillary Clinton's shocking defeat to Trump affords the 76-year-old a final unexpected opportunity, at a time when he feels his skills experience are needed perhaps more than ever.
Still, he's also facing the ticking clock of a primary race already underway, a dwindling supply of talent needed to staff a winning campaign, and the already-bubbling impatience of rival campaigns and would-be candidates looking for a definitive answer from the former vice president so they can make their own.
"I think that we have a tendency particularly in the States to start the whole election process much too early," he said during an appearance at the Munich Security Conference. "I think we should be focusing now on what needs to be done to alter some of the policies that are being promoted by the president."
Biden's team has long been working to lay the groundwork for a campaign for months, with mid-March as something of a moving target. Once given a green-light, it would likely take another week or two before any public launch — realistically putting the start into the second fundraising quarter after April 1.
Biden's public schedule has largely been oriented toward the higher education institutions where he has rooted his life since leaving the White House — an event at the Penn Biden Center at the University of Pennsylvania earlier this week, and one at the newly-renamed Joseph R. Biden, Jr. School of Public Policy & Administration at the University of Delaware next Tuesday.
He will also appear at the University of Nebraska at Omaha next week — just across the river from Iowa. Those events are somewhat controlled environments where Biden can focus on the issues he sees as setting him apart in a crowded field — foreign policy, and his appeal to middle class voters.
"I don't begrudge anybody making a million or hundreds of millions of dollars. I really don't," Biden said at Tuesday's event in Philadelphia. "But I do think there's some shared responsibility and it's not being shared fairly for hard-working, middle class and working class people."
As they bide time until a decision, his political team distributed talking points to a small network of outside allies makes the case, arguing the country is looking for a "trusted leader" who "provides a sense of unity for a country that is desperate for a sense of stability."
Several of those points invoke a unique bond Biden has with the public in part because of his own family's story.
"You only have to spend a few minutes with Biden out on the campaign trail to see the ferocity with which people believe in him. They hug him, they implore him to run, they tell him their family's personal struggle. There is a passion for him that is unique," one reads.