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'New York Magazine' Takes A Look Inside Joe Biden's Presidential Campaign


Through the long months of Democratic presidential debates, state fairs, town halls, stump speeches, Vice President Joe Biden has pretty much stayed on top of the polls. Now, there's some obvious reasons for this. He spent eight years by President Obama's side. He's a retail politician who connects with people one on one.


And yet, for a political reporter embedded with his campaign, it sometimes looks like nothing is going right. The cover story in the latest issue of New York Magazine describes Biden as the least formidable front-runner ever. Reporter Olivia Nuzzi spent months following Biden's campaign for the article. And when she came into our studios today, I asked her to start by describing Biden's style with voters.

OLIVIA NUZZI: It was kind of astonishing to consider how many different people he seemed to be able to connect with. And people will come up to him, and they'll, like, put their hands on his body like it's from "The Giver" or something. I kept thinking about that book where the boy puts his hand on the old man's back to, like, receive wisdom. It's not like what people - how they get with Elizabeth Warren where they're, like, vibrating, and they really believe in her. It's something else, and I think it has a lot to do with sadness and with grief and...

SHAPIRO: The loss that he's had in his own life.

NUZZI: People seem to just want to relate to him on this level that is - it's almost - I can't articulate what it is, exactly.

SHAPIRO: So the central contradiction or tension in this piece is between that uncanny ability as a retail politician to connect with individuals and the campaign's overarching fear that he will go off-script, that he will mess up, that he will somehow topple this tower. How do you reconcile those two things?

NUZZI: Yeah. I mean, he does mess up often. He has a lot of gaffes, right? He misspeaks. He says things that sound a little offensive, and then he tries to quickly walk it back and correct it. And I think when every little thing that you do seems to upset somebody, seems to result in a news cycle that you didn't expect - for him, it's like being on a different planet. You know, he kind of emerged from the Obama era and steps onto the soil of this, like, foreign land where he is no longer a hero. He is no longer who he was very recently in...


NUZZI: ...American political life.

SHAPIRO: You have a lot of quotes from David Axelrod, the architect of Obama's 2008 victory. And Axelrod says, in a campaign, you're generally either on the way up or on the way down, and Biden does not look like he's on the way up right now.

NUZZI: Right. If you look at the polling, his numbers have stayed fairly consistent throughout the year, but his margin over Elizabeth Warren has gotten smaller and smaller and smaller as she has seen her own numbers rise. And Axelrod's theory is that it's one or the other. You're never just still on a presidential campaign, and she's kind of eating away at his numbers.

SHAPIRO: You write that the candidate himself seems to be getting more anxious and second-guessing himself as the polls become less favorable. Can you describe that?

NUZZI: Yeah, so - I mean, based on my reporting, those close to Biden say that he has become incredibly anxious and incredibly self-conscious. And he kind of micromanages, can't delegate, finds himself very deep in the weeds on issues that he doesn't need to be concerned with.

SHAPIRO: How surprised are people on the campaign that Obama has not endorsed him?

NUZZI: I think there is a lot of frustration, but I've also spoken to people who completely understand, who don't think that it's going well. So I've spoken to people who say, totally get it. I probably wouldn't wade into this not knowing how it's going to shake out, either. I wouldn't want my legacy to be negatively affected by an outcome like Joe Biden losing.

SHAPIRO: Let's talk about Biden's position at the center of the impeachment inquiry. On the whole, when you...

NUZZI: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: ...Talk to campaign staffers, do they think it is a good thing or a bad thing that their candidate is at the center of this - biggest political story of our time?

NUZZI: They don't know. They really don't seem to know what to make of it. And I don't know that he knows what to make of it. And I think that explains kind of the delay in responding to it because I think it was three weeks later that he finally gave a speech about that in New Hampshire and called for Donald Trump's impeachment. And it was like he showed up late to his own party. You know, everyone else had already called for impeachment.

SHAPIRO: Can you tell at this point whether the campaign staff and the candidate himself believe that Joe Biden will be the Democratic presidential nominee?

NUZZI: I mean, some people seem to genuinely believe that he will be, but a lot of people think that he won't. A lot of people seem to think that they are on a sinking ship.

SHAPIRO: One of the most surprising lines in the article to me was that Biden did not grant you an interview for this story. I mean, we're talking about somebody who has spent decades in public life. You have been following his campaign working on this piece for months now. Why wouldn't the campaign let you talk to the candidate?

NUZZI: I think it's kind of malfeasance. It's like, you know, you know that somebody is doing a very big story on your campaign to only get involved in the fact-checking stage, basically.

SHAPIRO: I mean, is it a sign that they don't think he is his own best spokesperson?

NUZZI: Possibly. I mean, he hasn't done that many interviews. He's - you can really count on one hand the number of at-length interviews that he has done. I think that they're just - they're very cautious. I think they're very, very frustrated with the media coverage so far. They feel like - I think that they feel like the far-left that's very loud and the activist left has a real voice in the mainstream media that moderates don't have and that he has gotten a really unfair shake.

SHAPIRO: Olivia Nuzzi's cover story on Joe Biden is in the latest issue of New York Magazine.

Thanks for coming into the studio.

NUZZI: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.