WASHINGTON >> If Vice President Joe Biden decides to run for the presidency again, his best chance may well be to present himself as President Barack Obama’s third-term successor. On Tuesday, Biden took the first step, describing himself as Obama’s most essential partner while taking subtle swipes at his would-be rival for the Democratic nomination, Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Along the way, Biden sought to recast his role in the raid to kill Osama bin Laden, arguably the most picked-over moment of Obama’s presidency and one that might hurt Biden’s presidential chances.
Biden had previously said that he had advised the president against launching the special forces raid on the Abbottabad compound in which bin Laden was suspected of hiding. At a Democratic congressional retreat in January 2012, Biden said that almost every other official in the Situation Room had hedged their response when asked by the president whether he should order the raid.
"I said, ‘We owe the man a direct answer. Mr. President, my suggestion is, don’t go. We have to do two more things to see if he’s there,’" Biden said then.
It was a potential weakness that Clinton has signaled she might exploit. At a debate last week in Las Vegas, Clinton boasted she was one of the few advisers to support "the tough decision that President Obama had to make about Osama bin Laden."
But by January 2013, Biden had begun hedging on whether he had opposed the raid.
"I remember walking up to his office and saying, ‘Look, follow your instincts. Follow your instincts,’" he said in a January 2013 interview.
When asked specifically whether he had advised against the raid, Biden said: "Let me put it this way: My advice was, follow your instincts, knowing what his instinct was."
On Tuesday, Biden’s evolution continued. Before an audience at George Washington University, Biden said he never gave Obama definitive advice on controversial issues in front of other officials, mindful that he did not want the rest of the team to see a difference between his opinion and that of the president. With others around them, Biden said he suggested one more pass over the Abbottabad compound with an unmanned aerial vehicle, or drone.
After the meeting in the Situation Room, though, Biden said he privately gave the president his real view. "As we walked out of the room and went upstairs, I told him my opinion, that I said that I thought he should go but to follow his own instincts," Biden said Tuesday.
William M. Daley, who was Obama’s chief of staff at the time and was present in the Situation Room when the Abbottabad raid was discussed, said shortly after Tuesday’s forum that the meeting occurred as Biden described it.
The description of the meeting about the Abbottabad raid was one of several moments when Biden seemed to take swipes, at least indirectly, at Clinton. He did not mention Clinton as among those who had definitively supported the Abbottabad raid, although she and Daly said she had been. In a wide-ranging conversation with former Vice President Walter Mondale about his vice presidency, Biden mentioned that he had flown more than 1 million miles to speak to world leaders.
"We’ve had two great secretaries of state," he said, "but when I go, they know that I am speaking for the president. There is nothing missed between the lip and the cup. Whatever I say, the president is saying."
At another point in the discussion, Biden mentioned that he was the administration’s primary interlocutor with Capitol Hill.
"And I still have a lot of Republican friends," Biden said, adding for the second time in two days, "I don’t think my chief enemy there is the Republican Party. This is a matter of making things work."
In last week’s Democratic debate, Clinton was asked which enemies she is most proud of making.
"Well, in addition to the NRA, the health insurance companies, the drug companies, the Iranians," she responded to laughter, "probably the Republicans."
Biden’s subtle digs could presage the kind of negative primary campaign that has so far largely been confined to the Republican side. Even if he does not enter the race, the vice president’s comments suggested that he is unhappy with Clinton and unlikely to get behind his former Senate and administration colleague any time soon. Either scenario — testy rival or sideline critic — is not pretty for Democrats and particularly Obama loyalists.
Political analysts have pointed out that Biden’s best and perhaps only chance to secure his party’s nomination would be to persuade center-left Democrats — particularly blacks and Hispanics — that he and not Clinton is Obama’s true heir. Obama remains wildly popular among those groups. A Washington Post/ABC News poll this week put the president’s approval rating at 78 percent among nonwhite voters.
Biden was not the only one seeming to eye Obama’s voters on Tuesday. A few hours before the event here, Clinton’s campaign released a list of more than 50 black mayors supporting her campaign, more than half of them from South Carolina, an early nominating state where Biden is expected to compete aggressively should he run.
So far, Obama has done nothing to signal that he would bestow such a blessing on either his vice president or his former secretary of state. But Biden did his best to suggest that he and the president are all but joined at the hip.
He said the two of them spent four to seven hours every day together, that the president had given him veto authority over every cabinet pick, that he never disagreed with the president ideologically, only tactically, and that even their families were close.
"My grandchildren and his children are each other’s best friends," Biden said. "They vacation together."
Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, said that while four to seven hours together "is not a daily occurrence" the claim was "generally accurate."