WASHINGTON — Vice President Joe Biden said Wednesday that he would not be a candidate in the 2016 presidential campaign, bringing to a close a three-month exploration that began shortly after the death of his eldest child and threatened to fracture the Democratic Party.
Biden's decision, announced in the White House Rose Garden with President Barack Obama looking on, ends one of the most public episodes of indecision about a political path since Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York left a plane bound for New Hampshire idling on a tarmac in 1991 as he fretted over whether to run for president.
With just 15 weeks until the Iowa caucuses, Biden's decision also closes the door on one of the biggest potential challenges to Hillary Rodham Clinton's second attempt at capturing the Democratic nomination.
"Unfortunately, I believe we're out of time, the time necessary to mount a winning campaign for the nomination," Biden said. "But while I will not be a candidate, I will not be silent."
Indeed, he used the rest of his 13-minute speech to outline the case he would have made as a candidate and to take a few implicit jabs at Clinton.
Without mentioning her by name, Biden criticized Clinton's assertion in last week's Democratic debate that the Republicans are her enemies. "They are our opposition; they're not our enemies," he said, repeating a point he had made several times in the past 48 hours. "And for the sake of the country, we have to work together."
Reading from a prepared text flashed on flat screens in the Rose Garden, Biden argued against the sort of hawkish interventionism Clinton has championed in the Middle East and elsewhere. "The argument that we just have to do something when bad people do bad things isn't good enough," he said. "It's not a good enough reason for American intervention and to put our sons' and daughters' lives on the line, put them at risk."
Biden seemed to chide Clinton for distancing herself from Obama lately, as she has done on trade, Syria, Arctic drilling and other issues. "Democrats should not only defend this record and protect this record, they should run on the record," he said.
Clinton, in a written statement reacting to Biden's decision, made no mention of the vice president's apparent criticism of her.
"Joe Biden is a good man and a great vice president," she said. Praising his "passion for our country" and his "devotion to family," she credited him for a record of fighting for the middle class. "And I'm confident that history isn't finished with Joe Biden."
The end of Biden's flirtation with a run came a week after Clinton's steady performance in the first Democratic debate settled nerves among many in the party worried about her troubles solidifying her front-runner status. New polls suggested that she had regained some ground against her closest competitor, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, and that Biden, if he did jump in, had lost some traction.
Sanders, who now emerges as the lone figure seriously challenging Clinton for the nomination, welcomed Biden's decision and thanked him for a lifetime of public service. "Joe Biden, a good friend, has made the decision that he feels is best for himself, his family and the country," Sanders said in a statement.
Dominating Biden's consideration over the past three months have been personal considerations. His ambivalence about running was rooted in raw — and understandable — emotion: By his own account, the vice president has been not entirely himself since his son Beau, the former Delaware state attorney general, died of brain cancer in May. An aide said Biden made his decision not to run Tuesday night.
"Beau is our inspiration," Biden, who turns 73 next month, said in his remarks in the Rose Garden. Despite the grieving process, Biden said his family had nonetheless blessed another run for the White House, if he had decided to make it. "The family has reached that point," he said as his wife, Jill, stood next to him.
Beau was the second child Biden had lost: His 13-month-old daughter, Naomi, and his first wife, Neilia, died in a car accident decades ago.
At the wake for his son, Biden told friends that Beau, in his final days, had said he hoped his father would run for president. Biden shared that story repeatedly in the weeks to follow. It struck many who heard it as a form of therapy for a grieving man and not necessarily an indication that he would run.
But over the summer, lingering questions about Clinton's use of a private email server, combined with the emergence of Sanders as her strongest opponent in the primary, helped convince Biden that there could be an opening for him.
In his remarks Wednesday, Biden said he would focus on his final stretch in office and gave little hint about what might come after that. He made a forceful argument for policies he said would benefit the middle class, including expanded aid for college and child care, revamped immigration rules and higher taxes on the wealthy.
"We intend — the whole family, not just me — we intend to spend the next 15 months fighting for what we've always cared about, what my family's always cared about, with every ounce of our being," he said.