Vice President Joe Biden isn't having a very promising new year.
Just as Washington returned to work after the holidays, Biden's foreign policy credentials suffered two body blows, and his 2016 presidential prospects took a decided turn for the worse.
Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, in his devastatingly revealing memoir of serving in Obama's cabinet, said Biden has been “wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.”
The stinging criticism came the same week Iraq’s government battled al Qaeda advances in several major cities, with Baghdad teetering on the brink of civil war.
Biden was President Obama's point-man on negotiating the post-war relationship between the U.S. and Iraq, and is facing renewed criticism for his inability to convince Baghdad to accept a residual American military presence. Critics charge that Biden failed to counter Iran's influence and stop Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, from cracking down on the country's Sunni minority, a move that fanned sectarian violence.
The hits are particularly bruising for Biden, whose familiarity with international affairs — he served as Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman for eight years — were supposed to be his strength and to compensate for Obama's lack of foreign policy experience.
The White House quickly rushed to Biden's defense, effusively calling him “one of the leading statesmen of his time.”
The day after Gates' revelations hit the news, Obama showed his solidarity by including the vice president in every White House meeting the president held that day and offering a photo opportunity of the two having lunch together.
By that time, however, the damage had been done. Twitter erupted in jokes about the White House's statement and a particularly un-statesman-like flashback image of "Biden being Biden” — with his hands on a female biker’s shoulders, laughing at a diner during a 2012 campaign stop. Biden's gaffes and colorful personality had already raised questions about whether he has the gravitas to be president.
Despite the ridicule, some Democrats insist Biden can shake off Gates’ criticism if he decides to run in 2016.
Tad Devine, a Democratic political consultant who served as a senior adviser to Al Gore's 2000 and John Kerry's 2004 presidential campaigns, said the party’s primary voters won’t care what Gates, a Republican, thinks about Biden's record. Furthermore, Democratic voters will be relieved that Biden didn't prolong the military mission in Iraq, Devine argued.
“I don't see it as a political liability for him at all,” Devine told the Washington Examiner. “These are pretty die-hard Democratic voters who turn out in these primaries.”
“Among Iowa voters, to be viewed as someone who wants to keep boots on the ground in Iraq is disastrous,” he added.
Doug Thornell, a Democratic strategist working for communications firm SKDKnickerbocker, said the 2016 race will likely focus on domestic policy, noting that Biden's strengths include retail politics and connecting with middle-class voters.
“As we move into the conversation about income equality and making the economy work for everyone, Biden is one of the best spokesman out there in terms of reaching out to regular folks and pounding away on that point,” he said.
It's still unclear just how serious Biden's presidential ambitions are. Most Democrats privately say they think Biden will only run if Hillary Clinton, the odds-on favorite, decides not to enter the race. The vice president is keeping his options open. He traveled to Iowa recently and also raised money for the governor of New Hampshire.
But Biden had his work cut out for him even before Gates' book and the renewed sectarian violence in Iraq.
History hasn't been kind to vice presidents who have aimed for the Oval Office. In 1988, George H.W. Bush became the first vice president to succeed to the presidency since Martin Van Buren in 1836.
Trying to reverse negative opinions of him in key primary states could prove an even bigger challenge. Sixty-two percent of Iowa voters and 33 percent of Democratic voters in the state said they didn't think Biden would make a good president, according to a December Quinnipiac University poll.
Iowa Republican Gov. Terry Branstad recently told CNN that Biden would be "dead meat" to voters if he ran.
"Biden is so associated with this administration and all of its failures. He was unpopular before and he is even less popular now," said Branstad.