The political dynamic has put the Obama White House in a delicate position. It can’t be viewed as going all out to promote Biden as the heir apparent when it’s more than possible that Clinton will be the one to inherit the Obama legacy. Moreover, Clinton’s formidability as a candidate, her political machine, and her fundraising network could well mean that Biden will never try to take her on. Nor can Obama and his network risk being seen as snubbing Clinton, a former Cabinet member—and, by extension, her husband—by favoring Biden.

That means it makes little sense, Democratic insiders say, for Obama to use his political capital now or later to support his vice president’s future political aspirations. And should Biden decide to run against Clinton, the president likely will have to remain above the fray, Devine says. “If I were in there advising him, I’d say, ‘Listen, you have to stay out of this.’ ” (It would be returning a favor: Although Biden ultimately became Obama’s running mate, the then-senator never endorsed Obama over Clinton in the 2008 Democratic primary.)

In the short term, Clinton’s shadow means that the Obama White House can’t do what the Reagan and Clinton administrations did before it: Establish an inside political operation designed to promote the veep’s ascension. By this time during Clinton’s second term, says one former Gore hand, the White House’s political shop was dominated by the vice president’s loyalists. And Craig Fuller, who served as George H.W. Bush’s chief of staff as Bush readied his run, says the Reagan White House ensured that Bush stayed highly visible, both with his political travel schedule during the 1986 midterm elections and his 1988 itinerary.