BY nature Americans are forward-looking, more inclined to focus on the future than the past. That character trait, a by-product of immigrant dreams, helps explain why the presidential campaign of 2016 already sparks animated discussion in the US.
While Republicans debate whether to become more ideologically conservative (Florida Senator Marco Rubio is often mentioned) or more moderate (with, say, Chris Christie, the New Jersey governor, as the candidate), the Democrats ponder a back-to-the-future possibility. Will it be Joe Biden or Hillary Clinton?
Both Vice President Biden and retiring Secretary of State Clinton lost to Mr Obama for the Democratic Party presidential nomination in 2008. Then, the duo joined ranks with him: Mr Biden as his running mate and, later, Mrs Clinton as his top cabinet member and ambassador to the world.
Since the Obama administration took office four years ago, Mr Biden and Mrs Clinton have played central and substantive roles. In recent weeks, the vice president helped negotiate the "fiscal cliff" deal with Congress, and he chaired a task force to develop proposals for reducing gun violence. As secretary of state, Mrs Clinton just completed a demanding term, logging a million miles in international travel to promote American interests and values in over 100 countries.
With Mrs Clinton's imminent return to private life as John Kerry assumes her post, the White House offered a joint interview involving Mr Obama and Mrs Clinton to ' 60 Minutes' last Sunday. The president asserted at one point, "I consider Hillary a strong friend." She immediately interjected, "I mean very warm, close."
Although neither figure wanted to broach any talk about 2016, the extended interview conveyed one overriding message. Shillelaghs from the bruising nominating battle in 2008 are long buried. That she even consented to the duet after the administration proposed it also strengthened the perception of another possible White House run for the former first lady, senator and cabinet secretary.
So where does that leave Mr Biden, as he embarks on another term just one step (or heartbeat) removed from the presidency? Alas, his ambition is as conspicuous as Mrs Clinton's is circumspect. During inauguration week, he seemed everywhere television cameras were positioned, and he threw a party with a guest list featuring Democratic decision-makers from key states in the nominating process.
Irish-American and Catholic, Mr Biden sought the White House twice, in 1988 and 2008, during his 36 years in the Senate. A politician of the old school, he makes it his business to work every room and shake every available hand, uttering a quip at every encounter.
In a sense, he's closer in public comportment to former president Bill Clinton, while Mrs Clinton more closely resembles the self-confident reserve, with flashes of fire, displayed by Mr Obama.
Fascination with the potential contest between Mr Biden and Mrs Clinton prompts widespread chatter in political and media circles as well as with public opinion polling.
Last week a Washington Post/ ABC News survey showed 67pc favourable for Mrs Clinton with 26pc unfavourable, while Mr Biden was at 48pc favourable and 37pc unfavourable. Tellingly, among independents Mrs Clinton had 65pc favourable to the vice president's 42pc, a sign she departs with substantial regard from all but Republicans – and even 37pc of them were favourable.
Mr Biden, however, will continue to receive frequent and high-profile attention during the next few years.
Although he'll be 73 in 2016, the vice president shows no inclination of slowing down. Mrs Clinton, still recovering from a recent concussion and blood clot near the brain, will be 69 when the election takes place.
Washington watchers think Mrs Clinton has the inside track or, if you will, the better cards. A recent Gallup poll named her the "most admired woman" in the world for the 17th time in the past 20 years. The opportunity for her to be the first woman to become US president might prove irresistible.
When Mr Obama appeared with her on '60 Minutes', the symbolism of current closeness and mutual admiration, if not explicit early support, came across with crystal clarity. Down the road, Mr Biden might seek equal time because, it's equally clear, the understudy is itching to play the leading character.
Robert Schmuhl is Professor of American Studies at the University of Notre Dame