WASHINGTON -- Put some 650 political reporters, high-ranking government officials and their friends in a hotel ballroom for dinner, and, if nothing else, you get a good indicator of the conventional wisdom in the capital.
Some years, one of the joke-telling speakers at the Gridiron Club’s annual dinner wows the crowd with wit or poise, boosting his or her standing. Barack Obama did that as a senator.
This time, though, the big winner appears to have been a man who wasn’t there -- Vice President Joe Biden.
The dinner and its accompanying musical skits confirmed that opinion in elite Washington has swung around on Biden, taking him from being the butt of jokes to being talked about as the administration's indispensable man.
During one skit, members of the Gridiron Club sang a song about the vice president celebrating his recent prowess as the administration's negotiator of the year-end budget deal. To the tune of "I Am a Rock," the chorus proclaimed: "Who needs Barack, I am Joe Bi-i-i-den."
Obama added to the Biden-fest with a joke about his vice president's ambition for higher office. The 70-year-old Biden would face questions about his age, he said, and the concerns were valid. He had warned Biden he was too young to run for pope.
Biden was not, of course, the only Democrat whose ambitions for 2016 were a focus of the evening. Hillary Rodham Clinton also got a song of her own.
The opinion of elite Washington is hardly infallible. Still, in the early phases of a campaign, winning credibility among elites – the silent primary, as political scientists refer to it – does matter.
In Biden's case, the night provided a marker of the improvement of his image as a serious political actor – an image problem that has posed a hurdle for past vice presidents, who by job definition work in the shadow of the man in the Oval Office.