By the time you read this, it is possible that former vice-president Joseph Robinette Biden Jr will have gone from being presumed winner of the 2020 race to becoming president-elect of the United States. He would be inaugurated as the nation’s 46th president on 20 January 2021, and, at 78, the oldest leader ever.
He was born on 20 November 1942 into a working-class family and lived in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and then Wilmington, Delaware. Educated at the University of Delaware and the Syracuse University law school, he married his first wife, Neilia Hunter, several years after they met in the Bahamas where they were both on holiday during the spring university break.
Graduating from law school in 1968, Biden moved to Wilmington to practise law, but soon became active in the Democratic Party. Two years later, he was elected to the New Castle County Council, before running and winning his Senate seat in 1972.
In 1972, still just 29 years old, and months before he was actually eligible to become a senator (the Constitution stipulates a senator must be at least 30), he waged an unlikely but successful campaign against the long-serving, popular senator, J Caleb Boggs. Before he took the oath of office, however, Neilia and their daughter Naomi were killed in a traffic accident, leaving Biden to care for his two surviving sons as he began his Senate career.
Biden says of that time: “I began to understand how despair led people to just cash in; how suicide wasn’t just an option but a rational option … I felt God had played a horrible trick on me, and I was angry.”
Following the tragedy, and unlike most members of Congress, he continued to live in Wilmington, He commuted to Washington, DC, by train, returning home at night to care for his sons.
Biden has regularly credited his parents with instilling in him an inner toughness, a belief in hard work, and perseverance. He says his father told him: “Champ, the measure of a man is not how often he is knocked down, but how quickly he gets up.” Coming home after a fight with other students, he says his mother told him: “Bloody their nose so you can walk down the street the next day!”
As a child, Biden struggled with a stutter, which he tamed by memorising long poems and repeating them to himself in front of a mirror. One of the most affecting moments at the 2020 Democratic National Convention came when a young man, also a stutterer, explained on national television how he had drawn inspiration in dealing with the problem from a meeting with the former vice-president.
Biden attended Archmere Academy, a private high school, on a scholarship. He was too small to excel at American football, but his coach described him as “one of the best pass receivers I had in 16 years as a coach”.
In speaking about his early university years, Biden admits to having been a mediocre student, but says he became more assiduous after meeting Neilia.
He has also said that like so many others of his generation, he had been encouraged to think about a political career from John F Kennedy’s 1961 inauguration speech: “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.”
In the Senate, he was a member (and chair for some years) of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which, among other things, supported passage of the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act. It also advocated strategic arms limitation agreements with the then Soviet Union, encouraged efforts towards peace and stability in the Balkans and opposed the First Gulf War.
Later, Biden urged US action to help end the Darfur genocide and criticised George W Bush’s handling of the Iraq War, including the US troop surge of 2007.
During his Senate career, he was an advocate of tougher crime legislation. The failure of Robert Bork’s 1987 nomination by Ronald Reagan to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court was a result of Biden’s tough questioning as chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Seven years later, Biden sponsored the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act to add 100,000 police officers in police departments across the nation and to increase sentences for a wide range of crimes. His 1991 questioning of Anita Hill, however, during her testimony against the nomination of Clarence Thomas, was sharply criticised for its tone and aggressiveness for decades afterwards.
Biden has acknowledged he failed a class in law school because he did not include the proper citation of a law review article in his written course work. In 1987 he borrowed part of a Neil Kinnock speech to use as his own, which contributed to the collapse of his first attempt to contest the presidency.
After dropping out of the race for the Democratic Party nomination for the 1988 election, Biden learnt he had two brain aneurysms. Complications from surgery meant he had to take an extended break from his Senate activities, and after his convalescence he had to undergo lung surgery.
In 2007, he made a second try for his party’s nomination, but gave up after gaining less than a percentage point of the vote in the Iowa caucus, in the face of strong efforts by Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.
Once the Illinois senator had secured the nomination, Obama asked Biden to be his running mate in 2008. Observers believe Biden, with his working-class background, helped the ticket with important blue collar voters in the swing states of Ohio and
As vice-president, Biden was a behind-the-scenes adviser to Obama on Iraq and Afghanistan and he used his Senate ties to help gain passage for the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty between the US and the Russian Federation.
After the 2008 electoral victory, Biden said: “This is an historic moment. I started my career fighting for civil rights, and to be a part of what is both a moment in American history where the best people, the best ideas, the — how can I say it? — the single best reflection of the American people can be called upon, to be at that moment, with a guy who has such incredible talent and who is also a breakthrough figure in multiple ways — I genuinely find that exciting. It’s a new America. It’s the reflection of a new America.”
In their second term of office, Biden helped to win bipartisan support for tax increases and spending limits to avoid the dreaded “fiscal cliff” crisis that would have triggered harsh, automatic, across-the-board spending cuts.
Biden also became a significant figure in the national debate over gun control, heading a special task force on this after the massacre at Sandy Hook school in Newtown, Connecticut. He helped to draft 19 actions a president could take, using his executive authority.
Biden has been married to his second wife, Jill Biden, since 1977 and the couple’s daughter, Ashley, was born four years later. In 2015, Biden suffered another personal tragedy when his son, Beau, died from brain cancer.
“Beau Biden was, quite simply, the finest man any of us have ever known,” Biden said. His son’s death has figured significantly in Biden’s public discussions of grief, loss, dedication, commitment, and honour.
In the wake of Beau’s death, Biden put off any consideration of running for president in 2016, saying: “As my family and I have worked through the grieving process, I’ve said all along what I’ve said time and again to others, that it may very well be that the process, by the time we get through it, closes the window. I’ve concluded it has closed …While I will not be a candidate, I will not be silent. I intend to speak out clearly and forcefully, to influence as much as I can where we stand as a party and where we need to go as a nation.”
Biden would sometimes note his own mixed feelings about skipping the chance to run for the presidency, telling Oprah Winfrey, for example: “No woman or man should announce they’re running for president unless they can answer two questions. One, do they truly believe they’re the most qualified person for that moment? I believed I was — but was I prepared to be able to give my whole heart, my whole soul, and all my intention to the endeavour? And I knew I wasn’t.”
Nevertheless, polling indicated his favourite candidate status for 2020, ahead of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, information that marked a turn in his feelings about another race for the nomination. Along the way, he was able to overcome several charges of inappropriate behaviour towards women.
Biden, a well-known, old-style handshaker and hugger of note, replied he could recall “countless handshakes, hugs, expressions of affection, support and comfort”, but said he never acted inappropriately. “If it is suggested I did so, I will listen respectfully. But it was never my intention.”
On 25 April 2019 he announced in a video that he was a candidate for the presidency, criticising President Donald Trump for his bizarre attempt to equate people on both sides of the racially charged clash in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017. Biden said he knew at that point “the threat to our nation was unlike any I’d ever seen in my lifetime”.
His candidacy became a litmus test of support for a moderate from the left wing of the party, leading, among other things, to his reversal of his long-standing support for a federal legal provision that banned federal funding for abortions.
In the first primary season debate, he was assailed by California Senator Kamala Harris over his earlier opposition to school busing to integrate public schools. In subsequent debates, his acknowledged expertise in foreign affairs, however, gave him increasing traction.
Yet another issue came up in 2019 with reports Trump had pressured the Ukrainian government to investigate Biden and his son Hunter, stemming from the son’s earlier involvement with a Ukrainian energy company, Burisma Holdings, and the vice-president’s efforts to have Ukraine’s prosecutor-general fired for corruption. Biden accused the president of an “abuse of power” and said he would support impeachment if the president did not co-operate with Congress in investigating the president’s actions.
Biden was beginning to fare poorly in early primaries and caucuses, but he reversed that in a stunning win in South Carolina thanks to the strong backing of the black community in the state, leading on to a big day in the March Super Tuesday primaries. In a one-on-one debate with Sanders, Biden promised to nominate a woman as his running mate. Shortly afterwards, Sanders withdrew from active campaigning and then, just before the nominating convention, Biden tapped Harris as his running mate.
In the midst of the growing Covid-19 crisis and a sinking economy, as the party’s candidate, he met the president in their first debate where Trump’s astonishing behaviour led many to wonder if he was entirely in control of his faculties and emotions.
A second scheduled debate was cancelled, leading to competing town halls on separate television networks. In the third and final debate, Biden effectively passed the test of whether he was ready to step into the job.
Now he stands poised to become the 46th president of the US. Many decades later, he has finally fulfilled his ultimate ambition. DM168