How Joe Biden got to the threshold of the presidency

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Joe Biden speaks in Wilmington, Delaware, about the Trump administration’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, June 30, 2020.
Kevin Lamarque | Reuters

Joe Biden was one of the youngest people to be elected to the Senate and is one of the oldest to run for president.  

Biden served eight years as President Barack Obama’s vice president but decided not to seek the Democratic Party’s 2016 presidential nomination. That decision cleared the way for former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to run in the election, which ended in a shocking upset by then-novice politician Donald Trump.

The former vice president balked again at seeking the 2020 nomination but announced his candidacy on April 25, 2019, at age 76, despite his personal concerns about his age and the effect of a presidential run on his family. He said one major motivation was Trump’s declaration after the deadly neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 that there were “very fine people on both sides.”

“With those words, the president of the United States assigned a moral equivalence between those spreading hate and those with the courage to stand against it,” Biden said in a 3½-minute video announcing his candidacy. “At that moment, I knew the threat to this nation was unlike any I had ever seen in my lifetime. … We are in the battle for the soul of this nation.”

So now, the quintessential D.C. insider is trying to dislodge the incomparable outsider from the White House. It’s the third time he has run for president, stumbling in bids for the nomination in 1988 and 2008.

For a profile of President Donald Trump, see: How President Donald Trump got to Election Day in a turbulent 2020

Biden was on the mat in the first two 2020 nominating contests, with poor showings in Iowa and New Hampshire, finishing in fourth place in the former and picking up zero delegates in the latter. He was in such bad shape that he left the Granite State even before the polls closed on Feb. 11 and raced to his do-or-die state, South Carolina, which voted 18 days later.

Picking up the crucial endorsement of Rep. Jim Clyburn, the state’s most powerful Democrat and the highest-ranking Black member of Congress, Biden won the first presidential primary of his life. He crushed the field of seven candidates, winning 48% of the vote, with the runner-up, Sen. Bernie Sanders, winning 20%. Biden wound up sweeping all but eight states in the primaries and caucuses.

Days before the Democratic National Convention, Biden selected as his vice presidential candidate one of his primary opponents, Sen. Kamala Harris of California, despite her evisceration of him in the first Democratic debate for his opposition to busing during the 1970s and ’80s. She is the first woman of color to be chosen for a major party ticket.

“I need someone working alongside me who is smart, tough, and ready to lead. Kamala is that person,” Biden said. “I need someone who understands the pain that so many people in our nation are suffering. Whether they’ve lost their job, their business, a loved one to this virus. … This president says he ‘doesn’t want to be distracted by it.’ … If we’re going to get through these crises — we need to come together and unite for a better America. Kamala gets that.”

Early tragedies and triumphs

Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. was born Nov. 20, 1942, in Scranton, Pennsylvania, the oldest of four children of Catherine Eugenia Finnegan Biden and Biden Sr. The elder Biden worked as a furnace cleaner and used-car salesman. In a search of a better job, he moved the family to Delaware when Joe Jr. was 10.  

As a boy, Biden had to fight taunts from classmates because he stuttered.

After graduating from the University of Delaware, Biden married Neilia Hunter in August 1966 and graduated from Syracuse University Law School two years later. The Bidens moved to Claymont, Delaware, where he began practicing law and was elected to the New Castle County Council in 1969.

Two years later, at age 29, he won a stunning upset in a U.S. Senate race, defeating two-term Republican J. Caleb Boggs, who also had served two terms in the House and two terms as governor. Six weeks after that triumph, while Biden went to Washington to check out his new office, his wife took their two young sons and year-old daughter to shop for a Christmas tree. The car she was driving was involved in a crash with a tractor-trailer. Neilia and their daughter, Naomi, were killed, and sons Beau, 3, and 2-year-old Hunter were seriously injured. 

Then Sen.-elect Joseph Biden swears to his U.S. citizenship at the office of the Secretary of the Senate. Biden, who just turned 30 at the time, became the youngest Senator in the 93rd Congress on Jan. 3, 1973. Left is William Ridgely, Senate financial officer, and center is Frank Valeo, secretary of the Senate.
Bettmann | Getty Images

Biden considered giving up the Senate seat but decided otherwise. He was sworn in on Jan. 5, 1973, in a chapel at the Wilmington Medical Center, where Beau and Hunter were treated. Just six weeks before the small ceremony, Biden had turned 30, the minimum age to serve in the upper chamber. 

“One of my earliest memories was being in that hospital, my Dad always at our side. We, my brother and I, not the Senate, were all he cared about,” Beau Biden recalled at the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver. “He decided not to take the oath of office. He said then, ‘Delaware can always get another senator, but my boys can’t get another father.’ However, great men, great men like Ted Kennedy, Mike Mansfield, Hubert Humphrey — men who had been tested in their own right — convinced him to serve. He was sworn in at the hospital, at my bedside.”

Thus began Biden’s 36 years in the Senate. Rather than moving to Washington, he commuted by Amtrak four hours a day for the 110-mile trip from Wilmington to the nation’s capital, so he could be with his sons in Delaware.

It was a tradition he kept for his entire career on Capitol Hill. Four years into his first term, Biden married Jill Jacobs Stevenson, a teacher he had met on a blind date. She became the stepmother of Biden’s sons and in 1981 the mother of the couple’s daughter, Ashley.

Joe Biden greets his wife, Jill, on the fourth night of the Democratic National Convention from the Chase Center on August 20, 2020 in Wilmington, Delaware.
Win McNamee | Getty Images

In the Senate, Biden became chairman of the Judiciary and Foreign Relations committees.

In the mid-1970s, he was a leading opponent of using busing against racial segregation of schools in Northern states such as Delaware, aligning himself with Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C. His stance came back to haunt him during a 2019 presidential debate, when Harris attacked him for working with segregationists. 

“There was a little girl in California who was a part of the second class to integrate her public schools, and she was bused to school every day,” she said. “And that little girl was me.”

Staggered, Biden said it was a “mischaracterization” of his position. “What I opposed is busing ordered by the Department of Education,” he said.

Biden was floor manager of the 1984 Comprehensive Crime Control Act, which toughened penalties for criminals. As Judiciary Committee chairman, he helped draft the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which expanded the federal death penalty, banned assault weapons and provided for harsher standards for crack cocaine violations than for powdered forms of the drug. The crack provisions disproportionately affected Black people. In early 2019, three months before launching his presidential campaign, Biden called his role in backing the anti-crime measures “a big mistake.” 

In another move he came to regret, Biden led the interrogation of Anita Hill at the Judiciary Committee’s confirmation hearing for Clarence Thomas as a Supreme Court justice in 1991.

Then-Sen. Joseph Biden holds up the book “Order and Law” by Charles Fried during the Clarence Thomas hearings.
Wally McNamee | Corbis Historical | Getty Images

A reluctant witness, Hill accused Thomas of sexually harassing her when he was her supervisor at the Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Biden blocked other witnesses who were ready to testify to the all-male committee in support of Hill. Biden said he didn’t want to violate Thomas’ privacy but went on to vote in the minority against the nomination. 

On the first day of Biden’s 2020 presidential bid, his campaign officials disclosed that during a recent phone call with Hill, the former vice president had expressed “his regret for what she endured” three decades earlier. Hill, a law professor at Brandeis University, told The New York Times she found the conversation unsatisfying, but she eventually endorsed Biden over Trump, “notwithstanding all of his limitations in the past.”

“I believed her story from the very beginning,” Biden told CNN last July. “I wish I could have protected her more. … I wish I could have done it differently under the rules. But when it ended, I was determined to do two things. One, make sure never again would there not be women on the committee. … And I was determined to continue and finish writing and passing the Violence Against Women Act.” He did co-sponsor that legislation, which became law in 1994 as part of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act.

On the Foreign Relations Committee, Biden voted against authorizing the Gulf War in 1991 after Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. The same year, Biden was among the first to call for arming Bosnian Muslims and allowing NATO airstrikes against Serb forces in the Balkan War. Eight years later, Biden backed the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia and co-sponsored legislation with Republican Sen. John McCain that called on President Bill Clinton to use force against Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic for atrocities in the Kosovo War.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the U.S. military action against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, Biden was an early supporter of a continued U.S. military peacekeeping presence in the Central Asian country, where the al-Qaeda plotters of 9/11 had been based. “Whatever it takes, we should do it,” Biden said in February 2002. “History will judge us harshly if we allow the hope of a liberated Afghanistan to evaporate because we failed to stay the course.”

During the tensions ahead of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, Biden helped draft a resolution that gave President George W. Bush the authority to use military force as a last resort against Saddam’s purported program to develop weapons of mass destruction.

Foot in mouth

Biden’s 1988 presidential campaign lasted less than three months, flaming out after he was accused of plagiarizing a speech by British Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock during a debate at the 1987 Iowa State Fair.

It wasn’t the last time Biden put his foot in his mouth. In 2006, two years after announcing his intention to run for president again, Biden rambled seemingly endlessly during the confirmation hearing for then-Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito Jr. The senator managed to ask only five questions in his allotted 30 minutes.

“He has much to say — and then too much to add,” The Washington Post’s Richard Cohen said in a column the next day. “He is an anatomical disaster. His Achilles’ heel is his mouth.”

During the 2008 presidential campaign, Biden touted his foreign policy credentials, but that bid also fizzled, again because of remarks he made, starting on Day One of his candidacy.

In an interview published that day, Jan. 31, 2007, in The New York Observer, Biden described then-Sen. Obama’s historic presidential bid. “I mean you got the first mainstream African American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy,” Biden said.

Obama at first brushed it off, saying he didn’t think Biden “intended to offend,” but he later took issue with the remarks. “Obviously they were historically inaccurate,” Obama said. “African American presidential candidates like Jesse Jackson, Shirley Chisholm, Carol Moseley Braun and Al Sharpton gave a voice to many important issues through their campaigns, and no one would call them inarticulate.”

President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden wave during the final day of the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, on Sept. 6, 2012.
Tom Pennington | Getty Images

Nearly a year later, Biden dropped out of the race. Luckily for him, Obama took the high road and named him his running mate in the 2008 campaign, selecting the Irish American senator — a member of the “sensible center of the Democratic Party,” as it was known — for his popularity with blue-collar voters and for his expertise in national security.

Even during Biden’s successful bid for the 2020 nomination, his mouth got him in trouble. Three days before the police killing of George Floyd on Memorial Day, Biden apologized within hours of making a racially insensitive statement on “The Breakfast Club,” a podcast popular with Black millennials. “If you’ve got a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or for Trump, then you ain’t Black,” he said.

The comment shook and angered Black voters. Only 2½ months earlier, African American voters in South Carolina had saved the presidential bid for the man who was vice president to the nation’s first Black president.  

Vice President Biden — ‘forces people to think’

The Obama administration began with the country struggling to pull out of the Great Recession. Biden helped get support for the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, then was placed in charge of oversight for the $787 billion package, which included income and unemployment subsidies, tax cuts and funds for “shovel-ready” infrastructure projects. The New York Times in May 2020 called Biden’s oversight role “perhaps the most significant … assignment of his time in office.”

In a 2010 report, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office credited the act for raising real gross domestic product by between 1.7% and 4.5%, lowering the unemployment rate by between 0.7 and 1.8 percentage points and increasing the number of full-time jobs by a range of 2 million to 4.8 million. Republicans, however, criticized it. A report by McCain and Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., targeted 100 projects that received funds, including $555,000 for new windows for a closed visitor’s center at Mount St. Helens and $762,000 for a computerized dance program at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

But Biden’s across-the-aisle talents were used to win deals with Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to avoid falling off the “fiscal cliff” during standoffs in 2011 and 2012 over the federal deficit and debt. Their agreement in 2012 led to the American Taxpayer Relief Act of that year, which made permanent many of the tax cuts enacted under the George W. Bush administration.

While Biden was Obama’s vice president, the “Joe bombs” continued. During the swine flu outbreak in 2009, he got in trouble with his boss by saying he would advise his family to avoid travel on public transit or planes, eliciting a clarification from the White House. In May 2012, his statement that he was “absolutely comfortable” with same-sex marriage was a clearer endorsement than Obama’s self-described “evolving” position on the issue. Biden apologized to Obama privately, but the president later moved to clearly advocate for same-sex marriage.

Biden made numerous visits to U.S. troops in Iraq and supported NATO’s military intervention in Libya during the demise of Moammar Gadhafi’s regime and the dictator’s assassination. He argued, unsuccessfully, against then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton‘s call for sending 21,000 more troops to the war in Afghanistan in 2009.

“The best thing about Joe is that when we get everybody together, he really forces people to think and defend their positions, to look at things from every angle, and that is very valuable for me,” Obama said in a statement later that year to Politico. “I also know, when he gives me his advice, he gives it to me straight.”

Biden’s hopes for the White House were derailed in 2015, this time by another family tragedy. His son Beau, who had served in Iraq and as Delaware attorney general and had been a front-runner in the race for governor, died of brain cancer on May 30, 2015. He was 46. Five months later, Biden announced in the White House Rose Garden that he was taking himself out of the 2016 presidential race.

Then-vice presidential nominee Joe Biden and son Beau acknowledge the crowd at the Democratic National Convention, August 27, 2008 in Denver.
Mark Wilson | Getty Images

“As the family and I have worked through the — the grieving process, I’ve said all along what I’ve said time and again to others: that it may very well be that that process, by the time we get through it, closes the window on mounting a realistic campaign for president. That it might close,” Biden said. “I’ve concluded it has closed.”

Before Biden reopened that window more than four years later, Trump considered him such a threat that he pressured the head of a foreign country — President Volodymyr Zelenskiy of Ukraine — to investigate Hunter Biden’s appointment to the board of Ukrainian gas company Burisma.

According to an unfounded conspiracy theory, then-Vice President Biden sought to withhold loan guarantees to Ukraine to pressure its government to fire a prosecutor in order to protect Hunter in a corruption investigation of Burisma. However, the call for the removal of the Ukrainian prosecutor was supported by Republicans and Democrats and by major U.S. allies because he was considered soft on corruption.

Trump’s call to Zelenskiy became the basis of the impeachment trial that ended in his acquittal by the Republican-led Senate. Biden always stood by Hunter, although he and his son conceded that Hunter could have exercised better judgment in joining the Burisma board.

“Look, my son did nothing wrong at Burisma,” Biden said during the first election debate against Trump. “This is not about my family or his family, this is about your family — the American people.”

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