Thirty-three years ago, he was the fast-talking junior senator from Delaware with a chip on his shoulder, desperate to prove his gravitas during a brief, ill-fated presidential run.
The next time around, in 2008, he was the seasoned foreign policy hand and veteran lawmaker who strained to capture the imagination of Democratic presidential primary voters.
As he weighed a third attempt at the presidency last year, many Democrats feared he was too late. Too old, too moderate, too meandering to excite ascendant voices in his party, too rooted in the more civil politics of the past to nimbly handle Donald Trump.
Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. ran anyway. He ran as a grieving father who connected with a country in pain. As a relative centrist who emphasized character, stability and belief in bipartisanship over the particulars of a policy agenda. As a flawed, uneven campaigner whose vulnerabilities were ultimately drowned out by his opponent’s outsize weaknesses, and eclipsed by the seismic issues at stake, as the nation confronted the ravages of a deadly pandemic.
In many ways, he ran as the politician he has always been. And for one extraordinary election, that was enough.
“They’re not so much saying, ‘I’m investing in Joe Biden because of his philosophy,’ ” said former Sen. William S. Cohen, R-Maine, who served with Biden and supported him this year. “They’re invested in Joe Biden because of him, of who they see as being a human being.”
Biden’s victory on Saturday is the culmination of a career that began in the Nixon era and spanned a half-century of political and social upheaval. But if the country, the political parties and Washington have changed since Biden, now 77, arrived in the Senate as a 30-year-old widower in 1973, some of his attitudes — about governing and about his fellow Americans — have hardly changed at all.
He still reveres institutions, defiantly champions compromise and sees politics more in terms of relationships than ideology. He has insisted that with Trump out of office, Republicans will have an “epiphany” about working with Democrats — a view that elides the fact that Republicans were rarely interested in working with the Obama administration when Biden was vice president.
Those beliefs, coupled with his reputation as an empathetic and experienced leader, made Biden acceptable to a broad coalition of Americans this year, including independents and some moderate Republicans.
Now, Biden’s convictions about how to unite the country and move forward will be tested as never before.
He will take the helm of a nation devastated by a health crisis, reeling from an economic downturn and divided over virtually every major political matter of the day, from how and even whether to confront climate change and racial injustice, to baseless questions from some of Trump’s supporters about the very legitimacy of free and fair election results.
His first priority, Biden has said, will be to bring the coronavirus under control, as he also works to invest in infrastructure and to promote economic growth. Biden has released a series of policy plans around all of those issues, and has made clear that a national emergency calls for urgent and ambitious action.
But the president-elect, a 36-year veteran of the Senate who has never embraced the most far-reaching progressive proposals, is also well aware that the partisan makeup of Washington may limit the scope of his agenda. He is unlikely to press for rapid, transformational change of institutions like the Supreme Court or to embrace the boldest proposals in the Green New Deal.
Yet for all of his instincts for consensus-building, he will face enormous and conflicting pressures when he returns to Washington.
Progressives who papered over their differences with Biden in the name of defeating Trump will quickly turn to fighting for their priorities, which may not always align with Biden’s goals or timeline.
“Where the progressive energy will really turn angry is if we see Biden really compromising on core principles,” warned Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington, a co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
Even his closest allies believe there are elements of his long record that should be reconsidered from the White House, including the legacy of the crime bills passed during his tenure in the Senate. Biden for years served as a tough-on-crime Democrat, and he has sometimes struggled to account for his leading role in the 1994 crime bill, which many experts now associate with mass incarceration.
“He needs to put together a commission or a committee to study the 1986 and 1994 crime bills,” said Rep. James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, the highest-ranking Black official in Congress, describing mass incarceration as an unintended consequence. “We’ve got to rectify.”
And Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the powerful Republican leader, has a relationship with Biden — but he is unlikely to be moved by encomiums to bipartisanship and civility.
“Joe is a peacemaker — he’s always tried to get along with Republicans,” said Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat and the former Senate majority leader.
But he was skeptical that Republican leaders in Congress would feel similarly about curbing divisiveness in Washington.
“I just hope Joe’s right and I’m wrong,” he said, “but I don’t see that coming to an end.”
‘He didn’t do crazy things’
Biden was a mediocre student with big ambitions, a gregarious young football player from an Irish Catholic family who overcame a stutter and dreamed of running for president.
In the meantime, he settled for school politics, serving as class president at his Catholic high school and adopting an approachable manner that he would deploy decades later on the campaign trail.
“The joke was, if Joe stood next to a light pole, he’d strike up a conversation,” said Bob Markel, a childhood friend of Biden’s. “You were talking to him for 20 seconds, he’d put out his hand and say, ‘Joe Biden.’ ”
He came from a line of politically engaged Pennsylvanians on his mother’s side, with a great-grandfather who served as a state senator. His father was a dignified man who had struggled financially, “a student of history with an unyielding sense of justice,” Biden said in his eulogy. Joseph R. Biden Sr., who moved the family from Scranton, Pennsylvania, to Delaware when Joe Biden was 10, shaped his son’s moral compass and instilled in him a strong sense of identity; his story looms large in Biden’s efforts today to connect with working-class Americans.
Biden enrolled at the University of Delaware, where he threw himself into politics as freshman class president. He participated in the occasional high jinks, though even then he was fairly conservative in his personal manner.
“It’s the same style that I think we’ve seen since he was a teenager,” Markel said. “That moderation can be seen when he was in his teens. He was a fun-loving guy, certainly outgoing, but he didn’t do crazy things.”
For all of his political ambitions, he was at a remove from the anti-war activism taking hold among his peers in the caldron of the 1960s, and he was not one for protesting. After graduating from law school, he followed a path into institutional Democratic politics: young lawyer, part-time public defender and rising star within the Delaware party establishment.
At the end of that decade, party elders suggested he try his hand at a seat on the New Castle County Council.
“I spent most of my time in heavily Democratic precincts,” Biden recalled, describing the race in a memoir. “But I also spent a great deal of time going door to door in the middle-class neighborhoods like the one I grew up in. They were overwhelmingly Republican in 1970, but I knew how to talk to them.”
Rebounding from a tragedy
At the age of 30, Biden was moving swiftly in his political career. But personally, he was a broken man.
In a day, he had gone from a married father of three who won a startling victory in the 1972 Senate race to a widower with two toddlers in the hospital after a car crash killed his wife, Neilia, and their baby daughter, Naomi.
For months, he struggled to adjust to the Senate job he had wanted so badly.
Decades later, one of his surviving sons, Beau, would die of brain cancer. Joe Biden, by then vice president, would be shattered anew.
Yet those staggering personal losses, friends say, shaped Biden’s uncommon ability to empathize — perhaps his greatest strength.
On the campaign trail, he never spoke with deeper authority than when he promised a grieving voter that one day, the memory of a loved one would bring a smile before a tear. His skill at connecting with voters in pain, allies say, uniquely prepared him to run for president amid a pandemic that has killed more than 236,000 people in the United States and upended the lives of many others on Trump’s watch.
“He understood the emotional trauma that Trump has inflicted on the country in a way that most of the other candidates didn’t,” said Shailagh Murray, who was a top aide to Biden as vice president.
After the 1972 accident, Biden slowly began rebuilding his life, later marrying Jill Jacobs and having a daughter, Ashley.
And eventually, he settled into Washington, too, where his early instincts for bipartisanship and working within the system were reinforced by mentors like Mike Mansfield, the longtime Senate majority leader.
Biden rose to lead the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the Senate Judiciary Committee. He advanced signature policy achievements like the Violence Against Women Act and an assault weapons ban, and he developed relationships with leaders around the world. He torpedoed the nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court, a setback that some Republicans remain bitter about to this day, and championed the confirmation of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
His tenure in the Senate is also associated with what many Americans see as the mistreatment of Anita Hill before his committee during the Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Clarence Thomas; with his vote for the Iraq War and his opposition to busing; and with his leading efforts on the 1994 crime bill that troubled some voters throughout the campaign.
As he navigated Congress, Biden built relationships with similarly consensus-minded Republicans like Sen. Bob Dole, Arlen Specter and John McCain.
But Biden, who has said he was motivated to run for office in part by a belief in civil rights, was also willing to work with even the most virulent segregationist senators. And perhaps the most controversial speech he has given was his eulogy for Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina.
“At least there was some civility,” Biden said at a fundraiser in June 2019, citing James Eastland of Mississippi and Herman Talmadge of Georgia. “We didn’t agree on much of anything. We got things done.”
Under fire, Biden ultimately expressed regret for the way he invoked segregationist former colleagues.
He did not apologize for the instinct.
Seeking common ground
The stature Biden gained in the Senate did not always translate on the presidential campaign trail.
His 1988 race ended in humiliation amid a plagiarism controversy.
In 2008, Biden struggled to stand out in a talented and crowded field that included Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. He dropped out after Iowa, after cementing his reputation for verbal gaffes by referring to Obama as “articulate and bright and clean.”
But as Obama’s vice president, Biden was in many ways back in his element.
“Every time we had a trouble in the administration, who got sent to the Hill to settle it? Me,” Biden said at that 2019 fundraiser. “Because I demonstrate respect for them.”
Sometimes that approach got him results — he helped secure three Republican votes for the economic stimulus bill in 2009, for example.
On other occasions — including a major gun control effort after the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. — it ultimately did not.
Biden, like many of his fellow Democrats, was enraged by the Trump presidency and fearful about the corrosive effects of four more years of extraordinary divisiveness.
But he was also closely attuned to moderate, older Black primary voters and had carefully followed which Democrats won in the toughest districts in the 2018 midterm elections. As Biden mulled a third presidential bid, he was skeptical of tacking far to the left in response to Trump and his Republican allies. And he was convinced, based on his own experiences, that he could help find common ground.
“Through very difficult periods in the country’s history, he believes he has been able to bring people together,” said Mike Donilon, Biden’s chief strategist, citing the 2009 stimulus bill and his efforts on a sweeping health measure at the end of 2016. “Beyond the politics, there are also just fundamental judgments about how to treat people, how to talk to them.”
Throughout his campaign, Biden has championed that approach, sometimes with a touch of performative defensiveness.
“We need to revive the spirit of bipartisanship in this country,” he said in a speech in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, last month. “I’m accused of being naive. I’m told, ‘Maybe that’s the way things used to work, Joe, but they can’t work that way anymore.’ ”
“They can and they must if we’re going to get anything done,” he said.
‘I know this country’
Biden, of course, has a policy agenda too, one that he has addressed often in recent months.
He ran on a platform of expanding health care access through a public option, and promoting the middle class. He promised to tackle climate change and to combat racial injustice, acknowledging that America has “never lived up” to the promise that all Americans are created equal. After the pandemic hit, he grew increasingly open to more ambitious social and economic proposals.
But more than anything, he ran as himself, with all of the convictions and the flaws he has displayed over a half-century in public life.
There were the exaggerations and verbal blunders and the flashes of temper. He lost the first three contests, and his campaign was practically moribund when Black voters in South Carolina, who saw Biden as a familiar and reassuring figure in troubled times, rescued his bid.
“We know Joe,” Clyburn said as he endorsed Biden. “But most importantly, Joe knows us.”
And through those peaks and valleys, Biden hewed to one consistent message: that the turmoil of the Trump era was an existential threat to the character of the country — and that he was uniquely equipped to lower the nation’s temperature and try to bring the country together.
“Has the heart of this nation turned to stone?” Biden said recently, speaking in Warm Springs, Georgia. “I refuse to believe it. I know this country. I know our people. And I know we can unite and heal this nation.”
In some ways, it is a promise he has been preparing to make for his whole career.
This time around, a majority of American voters decided to believe him.