Joe Biden: Life in Brief

Joe Biden: Life in Brief

Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. was elected the 46th president of the United States after thirty-six years in the Senate and eight years as vice president. On January 20, 2021, at age 78, Biden became the oldest president in history to take oath of office. He confronted a divided nation wracked by the worst health crisis in a century with the coronavirus pandemic, a staggered economy, protests for racial justice, and internal threats to American democracy.  

Biden sought the presidency three times—1988, 2008, and 2020. During his long years in public service, he twice suffered enormous personal tragedy. Shortly after he was first elected to the Senate in 1972, his first wife Neilia and infant daughter, Naomi, known as Amy, were killed in a car crash; his sons Beau and Hunter were injured. In 2015, when Biden was vice president and grappling with a possible presidential run in 2016, his son Beau died of brain cancer.

Biden was born on November 20, 1942, in Scranton, Pennsylvania, into a working-class Irish Catholic family. The first child of Catherine Eugenia “Jean” Finnegan Biden and Joseph Robinette Biden Sr., Joey, as he was known, suffered from a severe stutter that he managed to overcome with rigorous practice and sheer will, though it still afflicted him from time to time throughout his life. During his undergraduate years at the University of Delaware, Biden was exposed to the inequities of racial injustice while working one summer as a lifeguard at a public swimming pool near a housing project. After graduating from Syracuse University Law School in 1968, he first took a job with a corporate law firm defending big businesses but soon realized the work was not right for him, and he became a public defender whose clients were nearly all African Americans from Wilmington’s East Side. 

In 1972, at age 29, he won an unexpected victory in his campaign for a US Senate seat from Delaware, beating 63-year-old, two-term Senator J. Caleb Boggs, a Republican. Shortly after his election, his wife and daughter were killed in a car accident. Biden at first did not have the will to take up his duties in Washington but agreed to try it for six months at the urging of powerful Senate colleagues such as Edward Kennedy and Mike Mansfield, Senate majority leader. 

In 1975, Biden met Jill Jacobs, a student at the University of Delaware almost nine years his junior, and they were married in 1977. Their daughter Ashley was born in 1981.

Over his many years in the Senate, Biden grew to love and respect the traditions and hierarchy of the institution, playing leading roles on both the Judiciary Committee and the Foreign Relations Committee. He chaired the confirmation hearings of five justices, the most contentious being the hearings over the nominations of Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas. 

Presiding over the confirmation hearings of Robert Bork, a US Appeals Court Judge and former US solicitor general, in 1987, Biden conducted a prolonged, painstaking inquiry into the record of the nominee, who was a declared opponent of civil rights and whose originalist views presupposed his adversity to Roe v. Wade. The Senate rejected Bork’s nomination by a vote of 58 to 42.

Throughout his Senate years, Biden had his sights set on higher office. After two failed presidential runs in 1988 and 2008, he won a valuable second prize: the vice presidency. In August 2008, Barack Obama selected Biden as his running mate, inspired by Biden’s foreign policy expertise, his skill working with Congress, his resilience after his profound personal setbacks, and his devotion to his family. Biden served as Obama’s chief counselor. When the president’s advisers debated critical issues, Biden was the last guy in the room, whispering in Obama’s ear.

He played influential foreign and domestic roles in the administration, establishing himself as one of the most significant vice presidents in American history. He and Obama formed an unprecedented partnership. No president and vice president had ever worked so closely together and formed such an intimate bond. Just days before the end of the Obama-Biden administration, the president surprised his vice president by awarding him the Medal of Freedom. At the ceremony, Obama extolled his relationship with Biden by reciting lines from William Butler Yeats: “Think where man’s glory most begins and ends / and say my glory was I had such friends.”   

Ever since high school, Biden had his heart set on the biggest prize in American politics. After his first two runs for the presidency flamed out early, he was emboldened to take on Donald Trump in 2020, declaring: “We are in the battle for the soul of this nation.” He cited as a motivation President Trump’s reaction to the white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, when Trump asserted there were “very fine people on both sides.” Biden also zeroed in on the Trump administration’s failed management of the coronavirus pandemic as a cornerstone of his campaign.

Biden’s 2020 presidential run looked doomed early on like his previous campaigns. It gained little traction until Biden got a last-minute rescue from powerful Representative James E. Clyburn from South Carolina. His endorsement powered Biden to victory in the South Carolina primary and marked a turnaround for the former vice president. Just before accepting the Democratic nomination at the party convention in August 2020, Biden selected Senator Kamala Harris as his running mate, proposing the possibility of the first woman, first Black, and first South Asian American as vice president.

Because of the pandemic, many Americans voted early and by mail, prompting President Trump to assert that the outcome was compromised by fraud. After all the votes were counted showing a decisive victory for Biden, Trump kept up his attacks on the integrity of the election process. But his team presented almost no evidence of fraud and repeatedly lost court challenges. On December 14, the Electoral College ratified Biden’s election with a solid majority of 306 electoral votes to Trump’s 232 votes. Biden collected 81 million votes overall, 7 million more than Trump’s 74 million. Despite his clear defeat in the popular vote and the Electoral College, Trump continued to claim falsely that he had won the election and never conceded defeat. 

The consequences of Trump’s false claims became clear to the nation on January 6, 2021, when Trump supporters and white supremacists gathered to protest the results of the 2020 presidential election. A mob overwhelmed Capitol police and pushed their way into the US Capitol, where members of Congress were meeting to certify the election results. As members of Congress were rushed out of harm's way, police were unable to contain the intruders who broke windows, destroyed property, and trespassed through the building. Five people were killed during the attack, including a Capitol police officer. A week later, the US House of Representatives impeached President Trump for a second time, making him the first president to be impeached twice in US history.