Trauma and triumph: the moments that made Joe Biden

On his road to the White House, the former vice-president has had a dramatic journey, overcoming family tragedy and political tumult along the way

Joe Biden was born on 20 November 1942, in Scranton, Pennsylvania. He was the oldest of four children in a Catholic family; his mother, Jean, had Irish roots. The family’s economic fortunes were up and down, with Biden’s father, Joseph, later becoming a successful car-tyre salesman. At school Biden was class president, although his grades were unremarkable.
Childhood, stutter and early career

Biden aged 10 in 1952.

His youth was dominated by a struggle to overcome a severe stutter. A recent biography by Evan Osnos suggests that Biden never entirely shed the insecurity, with the battle shaping his approach to life and politics. In 1966, he married a student from Syracuse University, Neilia Hunter. Biden got a law degree and began practising in Wilmington. He initially saw himself as a liberal Republican. By 1969, he won a seat on Delaware county council as a Democrat.

Biden rose swiftly in Delaware politics. 

In 1972, he scored an extraordinary victory in the state’s Senate election, defeating the incumbent Republican against the odds. Aged 30, he became the sixth youngest senator in US history, but personal tragedy overshadowed this triumph. While he was away setting up his office in Washington, a truck drove into the family car, killing his wife, Neilia, and their baby daughter Naomi. His sons Beau and Hunter were badly injured. Biden was sworn in as senator from their hospital bedside. The loss prompted Biden to think about quitting; instead, he became a long-distance commuter, travelling from his home in Delaware to DC and back again every day, in order to see his young sons. It was a practice he continued for more than three decades, earning him the nickname Amtrak Joe.
Marriage to Jill

In 1975, Biden’s brother set up a blind date with a woman he’d known from university, Jill Tracy Jacobs. The date went well; two years later Biden married Jill, a teacher, in a Roman Catholic ceremony at a chapel in New York. In 1981, they had a daughter, Ashley. Meanwhile, Biden’s senatorial career was taking off. Time magazine identified him as a future American leader. His main international interest was arms control, at a time when relations between the US and the Soviet Union were characterised by mutual mistrust. Biden met with the Soviet foreign minister Andrei Gromyko, and argued Washington should abide by treaties signed with Moscow limiting long-range ballistic nuclear missiles. He also opposed the Reagan administration’s support for apartheid South Africa.

In summer 1987, Biden announced a presidential bid, his first. He was regarded as moderate, likable and high-profile, as chair of the Senate’s judiciary committee. At just 44, Biden would have been the second-youngest president after John F Kennedy. But his campaign for the Democratic nomination unravelled when he made a heartfelt speech about his family. Biden had substantially borrowed a passage from the British Labour leader Neil Kinnock. The gaffe sent journalists scurrying to dig up further embarrassing details. They found plenty. Biden, it turned out, had exaggerated his lacklustre academic credentials as well as his participation in the civil rights movement. He pulled out of the race, a victim of his own flaws and what he dubbed the “exaggerated shadow” of his past. Biden was further criticised for his role in supreme court hearings. Women’s groups accused him of mismanaging allegations of sexual harassment made by Anita Hill against judge Clarence Thomas.

Biden’s second presidential bid in 2007 fell apart more rapidly than his first. This time it wasn’t plagiarism that undid him but a classic Joe gaffe. He described his rival Barack Obama as “the first mainstream African American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy – I mean that’s a storybook, man”. The comment sunk his ability to raise funds. Biden found himself squeezed between Obama and Hillary Clinton. He exited the contest after coming fifth in the Iowa caucus. Biden’s tilt at the presidency followed a long stint on the Senate’s foreign relations committee, as chair and ranking minority member. He supported Nato enlargement and its bombing of Kosovo. 

In 2002, Biden backed the US-led invasion of Iraq. He later admitted this was a “mistake” and said President Bush should “level” with the American people about the war’s cost.

After winning the Democratic nomination, Obama selected Biden to be his running mate. This was a surprise. Obama looked beyond Biden’s drawbacks: the condescension, his prolixity when it came to giving speeches, and his proclivity for gaffes. Instead Obama identified what Biden might bring to the ticket: contacts on Capitol Hill and substantial political nous, plus an ability to connect with blue-collar voters and foreign policy experience. 

In August 2008, Biden was confirmed as the Democrats’ choice for vice-president. During the campaign the media spotlight was more on Sarah Palin, Biden’s erratic Republican party rival. Biden campaigned in swing states and criticised the Republican candidate, John McCain, a longstanding friend. After Obama’s victory Biden relinquished his Senate seat and – seemingly – his last opportunity to become president.

During Obama’s second presidential term there was speculation that Biden would make a third bid for the presidency. There was an issue: his age. Had he stood and won, he would have been 74 at the time of inauguration – the oldest president ever. The other factor was Biden’s son Beau, who was diagnosed with a brain tumour. Beau’s death in May 2015 persuaded Biden not to run. He acknowledged the loss of his son had drained him of “emotional energy”, adding: “Nobody has a right … to seek that office unless they’re willing to give it 110% of who they are.” Biden’s frankness about grief and his ability to come back from dark places – not once but twice – would later turn out to be useful political assets. His empathy was in contrast with the narcissism of Donald Trump, the 2016 election’s winner. In a time of pandemic Biden’s emotional gifts would strike a chord with voters.

Biden the candidate

In 2019, Biden launched his third bid to enter the White House. His poll numbers were good. But in the first Iowa caucus he flopped disastrously – trailing Bernie Sanders and Sanders’ fellow progressive Elizabeth Warren. By the time of the New Hampshire primary it seemed that Biden was sunk: he came fifth. And then something nobody had anticipated happened: the most improbable comeback since Lazarus. On the campaign trail Biden appealed to black voters. In South Carolina, they forgave him his patchy record on race and came to the rescue. He won the state overwhelmingly. He then won 18 of the next 26 contests and endorsements from rival candidates Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar. When Sanders dropped out in April Biden became the nominee. The prospect of a restorationist Biden presidency became real. Questions about his age hadn’t gone away, though. Neither had Trump, a ruthless adversary and the man he had to beat.

In March 2020, Biden announced he would pick a woman to be his running mate; his choice was the Californian senator and former prosecutor Kamala Harris. It was a bold decision. She was the first woman of colour on a major party ticket in America’s 244-year history. At a time of #MeToo and Black Lives Matter uprisings, Harris was also a symbolic rebuke to the white supremacists who cheered on Trump. Biden would be 78 at the time of his inauguration. It seemed unlikely he would want to serve a second term. That meant Harris was ideally placed to become America’s first female president, should Biden win, and to exorcise the ghost of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 defeat. There was calculation here too: that Harris could maximise the turnout of women fed up with Trump and that of African American voters, especially in swing states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.

On the eve of last week’s election, the pundits were unanimous: Biden was going to win, and win big. It didn’t quite turn out like that. On election night, Trump won the swing state of Florida, held Texas and painted much of the US map red. Democratic challengers in the House and Senate fell short. Trump even increased his vote share among Latinos and African-Americans. And yet slowly and inexorably Biden votes began to pile up. He won Michigan and Wisconsin. And in swing states mail-in ballots gobbled up Trump’s early lead. Trump responded in familiar fashion: with law suits and false claims that the Democrats were engaged in fraud. Biden remained calm and confident. By Friday, the race was effectively over, when Biden edged ahead in Pennsylvania and Georgia. Late on Saturday morning, as a chunk of Philadelphia votes came in, CNN and other networks called the race for Biden. At the time Trump was out golfing. The news triggered spontaneous street parties across the country, from DC, to New York, to San Francisco. In a victory speech on Saturday, Biden offered an inclusive vision and promised to heal America. “Let this grim era of demonisation in America begin to end – here and now,” he said.

Joe Biden has won ...

… despite Donald Trump’s protestations. A new era is upon us following a result that has renewed hope for the US and the world. After four years of turmoil, misinformation, manipulation and division, a new president offers fresh promise for democracy, progress and for huge challenges like the climate emergency, Covid-19, inequality, and racial injustice.