Meet the Candidate: Joe Biden
In a crowded field full of newcomer candidates, former Vice President Joe Biden is one of the few — if not only — who requires no introduction.
The former vice president, after all, has walked the national campaign trail before: in 1988, when his presidential campaign was waylaid by allegations of plagiarism in law school and some of his political speeches, and in 2008 when he dropped out after a weak showing in the Iowa caucus but became Barack Obama’s running mate.
This time, minted by eight years in the White House as second-in-command, Biden is at last an undisputed front runner blessed with vast name recognition and a record he is using to challenge President Donald Trump. But his many rivals for the presidency are seeking to use that record to recast the answer to who, exactly, Biden is.
As they point to stumbles in his decades in politics as a weakness for the garrulous Delaware politician, Biden is contending he is the steady hand who can appeal to wide swaths of the electorate heading into 2020. It is a narrative he will have to advance again as he takes the stage for the first Democratic presidential debates in Miami.
Born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and raised in Wilmington, Delaware, Biden has long cast his upbringing as part of a now-shrinking working class. His father, a car salesman, and his mother, a homemaker, insisted they read three newspapers a day, according to a Washington Post profile written around the time of his first run. Biden went on to major in history and politics at the University of Delaware before getting his law degree at Syracuse.
After he passed the Bar in 1969, Biden wasted little time in chasing politics: he was elected to the New Castle County Council the following year, leveraging what would become known as his famed retail skills, winning over voters in person.
He would be elected to the U.S. Senate in an underdog bid against an incumbent Republican just two years after that, with the help of his siblings managing and fundraising for his campaign and his new wife Nealia advising him, according to Politico Magazine.
Just weeks after his election, the first of two tragedies would strike the Bidens: Nelia, driving the family’s white Chevrolet station wagon with their three baby children in the car, was hit in a car accident in Hockessin. She and 1-year-old daughter Amy were killed. Their sons, Joseph “Beau” and Robert Hunter were badly injured.
Biden nearly resigned his newly won post, but at the urging of the Senate majority leader at the time stayed in the job, commuting four hours daily from Delaware to D.C. so he would not have to move his sons. He would remain in the Senate for 36 years, rising to the chairmanship of the Judiciary Committee and developing a reputation for compromise across the aisle.
Biden’s long voting record is a map not only of his evolving political positions but also a trajectory of the changing Democratic Party. Early into his first Senate term, Biden opposed the practice of school busing to accelerate desegregation, telling a local paper at the time that he did not believe “in order to even the score, we must now give the black man a head start, or even hold the white man back, to even the race,’ “ according to the Washington Post.
In the 1980s and ‘90s, he backed aggressive tough-on-crime measures that have since fallen out of favor among liberals. He also chaired the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and drew criticism for not aggressively chasing sexual harassment allegations levied by Anita Hill.
(As he prepared to run again for president this year, Biden called Hill to express regret for what had happened. She told the New York Times she still found the answer unsatisfying: “I will be satisfied when I know that there is real change and real accountability and real purpose.”)
Biden also supported a 2005 law, aiding the banking and credit card industries, that made it more difficult for people to declare bankruptcy, putting him at odds with a Harvard law professor at the time named Elizabeth Warren. His campaign has argued his negotiations with other lawmakers on the bill in exchange for his support helped make it more fair to the middle class.
But Biden, whose positions largely fell within the Democratic mainstream at the time, also supported the extension of the Voting Rights Act, and amendments to the Fair Housing Act. Though he voted for a measure intended to ban gay marriage in the 1990s, he reversed course and expressed his support for it in 2012, though Obama had not yet publicly changed his mind on the issue.
Biden has a reputation for verbal gaffes that have at times dealt self-inflicted wounds. His brief 1988 campaign for president was derailed by accusations he had lifted lines and life details from British politician Neil Kinnock, as well as misrepresented his time in law school. When the Affordable Care Act was signed during Obama’s first term, Biden famously dropped an expletive caught by a live microphone before the ceremony.
After Biden left the Senate to become vice president, he took up the role of a legislative go-between for the White House, leveraging his decades of experience to negotiate with Congress, and played a role in the administration’s foreign policy.
Though he openly weighed running for president a third time to succeed Obama, his son Beau’s death in 2015 of brain cancer — the second major tragedy — eventually led him to reject the idea.
Challenging Trump now for 2020 gives Biden the closest opportunity he might have to a do-over, to test the theory he is advancing that he can unify the country and win over disaffected voters once swayed by Trump. To test that theory outright, though, will require Biden to prevail in a Democratic field that eyes him warily.
He has in recent weeks faced criticism over accusations of inappropriately touching others and recent remarks touting his history of working with segregationists. Though several of his presidential rivals have called on him to apologize for the latter in the last few days, Biden has insisted his comments are being misconstrued.
If Biden wins, he will be the oldest person to take office at 78 in 2021, 8 years older than Trump on his Inauguration Day in 2017.
About Joe Biden
▪ Current or most recent position: Vice President, 8 years
▪ Other elected offices: U.S. Senator from Delaware, 36 years; New Castle County Council member, 2 years
▪ Occupation: Lawyer
▪ Education: University of Delaware, bachelor’s in history and political science; Syracuse University College of Law, juris doctor
▪ Age: 76
▪ Residence: Greenville, Delaware.
▪ Family: Wife Jill; children Hunter, Ashley; grandchildren Natalie, Hunter, Naomi, Finnegan and Maisy
▪ Campaign website: https://joebiden.com/
▪ Fun fact: Biden had a stutter as a child that he had said he worked to overcome by reading his uncle’s volumes of Yeats poetry at night by flashlight.
▪ On the issues: Issues page
Sources of biographical information: Joe Biden campaign site, New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, Los Angeles Times, Wilmington News Journal, Washingtonian