In the 'battle for the soul' of a nation, Joe Biden offers an antidote to Trump

·10-min read

Joe Biden, the US president-elect, has cast himself as a moderate with the experience and empathy required to offset Donald Trump’s disruptive presidency. Having battled adversity throughout a career scarred by personal tragedy, he says he feels the pain of a nation unnerved by economic crisis, civil unrest and a deadly pandemic.

A former vice-president under Barack Obama, Biden is the first candidate to notch more than 70 million votes nationwide in a presidential contest, ultimately securing a clear path to victory after days of nail-biting suspense.

An affable figure with several decades of Washington experience, Biden has vowed to restore dignity to the presidential office after four uniquely turbulent years under President Donald Trump, a former real-estate tycoon and reality-TV host.

Both white male septuagenarians, the two rivals share at least one other trait: an avowed “populist strain” when it comes to addressing blue-collar America. On most other counts, however, the veteran Democrat is Trump’s polar opposite, a seasoned politician with a track record of forging bipartisan deals, overcoming setbacks, voicing compassion and owning up to past errors.

Biden, who is known for his personal warmth and resilience, will be 78 when he moves into the White House in January, making him the oldest first-term president in the nation’s history – 32 years after the first of his three presidential runs ended in a humiliating withdrawal.

The former senator from Delaware also ran for the Democratic nomination in 2008 before dropping out and joining the Obama ticket. His eight years as deputy to Obama have allowed him to lay claim to much of the former president's legacy, including the Affordable Care Act, known as “Obamacare”, and the economic stimulus package that brought the US car industry back from the brink of collapse.

While some might dispute Obama’s description of Biden as the “best vice president America has ever had”, there is little doubt he ranked among the most loyal and proactive VPs, readily undertaking, in his own words, “every shit job in the world” that Obama passed on.

The enduring association with the country’s first black president helped mobilise support from African American voters during the Democratic primaries, just as Biden had helped win over blue-collar white voters for Obama in 2008. Once again, those working-class credentials proved crucial in the November 3 election, allowing Biden to reclaim key battleground states in the “Rust Belt”, starting with his birthplace, Pennsylvania, which Trump flipped four years ago.

Political triumphs, personal tragedies

Joseph Robinette Biden Jr was born on November 20, 1942, in Scranton, a blue-collar city in northeast Pennsylvania, into a Catholic family of Irish descent. He was 13 when the family moved to neighbouring Delaware, a state he would later represent in the US Senate for nearly four decades.

Biden frequently touts his working-class background, crediting his parents with instilling in him the values of hard work and perseverance. He has often recounted his father, who worked cleaning furnaces and as a car salesman, saying that, “The measure of a man is not how often he is knocked down, but how quickly he gets up.”

Long before Trump dubbed him “Sleepy Joe”, the young Biden was bullied at school and nicknamed “Dash” because of a debilitating stutter, which he eventually overcame by reading poetry out loud in front of a mirror. Greater challenges would follow.

After graduating from law school in 1968, Biden briefly worked for a law firm before quitting to become a public defender as Delaware cracked down on a rash of riots in response to Martin Luther King Jr's assassination. He was just 29 when he turned to politics, stunning a popular Republican incumbent in a November 1972 Senate race to become the fifth-youngest US senator in history.

But the joy was short-lived. Just days before Christmas, his first wife Neilia and infant daughter Naomi were killed when a tractor-trailer slammed into the family’s station wagon, an accident that also left his toddler sons Beau and Hunter hospitalised. Ready to relinquish the seat he had just won, a bereaved Biden was convinced to serve out his term by Senate colleagues and was famously sworn into office by his sons' hospital bed.

His daily commutes by train between Washington and Wilmington, Delaware, a practise he maintained throughout his Senate career to remain close to his family, would cement his image as a caring father.

Biden later had another daughter, Ashley, with his second wife Jill, his partner of more than 40 years. But personal tragedy would strike again during his second term as vice president when his son Beau, a Delaware attorney general who was contemplating a run for governor, died of brain cancer in 2015 at age 46. In his tributes to Beau on the campaign trail, Biden has credited his late son with encouraging him to launch one more run for the White House.

Reaching across the aisle

Throughout his six terms as US senator, Biden earned broad respect and cultivated friendships on both sides of the aisle. But his career could easily have ended back in 1988, following the double blow of a short-lived first presidential run and the discovery of two life-threatening brain aneurysms. Complications from the ensuing brain surgery led to blood clots in his lungs and further surgery, but the defiant senator was soon back in his seat.

Biden engineered the rejection of former president Ronald Reagan’s Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork, an arch-conservative, while serving as head of the Senate judiciary committee. His ability to sway moderate Republicans would become a hallmark of his success in forging political compromise – giving him less visibility but arguably more impact than more vocal liberals in his own party.

A few years later, Biden leveraged the same skills to engineer bipartisan compromise on some of Bill Clinton’s signature initiatives, including a ban on assault weapons and passing the 1994 Violence Against Women Act.

Biden attempted to reprise his role as political peacemaker during his tenure as vice president, though the mission was made harder by the increasing intransigence of the Republican camp – driven, in part, by the Tea Party movement and then Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, who pressured Republicans not to compromise with the Obama administration. McConnell famously once said that the “single most important thing” for his party was to make Obama a one-term president.

Still, Biden proved crucial to brokering last-minute deals in increasingly acrimonious budget tussles with the GOP to avert or end government shutdowns.

He was equally active on the foreign policy front, though he was often at the losing end of internal discussions. He advised against the raid on Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan, a sovereign US ally, until the intelligence on his whereabouts was more certain, as well as the 2009 troop surge in Afghanistan.

On the campaign trail Biden has promised to roll back Trump’s signature moves on foreign policy, starting with his decision to quit the Paris climate accord, and has vowed to reach out to US allies alienated by Trump and re-engage with Iran over its disputed nuclear programme.

A candidate under fire

Since he emerged as the Democratic front-runner, Biden and his family have faced withering attacks from the US president, who notoriously asked his Ukrainian counterpart to investigate the business dealings of Biden’s youngest son Hunter. That request led to Trump being impeached by the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, although he was subsequently acquitted by the Republican-led Senate.

Biden’s lengthy Senate career has also given critics within his own Democratic Party ample material for attacks. Ahead of the party primaries, he was sharply criticised for his handling of allegations of sexual harassment that Anita Hill leveled at Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas in 1991 while Biden was chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Republican committee members questioned her credibility and Hill has said Biden failed to rein in his colleagues during the hearing. Last year Biden apologised to Hill, who has since said she would be willing to work with him on gender issues.

His record was again on the spot during the first primary debate as rival Democratic candidate Kamala Harris took him to task for opposing court-ordered busing to integrate schools. In a subsequent interview, Biden maintained that federally mandated busing “did not work” but that he was in favour of local busing efforts aimed at desegregating schools.

Biden would later pick Harris as his VP, making her the first woman of colour to run on a major party's ticket.

During the primary contest, the former vice-president was also described as too moderate and out of touch by the increasingly vocal left wing of the Democratic Party that rallies behind Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. Biden supporters countered by stressing his decades spent fighting for racial justice in the United States and abroad, including a passionate Senate speech about the "repulsive, repugnant" regime in apartheid South Africa. They also cited his endorsement of gay marriage during the 2012 campaign – ahead of a more prudent Obama – as evidence of his progressive credentials and political courage.

Getting back up

The affable, contact-loving former vice president has also had to fend off some accusations of improper conduct in his interactions with female aides. He has defended his habit of hugging and touching people he meets, saying he always saw politics as a matter of “personal connection”. But while Trump has openly bragged about groping and forcefully kissing women, Biden has promised to be “more mindful of personal space in the future”.

He has certainly proved more mindful of social distancing rules, sporting a protective face mask from the start of the coronavirus pandemic even as his Republican rival dismissed the importance of masks and downplayed a virus that has killed more than 230,000 US citizens and infected dozens of people working in the White House.

Throughout the campaign, the Democratic nominee repeatedly characterised the 2020 US election as a "battle for the soul of this nation". Asked in a CNN interview whether he was the "polar opposite" of Trump, a smiling Biden crossed himself and said: "I hope so."

After suffering a string of early setbacks in the race for the Democratic nomination – including a bruising fifth-place finish in the New Hampshire primary that might have taken the stuffing out of a lesser candidate – Biden got back up, eventually sailing past his rivals. In March, after a resounding victory on Super Tuesday that revived his political fortunes, he greeted supporters with a line that mirrors his own life story: “For those who have been knocked down, counted out, left behind – this is your campaign.”

Months later, during a gruelling vote count that stretched over four days, Biden weathered an early Republican surge before mail-in ballots eventually turned the tide. Fittingly, the victory call came from his home state of Pennsylvania, the centrepiece of Trump’s stunning success four year before.

The tycoon president had famously likened himself to local hero Rocky Balboa, even pasting his face on a picture of the fictional boxer’s bare chest. In the end, “Sleepy Joe” proved a better match for the teary-eyed clumsy talker from Philadelphia, whose strength lay not so much in the blows he delivered as in the many punches he soaked up.