The Story Behind TIME’s ‘If He Wins’ President Biden Cover

Credit - Photograph by Philip Montgomery for TIME

Read our full cover story on President Joe Biden here. You can also read the transcript of the interview here and the fact-check here.

As President Joseph Biden walked into the small dining room next to the Oval Office, he reminded his visitors, not for the first time, that this space was where his predecessor spent the afternoon of Jan. 6, 2021. “Trump sat and watched TV for three hours and did nothing,” he said, recalling the riot that overtook the Capitol on the day that Biden’s victory was to be certified by Congress.

We were at the White House on May 28—one week before Biden was scheduled to visit Normandy on the 80th anniversary of D-Day, and two weeks before he was set to join world leaders in Italy—to speak with the President about the U.S.’s role in the world. No President in a generation has entered the job with more foreign policy experience than Biden. Yet his first 3½ years in office have shown the limits of American leadership along with its strengths, dominated as they have been by crises in Afghanistan, Ukraine, and Israel, and by rising tensions in Asia.

So much of the Biden campaign has revolved around the threat Donald Trump would present to the world if he wins. From his seat off the Oval Office, Biden recalled the first G-7 meeting he attended as President. “America’s back,” he remembers telling his counterparts. According to Biden, French President Emmanuel Macron replied, “For how long?” It made the President realize “how much confidence people lost in America,” Biden told TIME. “There’s not a major international meeting I attend that, before it’s over ... a world leader doesn’t pull me aside, as I’m leaving, and say, ‘He can’t win. You can’t let him win.’”

We’ve heard less so far from Biden about what he believes it would mean for the world if he wins. “To finish what I started in the first term,” Biden told us, outlining a vision in which Europe is protected from Russian aggression; new alliances are secured in the Middle East; the opportunities of the Global South and population booms in Africa are realized; and Pacific nations, working with the U.S., help slow climate change and the geopolitical threat from China.

For that vision to be realized, Biden has to first win in November. The White House is on guard for interference in the election from China and elsewhere. (“There is evidence that meddling is going on,” the President told us, without elaborating.) He has to overcome voters’ doubts about his age (“Watch me,” he said). To the skeptics, he points to his record: passing a trillion-dollar infrastructure bill and a historic climate-change package, and boosting private investment in American industry. “Look, name a President that’s gotten as much done as I’ve gotten done in my first 3½ years,” he said.

Washington Bureau Chief Massimo Calabresi, who has reported across the capital and around the world for TIME since 1993, captures the stakes of this moment in this week’s cover story. Calabresi’s reporting is accompanied by portraits taken by Philip Montgomery—the first time Biden has sat for an outside photographer in the Oval Office during his presidency. It was Montgomery’s picture of Biden being sworn in at his Inauguration, in front of a sea of masked faces, that ran on TIME’s cover in 2021. And his portraits of Donald Trump accompanied our recent profile of the former President.

<span class="copyright">Photographs by Philip Montgomery for TIME</span>
Photographs by Philip Montgomery for TIME

This interview is the third Biden has given to TIME since he announced his candidacy for President in 2019. The first happened in the run-up to the Iowa caucuses, before the COVID-19 shutdown. The second, for Person of the Year in 2020, followed the campaign’s conclusion under the intense health protocols that dominated that election. And today, we hear him as he prepares for what are likely to be the last major international trips of this term, at a moment when a confluence of global challenges looms over his re-election effort.

In the time we spent with the President, he remembered long-ago encounters with historic figures ranging from Pope John Paul II to Henry Kissinger. He recalled the words of historian Jon Meacham, who told Biden after the President entered the Oval Office on Inauguration Day that the country had not been as divided since the days of Lincoln, nor the future of its democracy as challenged since those of FDR. The overall impression Biden left us with is one of a man in conversation with history, both the country’s and his own.

Write to Sam Jacobs at