How Joe Biden Works

By: Josh Clark & Dave Roos  | 

Joe Biden
Joe Biden addresses the nation on election night, 2020. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

It was a hard-fought campaign that had the entire U.S. — indeed much of the world — on edge: Who was going to become the 46th president of the United States? People watched as six states — Georgia, Nevada, Arizona, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin — had results too close to call on election night. But over the next few days, all these states declared for the former U.S. vice president. In all, Biden won 306 electoral votes to incumbent Donald Trump's 232 [source: Lewis].

The 2020 election was notable for several reasons. First, it had the highest voter turnout since 1900, with each party receiving more than 74 million votes. Biden alone got more than 81 million votes, the most ever cast for a president in an election in U.S. history. And his running mate Kamala Harris is the first woman and first person of color to hold the office of vice president. The election was also noteworthy because Trump refused to concede his loss, claiming without any evidence that the vote was rigged [source: The Associated Press].

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Biden takes office during a tumultuous time. There is the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Unemployment is high, and the U.S. economy is weak. The summer of 2020 was marked by protests against racism, police brutality and even against the requirement in some states to wear a mask to stop the spread of the coronavirus. And just two weeks before his inauguration, a mob of Trump supporters stormed the Capitol, mistakenly believing the election had been "stolen" and that Trump was the real winner.

In November, after he had secured victory, Biden declared that it was time to heal. "I sought this office to restore the soul of America and to make America respected around the world again and to unite us here at home," he said in his victory speech.

So, what will a Biden administration be like? We'll take a look at Joe Biden, his 36 years as a Democratic senator, his eight years as vice president alongside President Barack Obama, and how he plans to govern on climate change, immigration and other hot-button issues.

Biography of Joe Biden

Joe and Nelia Biden
Senator-elect Joseph Biden and wife Neilia cut his 30th birthday cake at a party in Wilmington, Nov. 20, 1972. His son, Hunter waits for the first piece. Bettman/Getty Images

Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. was born Nov. 20, 1942, in Scranton, Pennsylvania, the son of Joe and Jean Biden. He was the oldest of four in an Irish-Catholic family. His father was a business owner of varying degrees of success. Biden Sr. worked as a car salesman, a sales representative for Amoco Oil, co-owner of a crop-dusting company, an executive in a marine sealant manufacturing firm, a real estate agent and a boiler cleaner for a heating company [source: Chapman].

When Joe Biden was 10, his family moved to a suburb of Wilmington, Delaware, where he attended Archmere, a private Catholic school. He later took a part-time job to help pay for the tuition. As a boy, Biden had a debilitating stutter for which he was bullied by classmates and even a teacher. He stood before a mirror reciting a line from Ralph Waldo Emerson's "The American Scholar" over and over, watching the muscles in his face in order to learn how to control them [source: Brozyna].

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Biden had been a lackluster student in college. His first year at the University of Delaware yielded him a grade-point average of 1.9 [source: Brozyna]. When he graduated in 1965 and entered law school, his performance was much the same, ranking 76th out of a class of 85 students. Still, he was convinced his poor academic showing was due to a lack of interest, not intellect. He later wrote in his memoir, "Promises to Keep" (published in 2007), "The work didn't seem so hard, just boring; and I was a dangerous combination of arrogant and sloppy."

In 1964, Biden had gone to the Bahamas for spring break, where he snuck into a hotel pool and met his future wife, Neilia Hunter. In 1966, the couple married and Biden went back to school. He obtained his law degree from Syracuse University in 1968 and practiced law in Delaware until he was elected at 29 years old to the U.S. Senate in 1972, becoming the fifth-youngest senator in U.S. history.

In 1969, Biden's first son, Joseph (nicknamed "Beau"), was born. He was followed by Robert Hunter in 1970 and Naomi in 1971. Tragedy struck the Biden family in December 1972, when Neilia and the three Biden children were involved in an auto accident while out Christmas shopping. Neilia and Naomi were killed; Beau and Hunter were injured.

Biden received the news while at his senate office. He says he considered suicide after suffering such a profound loss [source: Dwyer]. Ultimately, he chose to live. He raised his two sons as a single parent with the help of his sister who moved in with them. And he found love again; in 1977, he married Jill Jacobs. She has a doctorate in education and teaches English at Northern Virginia Community College. In 1981, Joe and Jill Biden welcomed a daughter named Ashley.

The Bidens suffered yet another gut-wrenching loss in 2015 when 46-year-old Beau, then serving as a captain in the National Guard and the two-time attorney general of Delaware, died after a long fight with brain cancer [source: Shear].

Hunter Biden is an attorney and former lobbyist whose tumultuous personal life and lucrative stints with foreign companies landed him at the center of the Ukraine controversy that led to President Trump's impeachment (more on that later) [source: Entous]. Ashley Biden is a social worker and activist who owns a clothing line called Livelihood that donates its proceeds to social welfare organizations [source: Igoe]. The Bidens currently have six grandchildren [source: Phillips].

In addition to his career as a senator, Biden taught constitutional law for 18 years at Widener College, now Widener University. Despite becoming the vice-presidential nominee during the 2008 campaign, he still taught the class when available.

During the 2008 campaign, Biden's medical history raised questions about his ability to serve as vice president. In 1988, he suffered a brain aneurysm that nearly killed him. He had dropped out of the presidential race a few months prior (more on that on the next page), after experiencing what he took to be a pinched nerve and a headache.

After a visit to the doctor, Biden was taken to emergency cranial surgery. He developed a blood clot in his lungs during recovery and suffered a second aneurysm. Biden underwent a subsequent cranial surgery the following May [source: Caputo]. Biden said the experience changed him; he adopted the dichotomous outlook of throwing himself into his role of senator while not sweating the small stuff.

Political Career of Joe Biden

Joe Biden campaign 1988
Sen. Joseph R. Biden campaigns at an adult education center after announcing his bid for 1988 Democratic presidential nomination. Steve Liss/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images

Joe Biden began his political career at the age of 27. He won a seat on the New Castle County, Delaware, council in 1970. He served on the council for two years before making the leap to the U.S. Senate. At the age of 29, Biden unseated Sen. James Caleb Boggs (Rep.), the two-term incumbent, in an upset victory [source: Biography]. Two weeks after winning the seat, Biden's family was involved in the auto accident that took his wife and daughter's life. He was sworn in at his sons' hospital room as the fifth-youngest senator in history. This would be the beginning of a 36-year career as a senator representing Delaware.

Biden commuted to Washington and home to Delaware each night by train to look after his two sons. The train ride was a habit he continued throughout his career as a senator, and it earned him a reputation as a Washington insider who lived outside of Washington, an outsider inside the Beltway [source: Cillizza].

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Biden made his first run for the White House during the 1988 campaign. He ran on the promise that he would "rekindle the fire of idealism in our society," as he put it [source: Witt]. His chances looked good until The New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd accused Biden of plagiarizing speeches from British Labor Party leader Neil Kinnock. Biden "became Kinnock" during one speech, lifting not only Kinnock's words, but part of his life story as well [source: Shafer]. At an Iowa debate in August 1987, Biden used parts of a Kinnock speech that referenced being first in his family to attend college. The reference was true for Kinnock, but not for Biden.

Campaign managers for Biden later defended him, pointing out that Biden had used parts of Kinnock's speeches with proper attribution throughout the campaign. But the Iowa speech and an investigation that revealed he'd plagiarized one-third of a paper he wrote in law school led to the sinking of his candidacy. Amid public outcry, Biden dropped out three months into the 1988 race.

Despite the controversy, he managed to keep his senate seat. Back in Washington, and following his two aneurysms, Biden became one of the Senate's most active members [source: Brozyna]. He became a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1975, and following his dropout from the 1988 race, he also joined the Senate Judiciary Committee, serving as chair from 1987 to 1995 [source: Senate.gov].

Biden's long tenure in Washington and membership on those prized committees gave him both remarkable power and opened him up to criticism. As chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, he gained foreign policy experience meeting with heads of state. As chair of the Judiciary Committee, he passionately opposed the confirmations of Supreme Court justices Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas. In the end, Biden was able to sway moderate Republicans to block the Bork nomination, a victory on the heels of Biden's failed presidential run [source: Keith].

In 2007, Biden made a second run for the White House. He dropped out after coming in fifth in the Iowa Caucus.

Due to his interest in foreign policy and chairmanship on the Foreign Relations Committee, Biden is considered one of the United States' foremost authorities on foreign policy, but that's just one key issue that's important to Biden.

Key Issues and Policy of Joe Biden

Joe Biden, Jill biden
Joe Biden stands with his wife Dr. Jill Biden while waiting to be introduced to a town hall at the Proulx Community Center in Franklin, New Hampshire, on Nov. 8, 2019. JOSEPH PREZIOSO/AFP via Getty Images

Back in 2007, when Biden launched his second presidential campaign, he made foreign policy his key issue, arguing that the ongoing War in Iraq was possibly "the biggest foreign policy blunder in America's history" [source: Guttman]. Biden took criticism for this stance on the war, especially since he initially voted in favor of sending U.S. troops into Iraq in 2002. He later changed his opinion, and in February 2007, he proposed that Congress repeal its authorization of the use of force in the Middle Eastern nation, which would have effectively ended the war [source: Giroux].

For the 2020 election, Biden is focusing on a new set of key issues starting with health care. Biden served alongside President Obama when the Affordable Care Act was narrowly passed and remains a strong advocate of the landmark health care law, which provided health coverage to millions of uninsured Americans and drew the ire of small-government conservatives. While other former Democratic presidential hopefuls have embraced a single-payer " Medicare for All" model, Biden advocates adding a "public option" to the ACA [source: Glueck].

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Climate change is also at the top of Biden's priority list. No late-comer to environmentalism, then-Senator Biden introduced a bill called the "Global Climate Protection Act" back in 1986 that warned against melting polar ice caps and rising sea levels [source: PolitiFact]. He did not officially sign on to a Green New Deal like other former Democratic candidates, but he proposed a $2 trillion plan to make the U.S. carbon neutral by 2050 [source: Wise].

In both of his most recent presidential runs, Biden was a staunch critic of Republican tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. While he doesn't believe in "punishing the rich" with exorbitant tax rates, he does think that everyone should pay their fair share without exploiting loopholes. In the 2020 election, Biden campaigned on a promise to repeal the 2017 corporate tax cuts signed by President Trump [source: Chicago Tribune].

What about racial justice and policing reform? When he was a senator from Delaware, Biden embraced a "tough on crime" persona that culminated in his authorship of the 1994 Crime Bill, which increased the nationwide police force by 100,000 and enlarged prisons to accommodate tougher sentencing laws. Some of Biden's critics in the Black community blame him for creating the conditions that led to the mass incarceration of Black men. Today, Biden has changed his stance, apologizing for the failures of the 1994 bill and advocating for criminal justice reform that reduces the prison population and recognizes the existence of racial bias in policing and sentencing [source: Kranish].

When it comes to hot-button social issues, Biden's positions largely align with the Democratic mainstream. Although a practicing Catholic, Biden supports abortion rights, and in 2019 rescinded his support for the Hyde Amendment, which had barred any federal funding for abortions [source: McCammon]. On gun control, Biden supports a ban on the sale of any new assault-style rifles and a buyback program for existing assault rifles [source: Lybrand]. On LGBTQ rights, Biden has evolved from opposing same-sex marriage in the 1990s to pledging his support for it in 2012 even before President Obama did [source: Nagourney and Kaplan].

Next we'll look at Biden's two-term tenure as vice president.

Biden as Vice President

Obama and Biden
President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden step outside the White House walking to nearby Blair House Dec. 2, 2010, to meet with newly elected U.S. governors. PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP via Getty Images

At 3 a.m. on Aug. 23, 2008, the Obama campaign sent out text messages and emails to supporters letting them know he'd chosen Joe Biden to be his running mate. At the Democratic Convention five days later, Biden accepted [source: Reuters].

While Biden and Obama initially differed in personality and temperament, their relationship grew into a budding "bromance" culminating in Obama's surprise 2016 decision to award Biden the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor [sources: New York Times, CNN].

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During his eight years as vice president, Biden served in a number of high-profile capacities at President Obama's request. When the two men took office, the U.S. was mired in the Great Recession. Obama tapped Biden to oversee the $840 billion recovery package included in the American Recovery and Investment Act. Biden also used his bipartisan Senate connections to help pass the Dodd-Frank Act to tighten regulation of the financial sector [source: Obama White House].

Biden also played a key role in preventing the U.S. from careening over the so-called " fiscal cliff" in 2013. He entered tense negotiations with Republican Senator Mitch McConnell that resulted in critical compromises acceptable to both parties [source: Biography].

With his extensive foreign policy experience, Biden represented the Obama administration in state visits to more than 50 countries, including high-profile meetings and negotiations with China's President Xi Jinping, and the successful release of political prisoners held in Ukraine and Azerbaijan [source: Obama White House]. In the Middle East, Biden played a key leadership role in framing White House policy on Iraq and Afghanistan, and was influential in the Obama administration's anti-terrorism efforts, including the increased use of airstrikes conducted by unmanned drones [source: Council on Foreign Relations].

Biden was an early advocate for stronger laws protecting women from domestic violence; he wrote and helped pass the original "Violence Against Women Act" (VAWA) in 1994 [source: Law]. As vice president, Biden helped push the third reauthorization of the VAWA through a divided Congress, and he was charged with appointing the first White House adviser on Violence Against Women. Biden also took charge of the administration's response to a growing epidemic of campus sexual violence [source: Obama White House].

One of Biden's final duties as vice president was a personal one; to oversee the "Cancer Moonshot" mission launched by President Obama in 2016, "to make a decade's worth of advances in cancer prevention, diagnosis and treatment, in five years," according to the Obama White House website. Biden lost his son Beau to brain cancer in 2015 and dedicated his last year in office to create a national task force on cancer research, to strengthen international cooperation toward finding a cure, and to push for the 21st Century CURES Act, which allocated $1.8 billion toward cancer research funding and another $1 billion to combat the opioid crisis.

Biden's 2020 Presidential Campaign

Joe Biden campaign for president
Democratic nominee for president Joe Biden gives a speech to workers after touring McGregor Industries in Dunmore, Pennsylvania, on July 9, 2020 TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images

Biden sat out the 2016 presidential race, explaining that he was still too upset over Beau's death to give his full energy to a presidential campaign. But after Donald Trump took office, Biden became a vocal critic of Trump administration policies that actively dismantled the Obama administration's work on issues like immigration, health care and the environment. Biden later said he was also deeply disturbed by President Trump's response to the 2017 clashes in Charlottesville, Virginia, sparked by a white supremacist rally [source: Biography].

As Biden edged closer to announcing a White House run in 2019, allegations emerged that he had acted inappropriately around female staffers and colleagues, including accusations that he had kissed one woman on the back of the head and sexually assaulted another woman in a Senate hallway in 1993 [source: Relman and Sheth]. Biden addressed the accusations, but came short of apologizing.

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Another concern was Biden's age. If elected, Biden would enter the White House at 78 years old, making him the oldest president to hold office. And with Biden's history of aneurysms, his health was a legitimate concern. Biden's cause was probably helped by the fact that his main challenger during the primaries, Bernie Sanders, was also in his 70s and had his own significant health problems.

Despite the rocky start, Biden still led in early polls of potential challengers to President Trump, prompting the former vice president to officially announce his 2020 candidacy in April 2019 [source: Biography].

Things took an unexpected turn in September 2019 when an intelligence department whistleblower claimed that President Trump had abused his power to pressure the Ukrainian government to investigate both Biden and his son, Hunter. Trump claimed that Hunter had committed fraud as a board member at Burisma Holdings, a Ukrainian energy company, and that Biden had used his influence as vice president to quash a Ukrainian investigation [source: Bruggeman and Tatum]. The Ukraine controversy ultimately led to President Trump's impeachment by the House of Representatives and ultimate acquittal by the Senate.

Biden registered poor showings in early Democratic primaries, but was still largely seen as the man to beat. In televised debates, more liberal candidates attacked his record on the 1994 crime bill and his failure to support busing to racially integrate public schools in the 1970s [source: Biography]. The turning point came when Biden won the South Carolina primary in convincing fashion, solidifying his position with Black voters, a key constituency if Democrats hoped to beat President Trump in 2020.

In short order, Biden's top Democratic rivals — Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders — dropped out of the race in March and April 2020, clearing the path for Biden to become the 2020 Democratic nominee.

Joe Biden as President

Joe Biden, Kamala Harris
Joe Biden and Kamala Harris introduce the nominees for their science team on Jan. 16, 2021, at The Queen Theater in Wilmington, Delaware. ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images

Joe Biden pledged to nominate the most diverse cabinet in U.S. history, and if his candidates are confirmed we will see the first Native American cabinet secretary (Congresswoman Deb Haaland as interior secretary); the first female treasury secretary (Janet Yellen); the first Latino homeland security chief (Alejandro N. Mayorkas); the first openly gay cabinet member (Pete Buttigieg as transportation secretary) and the first African American Pentagon chief (Gen. Lloyd Austin). Still he is under pressure "from all sides" as The New York Times put it, to do even more in terms of representation.

As far as policies, here are some of the things Biden has said he will do in his first 100 days [sources: Moore, Franck]

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  • Work on a new COVID-19 aid package
  • Release a vaccine distribution plan
  • Reverse Trump's corporate tax cut
  • Reenter the Paris Climate accord of 2015 that Trump pulled the U.S. out of
  • Extend the Voting Rights Act
  • Produce a path to citizenship for the 11 million people living in the U.S. illegally
  • Make the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program permanent
  • Stop family separation at the U.S.-Mexico border
  • Enact criminal justice reform
  • Make investments to boost the U.S. economy
  • Start on a $2 trillion plan to boost reliance on clean energy and sustainable practices
  • Offer a public option for health care insurance
  • Cancel student loan debt for all Americans for at least $10,000

As part of his $1.9 trillion COVID-19 aid package, Biden wants to give direct payments of $1,400 to most Americans, on top of the $600 that was recently approved. He also wants to extend the moratorium on evictions as well as the federal unemployment benefit. He'd also like billions to go to state and local government aid, COVID testing and vaccine programs. Increasing the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour is also part of the package.

Whether he can deliver on these promises — or at least some of them — remains to be seen. Biden, who ran as a moderate, will be caught between his more liberal party members who want him to take more progressive positions in areas like the environment and immigration, and conservative members of the Republican Party who may seek to block him as much as possible.

Originally Published: Sep 23, 2008

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