How Joe Biden Works


Joe Biden Image Gallery Sen. Joe Biden announces his candidacy for president in June 1987. See more pictures of Joe Biden.
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During a ca­mpaign stop at a supporter's home in Claremont, N.H., in the 1988 Democratic presidential primary race, Sen. Joe Biden lost his temper. A small group of people were assembled for the informal, structured publicity appearance. C-SPAN, the public service all-government channel, was on hand to record the event. Among the group was a man named Frank. It was Frank who asked Biden, by then halfway through serving his third consecutive term as senator, about his academic record.

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: ABC News]. When he graduated and entered law school, his performance was much the same, ranking 76th out of a class of 85 students. Still, Biden 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" [source: Biden].

How to get this across to Frank? "I think I probably have a much higher IQ than you do, I suspect," he shot back, irritated [source: Bates]. Biden went on to mention he'd graduated in the top half of his law school class -- a false statement [source: New York Times].

This was typical Joe Biden. The 35-year veteran senator from Delaware is known for his bluster. He admits that he has a quick temper and, "I exaggerate when I'm angry" [source: New York Times]. He has found absolution for his missteps from his largely white and African-American working class constituency in his home state. "We forgive him every once in a while when he says something dumb -- 'Oh, that's just Joe,'" explains, James M. Baker, the mayor of Wilmington, Del., Biden's hometown [source: IHT].

But as the running mate in Sen. Barack Obama's bid to be the first African-American president in U.S. history, Biden will need the forgiveness and consensus of more than the voters of the nation's 49th largest state. What qualifies Sen. Joe Biden to serve as Vice President of the United States? Find out in this article.

Biography of Joe Biden

Jill, Joe and Ashley Biden listen to Barack Obama's speech at the DNC in August 2008.
Jill, Joe and Ashley Biden listen to Barack Obama's speech at the DNC in August 2008.
Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images

Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. was born Nov. 20, 1942, in Scranton, Penn., the son of Joe and Jean Biden [source: Biography]. He was the oldest of four in an Irish-Catholic family. His father was a businessman of varying 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 realtor, and a boiler cleaner for a heating company [source: Chapman].

When Joe Biden was 10, his family moved to a suburb of Wilmington, Del., where he attended Archmere, a private Catholic school. He took a part-time job to help pay for the tuition. As a boy, Biden had a debilitating stutter. 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: ABC News].

He went on to attend the University of Delaware, struggling with grades at first and finally earning a bachelor's degree in 1965. The previous year, Biden had gone to the Bahamas for spring break, where he snuck into a hotel pool and met his future wife, Neilia Hunter [source: Time]. 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 first entered the U.S. Senate in 1972 [source: Time, Biden].

In 1969, Biden's first son, Joseph R. "Beau" Biden, was born. He was followed by Robert Hunter Biden in 1970 and Naomi Biden in 1971 [source: Biography]. 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: ABC News]. Ultimately, he chose to live. He raised his two sons as a single parent with the help of his family, including his sister who moved in with them. And he found love again; in 1977, he married Jill Jacobs. She has a Ph.D. in education and teaches at Delaware Technical Community College. Joe and Jill Biden have a third child, in addition to Hunter and Beau: a daughter named Ashley. They also have five grandchildren [source: Obama]. Beau Biden is the Delaware attorney general and a captain in the Delaware National Guard. Hunter Biden is an attorney and former lobbyist. Ashley Biden is a social worker [source: Obama].

In addition to his career as a senator, Biden also teaches constitutional law at the University of Delaware. Despite becoming the vice-presidential nominee during the 2008 campaign, he still teaches the class. And on one occasion, he "took the red-eye out of Afghanistan to make this class," a spokesperson for the law school said [source: CBS News].

During the 2008 campaign, Sen. Biden's prior medical history became a question about his ability to lead, should he become 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 next page), when he felt what he took to be a pinched nerve and a headache. After a visit to the doctor, he 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: Time]. Sen. 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. Read about Biden's political career on the next page.

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Political Career of Joe Biden

British Labor Party leader Neil Kinnock speaking in 1987. Biden would later be accused of plagiarizing Kinnock’s speeches.
British Labor Party leader Neil Kinnock speaking in 1987. Biden would later be accused of plagiarizing Kinnock’s speeches.
Sahm Doherty/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

Joe Biden began his political career at the age of 27. He won a seat on the New Castle County, Del., council in 1970. Biden served on the council for two years before making the leap to the U.S. Senate. At the age of 29, Biden unseated Republican Delaware Senator James Caleb Boggs, the two-term incumbent. Biden garnered 58 percent of the vote [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 [source: ABC News]. This would be the beginning of a 35-year career as a senator representing Delaware.

Biden commuted to Washington and home to Delaware each night by train to look over 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: Washington Post].

Biden made his first run for the White House in the 1988 campaign. He ran on the promise that he would "rekindle the fire of idealism in our society" [source: NPR]. His chances looked good until 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: Slate]. 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 [source: Slate]. 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 and vocal members" [source: ABC News]. He became a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1975 (currently serving as chair); following his drop out from the 1988 race, he also joined the Senate Judiciary Committee, serving as chair from 1987 to 1995 [source: Biography].

Biden's long tenure in Washington and membership on those 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 [source: NPR]. As chair of the Judiciary Committee, he met wide disapproval for his leadership during the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court justices Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas, allowing each hearing to devolve into a "circus" [source: CNS]. Biden was also examined closely for his son Hunter's activities as a lobbyist. Hunter Biden worked as a lobbyist in Washington from 2001 to 2008, when he formally resigned from his firm, two days after his father's nomination as vice president [source: USA Today, WSJ].

In 2007, Biden made a run again for the White House. He dropped out after coming in fifth in the Iowa Caucus [source: NPR]. He withheld an official endorsement of the other candidates.

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

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Key Issues and Policy of Joe Biden

Sen. Biden during a 2007 visit to Iraq.
Sen. Biden during a 2007 visit to Iraq.
John Moore/Getty Images

At the heart of Joe Biden's foreign policy beliefs is that the Iraq War was possibly "the biggest foreign policy blunder in America's history" [source: Biden]. Sen. 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: Salon].

This repeal didn't pass, but a later proposal to end the Iraq War did. In September 2007, the Biden Plan, a nonbinding resolution which proposed dividing Iraq into three autonomous nations (split among the three predominant ethnic groups in the region), passed in the Senate by a vote of 75 to 23 [source: MSNBC]. Sen. Biden has a personal interest in seeing the war end: His oldest son, Beau, is a captain in the Delaware National Guard and was scheduled to be deployed for a tour in Iraq in October 2008 [source: Washington Post].

Despite the pro-life stance typically demanded by his Catholic faith, Sen. Biden is a staunch supporter of choice in the matter of abortion, though he "is prepared to accept … on faith" that life begins at conception [source: NBC]. He opposes partial-birth and late-term abortions, and is opposed to public funding of any abortions [source: NBC]. He has voted in favor of federal funding for sex education and access to contraceptives, as well as expanding stem cell research [source: U.S. Senate]. Biden is against same-sex marriages (though he favors civil unions), but doesn't support a Constitutional amendment banning them [source: New York Times].

On crime, Biden favors a large law enforcement presence. In 1994, the Biden Crime Bill introduced an additional 100,000 police officers nationwide through federal funding. The bill also banned some assault weapons, increased the scope of offenses punishable by death, increased funding for new prison construction and increased civil liability for gender-related abuse through the Violence Against Women Act in the bill [source: Weekly Standard].

Biden said in 2007 that if he were invested with special powers from God, he would use his one wish to solve the global energy crisis [source: WSJ]. He is a strong supporter of biofuel research and set a goal for 60 billion gallons of biofuels to be produced in the United States annually by 2030 [source: Grist]. He is against drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and offshore drilling along U.S. coastal waters [source: New York Times]. He also called for removing government subsidies of oil companies and for investigating Pres. George W. Bush and others for price gouging consumers on gasoline [source: Biden]. Despite receiving high scores from environmental groups for his voting, Biden was criticized in the press for being among the candidates using personal jets on the campaign trail [source: AP].

Biden is in favor of repealing the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest one percent of Americans. He said in 2008 that it's time for the wealthiest Americans to "be patriotic" by paying higher taxes [source: AP]. Biden supports Barack Obama's tax plan to cut taxes for Americans earning less than $250,000 per year and raising taxes for those who make more than that amount. In the Senate, Biden's voted against repealing or lowering the Alternative Minimum Tax [source: U.S. Senate]. This tax, passed in 1969, was meant to tax high incomes, but was never adjusted to reflect inflation and increases in average salaries. The tax now levies stiff fees against middle-income families, rather than high income families.

Read about Biden following his nomination for vice president on the next page.

Biden for Vice President

Sen. Joe Biden introduces his running mate at a rally in Dublin, Ohio, in August 2008.
Sen. Joe Biden introduces his running mate at a rally in Dublin, Ohio, in August 2008.
Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

At 3:00 a.m. on Aug. 23, 2008, the Obama campaign sent out text messages and e-mails to supporters. "Friend -- I have some important news that I want to make official," the e-mail read. "I've chosen Joe Biden to be my running mate" [source: New York Times]. At the Democratic Convention five days later, Biden accepted: "Yes. Yes, I accept your nomination to run and serve Barack Obama, the next president of the United States" [source: Reuters].

While many Democrats lamented that Obama passed over Sen. Hillary Clinton for his running mate pick, others deemed Biden a better pick strategically. One of the traditional roles of vice presidential candidates during campaigns is to serve as the de facto attack dog for the campaign. It's the VP pick who goes after the other camp, leaving the presidential candidate free to campaign on issues, rather than criticize or fend off attacks from the opposing camps.

This role can be a prickly one for a VP candidate who hopes to make a run for the presidency in a future election; words spoken in one campaign can sink a later one. Not so with Biden, most political observers agree. "He has exorcised the presidential bug," wrote one pundit [source: Washington Post]. Thus freed from this ambition, Biden could speak without fear of reprisal down the road.

Biden's reputation for oration was examined again after he was chosen as Obama's running mate. He is alternately (and often in conjunction) described as "outspoken and candid," "a strong debater," "long-winded" and "prone to the occasional gaffe" [source: CBS, NPR, Reuters, BBC]. As Obama's running mate, Biden both answered for statements he made before the nomination and created more controversy after.

Perhaps most damaging to the Obama campaign were Biden's remarks about his future running mate during the primary. The day he announced that he would run for the presidency in February 2007, Sen. Biden was quoted describing Obama as "the first mainstream African-American [candidate] who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy" [source: CNN]. Biden also said early in the primary race that he didn't believe Obama was ready to serve as president [source: ABC News]. He created further controversy as the vice-presidential nominee when he said he thought that Sen. Clinton would have made a better running mate [source: Washington Post]. When pressed at a later public appearance he reiterated this belief. Conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh's Web site called liberal Biden the "gift that keeps on giving" [source: Limbaugh].

Biden is much-touted for his appeal to Catholic and blue-collar voters. During the campaign, Sen. Obama lost that voting block to Sen. Clinton. Sen. Biden may be able to bring those voters with him to the election in November. Other voting blocks may be tougher to win over with him on the ticket; some his gaffes sound at best culturally insensitive and at worst racist. In 2006, Biden mentioned that it's impossible to enter a Delaware 7-11 or Dunkin Donuts without a Middle Eastern accent [source: Biography]. And he defended accusations of being out of touch with minority issues by pointing out that Delaware had been a slave state [source: Hartford Courant].

Despite these blunders, and calls from some Democrats for Obama to replace Biden with Sen. Clinton, it looks like Obama has found his running mate. Whether Biden's experience and foreign policy expertise can overcome his propensity for putting his foot in his mouth on the campaign trail remains to be seen.

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