FOR HIS CLASSMATES at the Archmere Academy, a Roman Catholic day school in Claymont, Delaware, Joseph Robinette Biden Jr was Joe “Bye-bye”. The nickname stuck because Biden had a debilitating stutter and could not even pronounce his surname properly. He was Joe Impedimenta in his Latin class as he just could not finish a sentence. But Biden never gave up. He worked on his staccato delivery by memorising routine conversations and reciting poems—W.B. Yeats was a favourite, thanks to his Irish roots—in front of the mirror for hours. He even practised talking with pebbles in his mouth, like the Greek orator Demosthenes. By his sophomore year, the stutter was under control and he even managed to get himself elected class president, despite a patchy academic performance. Even today, most of his prepared speeches have markings on them, showing where to take breaks between words.
Taming his stutter gave “the scrappy kid from Scranton, Pennsylvania”, enormous self-confidence. He was 10 when his family moved to Delaware after Biden Sr got a job as a car salesman. Biden met his future wife Neilia Hunter in the spring of 1965, while he was in the Bahamas, enjoying a break from undergraduate studies at the University of Delaware. While talking to the Hunters, Biden revealed his ambition: he wanted to be the president of the United States. That fire still burns even after 56 years, as he takes on Donald Trump in the presidential election this November.
It has not been an easy journey. In 1972, as a 29-year-old, Biden caused a major political upset in Delaware’s history by beating incumbent Republican J. Caleb Boggs in the senate race. Biden had to take out a second mortgage to finance his campaign after wealthy donors deserted him as he was against lowering capital gains tax. He overcame a 30-point deficit and beat Boggs, a former governor and Congressman, who was a household name in Delaware.
Tragedy struck a month later. Neilia was driving home with their three children after picking up a Christmas tree when a tractor-trailer carrying corn cobs slammed into their station wagon. Neilia and their one-year-old daughter, Naomi, died on the spot, while the two sons, Beau and Hunter, escaped with serious injuries. Biden was devastated, but he took charge as senator, taking oath from his sons’ hospital room. He never moved to the national capital, but commuted daily between Wilmington and Washington on Amtrak for more than 30 years, earning him the nickname Amtrak Joe.
Five years after he lost Neilia, Biden fell in love with Jill, an English teacher at a community college. “She gave me back my life,” Biden wrote in his 2007 memoir Promises to Keep. “She made me start to think my family might be whole again.” Their wedding took place at the United Nations chapel in New York City with only close friends and family in attendance. Beau and Hunter stood with the bride and the groom at the altar and later joined them on their honeymoon trip.
With things looking up again, Biden entered the 1988 presidential campaign. He was soon caught in a plagiarism controversy after he passed off first the speech and then the life experiences of British Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock as his own, finding too much inspiration from a Kinnock campaign video. Biden falsely claimed that his ancestors worked in the coal mines of northern Pennsylvania and that he was the first university graduate in his family. The campaign collapsed after a front page exposé in The New York Times. Soon came stories about Biden borrowing quotes from American stalwarts like Robert Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey without attribution. A plagiarism charge from his days as a law student at Syracuse University, too, resurfaced, forcing him to withdraw in disgrace. Political commentator William Schneider, who gave Biden the Kinnock tape, recently told The Atlantic that Biden had all the benefits and failings of a normal guy, which got him into trouble in the first place. “In 1988, it was a different universe,” said Schneider. “Now he’s seen as a normal response to Donald Trump, and Trump is not normal.”
A few months after his disgraced exit, Biden, who complained of recurring headaches while on the campaign trail, collapsed in the middle of a snow storm. He was rushed to the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, where doctors diagnosed him with a ruptured aneurysm. He was so close to death that a local priest was summoned to administer last rites. Two months later, he was operated on for a second aneurysm. It took Biden more than seven months to return to active political life.
For the next 20 years, Biden remained a solid presence in Washington. As the senate judiciary committee chairman, he helped president Bill Clinton secure bipartisan support for his favourite initiatives like the ban on assault weapons and the bill to prevent violence against women. By the time George W. Bush became president, Biden had moved on as chairman of the senate foreign relations committee. He was strongly critical of Bush’s philosophy of interventionism and the neocon moorings of his foreign policy.
Biden’s second presidential bid was in 2007 for the 2008 elections, but in the Democratic party it soon became a two-horse race between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. After securing the nomination, Obama invited Biden to be his running mate, which he accepted on Jill’s persuasion. It was not easy for Biden as it was the first time in 36 years that he agreed to become somebody’s wingman. But the arrangement clicked. Biden’s decades of experience was crucial to the ticket, and it played an important role in convincing white America to vote for the young, black senator from Illinois.
Notwithstanding the occasional skirmishes with Obama’s ‘Chicago cabal’, Biden had a satisfying run as vice president. When he was offered the job, Biden had just one demand: “I want to be the last guy in the room on every major decision,” he told Obama. For most part, the president granted that wish, and, in return, Biden soldiered on as a staunch Obama loyalist, despite his ambition to run for president one more time. In the early days of the presidency, when the United States and the world were experiencing a major financial meltdown, Obama deputed Biden to sell his controversial $787 billion economic stimulus bill. Under Biden’s watchful eyes, only 1 per cent of the total outlay was lost in waste or fraud.
After the Republicans seized majority in the House of Representatives in 2010, Biden was the White House’s face on the hill, leading protracted negotiations on budget and debt-ceiling. He also played a key role in getting Obama’s signature legislation, the Affordable Care Act, passed by the Congress. Biden was instrumental in convincing Arlen Specter, the Republican senator from Pennsylvania, to switch over to the Democratic party. Specter gave Obama the crucial 60th vote to pass the bill in the senate. Biden also provided critical inputs on the foreign policy front, especially on Iraq, Afghanistan and Ukraine, and remained steadfastly against the use of force. Interestingly, he counselled Obama against the raid to kill Osama bin Laden, pointing out that the mission’s failure would cost him his second term.
Over the course of years, Obama and Biden grew close despite their differences in style, substance and temperament. The president stood like a rock behind Biden when Beau was diagnosed with brain tumour. When asked in a CNN interview about his most memorable moment at the White House, Biden spoke about how Obama offered to pay for Beau’s treatment. During one of their weekly private lunches, Biden told Obama that he might take out a second mortgage on his home to pay the mounting medical bills. Obama got up, walked up to Biden, put his hands on his shoulders and said, “Don’t do that. I’ll give you the money. I have it. You can pay me back whenever.” After Beau’s death on May 30, 2015, it was Obama who delivered the eulogy. Finally, before leaving office, Obama conferred Biden with the nation’s highest civilian honour, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Yet, Obama has never been enthusiastic about Biden’s presidential ambitions. He had personally talked him out of running in 2016. Early this year, according to a New York Times report, Obama tried to persuade Biden to drop out. “You don’t have to do this, Joe, you really don’t,” he told Biden. But, like in 2016, Biden has been convinced that he stood the best chance to beat Trump.
The early days of the Democratic primary, however, turned out to be a major disappointment for Biden. Despite leading opinion polls for nearly a year, the Biden campaign collapsed under the onslaught of his more savvy colleagues like Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg. He finished fourth in Iowa, fifth in New Hampshire and a distant second in Nevada. The money flow dried up and the campaign was in a shambles. Going into the South Carolina primary on February 29, not many people gave him a chance. But then came the most pivotal moment in the Biden campaign. He won the endorsement of James Clyburn, the senior-most African American member on the capitol and a doyen of South Carolina’s Democratic politics. After Clyburn’s emotional speech, Biden romped home in a landslide, winning 61 per cent of the African American votes, beating Sanders by 30 points. Biden had to wait for 33 years to win a primary, but it was worth it. The black voters in the American south knew and remembered that Biden had stood loyally behind the country’s first black president, not trying to undercut Obama even once.
With South Carolina, Biden turned the primary contest on its head, winning 10 of the next 14 states on Super Tuesday, following it up with four out of six states a week later. The momentum was finally with him, convincing his rivals Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, Michael Bloomberg and Warren to withdraw. Finally, even Sanders chose to suspend his campaign and endorse Biden.
With Biden becoming the presumptive nominee, Obama stepped in with his endorsement through a video message. In a stinging take down of the Trump administration, Obama said Biden would “banish the corruption, carelessness, self-dealing, disinformation, ignorance and just plain meanness” plaguing the Trump White House. With Covid-19 completely upending his calculations, Trump is finding it difficult to campaign on the American economic performance, which he hoped would secure his second term. But his apathetic and inept handling of the pandemic has given Biden a crucial opening.
Biden would fancy his chances against Trump after having trumped Sanders, who ran a massive digital operation, and Bloomberg, who had an endless supply of money. Despite being confined to his Delaware home because of the lockdown, Biden has widened his lead over Trump. Opinion polls from key states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Florida, North Carolina and Arizona, which voted for Trump in 2016, show that Biden is moving ahead.
It is, however, not going to be easy for Biden. His younger son Hunter’s indiscretions could prove costly. The Biden campaign was shaken further by allegations of sexual assault by his former staff assistant Tara Reade. After Biden’s forceful repudiation, that storm seems to have passed, at least for now.
Biden, meanwhile, needs to step out of his basement and tackle Trump head on. He needs to ensure that minority and progressive voters get out and vote. He has to consolidate his support among African Americans and suburban white voters. Latinos and young Americans need further convincing from the Biden campaign. He also needs to ramp up his online presence. David Axelrod and David Plouffe, who managed Obama’s campaigns, recently wrote that Biden’s home videos looked like “an astronaut beaming back to earth from the International Space Station”. And, he needs to stop putting his foot in his mouth. Biden recently got into a tiff with a prominent black radio host after he wanted to cut short an interview because of time constraints. “If you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t black,” said Biden. He expressed regret the same day, saying he “shouldn’t have been such a wise guy”.
The gaffe may not hurt Biden much, because it is not easy to hate him. As Republican Senator Lindsay Graham, a Trump ally who is one of Biden’s long-standing political rivals, says, “If you can’t admire Joe Biden as a person, then probably, you’ve got a problem. What’s not to like?”
WITH LAVINA MELWANI.