by Michael Mathes
He has suffered profound personal tragedy and seen his earlier political ambitions thwarted, but veteran Democrat Joe Biden hopes his pledge to unify Americans will deliver him the presidency after nearly half a century in Washington.
Rarely has the profile of opposing presidential nominees differed so sharply as in the 2020 race, which pits the empathetic Biden, with decades of leadership and a blue-collar upbringing, against brawling President Donald Trump, the billionaire businessman who insists he remains the outsider.
But in his decades-long White House quest — Biden has run twice before — the optimist from Delaware maintains he can shift the tone in America from anger and suspicion to dignity and respect.
“We only have two more days! Two more days, we can put an end to this presidency that has from the very beginning sought to divide us, to tear us apart,” he said at a campaign rally in Pennsylvania Sunday.
“Folks. In two days, we can put an end to a presidency that has failed to protect this nation. In two days we can put an end to a presidency that has fanned the flames of hate, poured gasoline on every opportunity he had all across this nation.”
At 77 and leading in the polls just days ahead of the November 3 vote, Biden is on the cusp of becoming America’s oldest ever president.
He would inherit a coronavirus pandemic that shows no signs of abating and an office he believes has had its credibility shattered by the “liar” Trump.
A loss to the unpopular president, the challenger said in a candid moment recently, would mean Biden is a “lousy” candidate — and would certainly lower the curtain on a prolific if ultimately unfulfilling political career.
But Biden is no shrinking violet. He has relentlessly hammered away at Trump’s handling of the pandemic and, in 2018, told students at a Florida university that he would “beat the hell out of him” if the two men were in high school.
– Enduring compassion –
Biden hit the national stage at just 29, with a surprise US Senate win in Delaware in 1972.
But just one month later, tragedy struck: his wife Neilia and their one-year-old daughter Naomi were killed in a car crash as they were Christmas shopping.
Biden’s two sons were severely injured but survived, only for the eldest, Beau, to succumb to cancer in 2015. The tragedies help nourish the empathy that shines through in Biden’s interactions with everyday Americans.
His retail politicking skills are peerless: he can flash his million-watt smile at college students, commiserate with unemployed Rust Belt machinists, or deliver a fiery admonishment of rivals.
That personable, gregarious propensity has been curtailed by the coronavirus pandemic, which brought in-person campaigning to a halt in March and has prompted a more cautious Biden on the trail.
He no longer cuts the same figure he did during his eight years as Barack Obama’s vice president. Though the dazzling smile remains, Biden’s gait is more delicate and his fine white hair thinned.
Opponents, and even some Democrats, wondered whether Biden, garrulous and gaffe-prone, would stumble in his long campaign against Trump.
The 74-year-old president regularly calls him “Sleepy Joe” and accuses him of diminished mental acuity.
But Biden has shrugged off the attacks, and in a flash of frustration with the relentlessly interrupting Trump during their first debate, at one point told the president to “shut up.”
Elected one of the youngest senators ever, he spent more than three decades in the upper chamber before serving eight years a Barack Obama’s deputy.
Biden’s message is built largely on his association with the still-popular Obama and on his ability to do business with the many world leaders that his former boss sent him to meet (“I know these guys,” he often reminds people).
He offers moderate politics in a divisive time, but he has pledged to take progressive action as president, on climate change, racial injustice and student debt relief.
– Historic comeback –
Biden almost did not make it this far. Despite being the favorite of the Democratic establishment, he was deemed by some to be too old or too centrist.
His campaign looked like it was headed for disaster after disappointing primary losses to the fiery Bernie Sanders early this year.
But Biden came roaring back in South Carolina’s primary on the strength of overwhelming backing from African-American voters, a crucial base of Democratic support.
Clinching the nomination marked a sharp contrast to his 1988 flameout, when he quit in disgrace after being caught plagiarizing a speech by British politician Neil Kinnock.
In 2008 he hardly fared better, dropping out after mustering less than one percent of the vote in Iowa’s caucuses.
That year he was ultimately picked as running mate by Obama, who dubbed him “America’s happy warrior.”
After their victory Obama quickly assigned Biden to oversee the economic recovery during the last recession.
The two men differed over Afghanistan at the front end of Obama’s first term, with Biden opposing a 30,000-troop “surge.”
As a senator for more than 30 years, Biden was known to forge unlikely alliances — and, like Trump, he developed a lack of fidelity to script.
He faced a reckoning among Democrats — including Kamala Harris, who would become his running mate — for associating with known segregationists in the Senate and, in the midst of 1970s desegregation, for opposing “busing” policies aimed at transporting Black children to predominantly white schools.
He also caught flak for helping draft a 1994 crime bill which many Democrats believe drove up incarcerations, disproportionately affecting African Americans. Biden recently called the push a “mistake.”
Other Senate episodes also threatened to spoil his presidential campaign: his 2003 vote for the Iraq war, and his chairmanship of controversial hearings in 1991 in which Anita Hill accused Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment.
Last year he faced a storm over his own notoriously tactile approach with female voters that could suggest a man out of step with his modernizing party.
He apologized, and promised to be more “mindful” of women’s personal space.
Biden relays the heart-wrenching details of his family stories so often that, despite his obvious grief, they have become part of a political brand.
The 1972 accident left his sons Beau, four, and Hunter, two, badly injured, and the 30-year-old Biden was sworn in beside their hospital beds.
Biden met his second wife, teacher Jill Jacobs, in 1975 and they married two years later. They have a daughter, Ashley.
Both boys recovered from their injuries and Beau followed his father into politics, becoming attorney general of Delaware — but the Democratic rising star died of brain cancer in 2015 at age 46.
– ‘Get back up’ –
Lawyer and lobbyist Hunter Biden has had a different trajectory.
He received a lucrative salary serving on the board of a Ukrainian gas company accused of corruption while his father was vice president.
Trump’s push for Ukraine to investigate the Bidens led to the president’s impeachment last December by the Democratically-controlled House of Representatives, but he was acquitted by the Republican-led Senate.
Hunter was not personally accused of any criminal wrongdoing, but Trump hasn’t let the issue die.
He repeatedly insists the Bidens are a “crime family” getting rich off of corruption, but the accusations are of dubious origin and polling suggests they have not stuck with American voters.
Joseph Robinette Biden Jr was born November 20, 1942 and raised in the Rust Belt town of Scranton, Pennsylvania, in an Irish-Catholic family.
His father was a car salesman, but when the city went through tough times in the 1950s and he lost his job, he moved the family to neighboring Delaware when Joe Biden was 10.
“My dad always said, ‘Champ, when you get knocked down, you get back up,'” Biden says.
He made Delaware his political domain. As a young man he served as a lifeguard in a majority-Black neighborhood, an experience he said sharpened his awareness of systemic inequalities and strengthened his political interest.
Biden studied at the University of Delaware and the Syracuse University law school, and has expressed pride that he is not a product of the elite Ivy League.
He touts his working-class roots and recalls being hampered as a child by a stutter so bad he was cruelly nicknamed “Dash.”
But he overcame the condition, and on the campaign trail has spoken about how he still counsels youngsters who stutter.
Biden often points to Jill, 69, as a powerful asset for his campaign, and recalled recently how she took over as mother to her husband’s two boys.
“She put us back together,” Biden has said.
– ‘Proud of me?’ –
“It never goes away,” Biden said of the pain that lives within him since losing Beau. The tragedy prevented him from launching a presidential bid in 2016.
Even today, he often stops to greet firefighters, recalling that it was they who saved his boys.
They saved Biden too. In 1988 firefighters rushed him to hospital after an aneurysm.
Biden’s condition was so dire that a priest was called to give him last rites.
Nearly every Sunday Biden prays at St. Joseph on the Brandywine, a Catholic church in his affluent Wilmington neighborhood.
There in the cemetery rest his parents, his first wife and daughter — and his son Beau, under a tombstone decorated with small American flags.
In January Biden confided about Beau and his undeniable influence: “Every morning I get up… and I think to myself, ‘Is he proud of me?'”
© Agence France-Presse
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