Joe Biden’s long game
The veteran Democrat has been elected the 46th president of the United States. But who is he – and how will he govern? What is Biden’s background? Joseph Robinette Biden Jr was born into an Irish-American family in the bluecollar town of Scranton, Pennsylvania, in 1942. His father struggled to find work, before moving his […]

The veteran Democrat has been elected the 46th president of the United States. But who is he – and how will he govern?

What is Biden’s background? Joseph Robinette Biden Jr was born into an Irish-American family in the bluecollar town of Scranton, Pennsylvania, in 1942. His father struggled to find work, before moving his family to Wilmington, Delaware, where he made a good living selling used cars. At school, a debilitating stutter earned Joe the nickname “Bye- Bye”, because he struggled to say his last name, but he was nonetheless popular and athletic. He studied at the University of Delaware where, during a spring break trip to the Bahamas, he met his future wife Neilia Hunter. But he was never especially academic; after graduating, he took a law degree at Syracuse University, finishing 76th in a class of 85. He was drafted into the military, but failed his physical because of his asthma, and began clerking in a law firm and working as a public defender.

When did he go into politics? In 1970, Biden was elected as a Democratic councillor in the suburb of New Castle County, Delaware. Two years later, aged only 30, he became the sixth youngest Senator in US history, beating the veteran Republican J. Caleb Boggs, and taking up his seat, despite the tragedy which had struck his young family (see box). This launched a Senate career which spanned 36 years and forged him a reputation as a centrist Democrat dealmaker, with friends across the political spectrum. He twice sought his party’s presidential nomination before finally winning it: first in 1987, when he quit the race after being accused of plagiarising a speech by Neil Kinnock; and again in 2008, when his campaign was soon overshadowed by that of his future boss, Barack Obama.

Was his Senate record uncontroversial? No. Biden has recently been criticised for his conservative stance on issues including abortion funding and gay marriage, as well as his support for the 2003 Iraq invasion. But the most controversial part of his long record is on race relations. In the late 1970s, he led opposition to “busing” in Delaware: the practice of ferrying black students to schools in mainly white areas. He worked closely with segregationist senators, even delivering a eulogy for one of them, Strom Thurmond. He has also been criticised for his role in passing Bill Clinton’s 1994 crime bill, which contributed to America’s high incarceration rates, particularly among black men. Recently, he has said that he regrets his dismissive treatment of Anita Hill, who accused the Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual assault while Biden was chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Yet these factors didn’t dissuade Obama from picking Biden as his running mate in 2008.

Why did Obama pick him? It was a surprise move: Biden, who has a history of gaffes, was much criticised in the primary campaign when he praised Obama as “the first mainstream African American who is articulate and bright and clean”. The two men had very different styles: Biden was warm and folksy; Obama more professorial. Obama, it is thought, wanted someone white and experienced as his running mate; he began calling on him for advice on security and foreign policy. And although aides could be frustrated by Biden’s gaffes (“Folks, I can tell you I’ve known eight presidents, three of them intimately”), the pair developed a close working relationship. Obama admired Biden’s loyalty during his two presidential terms; Biden appreciated having a role in big decisions.

What was he like as vice-president? Fearing he would be sidelined, Biden had initially been reluctant to be considered for the job at all. But he later came to relish his role, advising Obama on foreign policy and acting as a sort of envoy to Congress: he played a big role in passing the crucial $787bn (£609bn) fiscal stimulus package in 2009. Obama later told aides that picking Biden was the best political decision he ever made – even if he did talk too much in meetings. By 2015, Biden was considering a third White House run, but he decided against it after the death of his son Beau, aged 46, from a brain tumour. He has since been accused of inappropriately touching women; Biden said he had always been tactile, but would be “more mindful and respectful” of personal space in future.

What does he plan to do in office? His most urgent task is to implement a national plan to tackle Covid-19, which has killed 239,600 people in the US. He plans to ramp up testing, increase the use of masks, and take steps to shore up an economy which has been ravaged by the pandemic. Before the election, he vowed to “build a new American economy” by raising taxes on the wealthy to fund trillions of dollars of investments in infrastructure and education. He also hoped to invest $2trn in green energy, arguing it would provide jobs for the working classes, as well as to double the minimum wage, expand health insurance coverage, reform the criminal justice system, and tighten limits on gun ownership. But he faces a battle to push his agenda through: contrary to expectations, the Democrats look unlikely to regain the Senate, meaning that they will require Republican support to pass even basic legislation.

What about foreign policy? In diplomatic terms, there are easy wins to be scored simply by not being his predecessor. Biden has pledged to rebuild America’s relationships with its allies and, once inaugurated on 20 January, he is expected to swiftly rejoin the World Health Organisation, the Paris Agreement on climate change and the Iran nuclear deal. He has vowed to reassert the importance of Nato, to end US support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, to terminate the travel ban for Muslim nations, and to convene a “global summit for democracy”, in a bid to reassert liberal democratic ideals. There is, however, unlikely to be a significant thawing of relations with Russia or China: Biden has called President Xi Jinping a “thug”.