Sure, it didn't end the way he has long planned and hoped, but Biden's clean exit assures there will be plenty of attention paid to what is a widely respected 42-year record in public life. He's a Democratic statesman who consistently helped push his party to get with the times, reaching the highest levels of public office — beneath the presidency, of course — in doing so.
Biden said Wednesday that he is hardly finished with his work and would spend the final year-plus of his tenure focused on the fight against cancer. But as of now, here's how we believe his political legacy will be remembered:
The first Roman Catholic and first resident of Delaware to be elected vice president has a lengthy, uninterrupted political career that started earlier than most. He was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1972 at the age of 29 and turned 30 — the legal age to actually serve as senator — a few days later. Tragedy struck soon after when his wife and 1-year-old daughter, Naomi, were killed in a car crash and his two young sons injured. Biden threw himself into his work, rising quickly in the Senate, where he served for 36 years.A failed 1988 presidential campaign threatened to derail Biden's career, particularly as it ended in spectacular fashion amid a plagiarism scandal. But Biden went on to author or shepherd nearly every major crime bill passed in the 1990s and early 2000s and, as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, presided over two of the most controversial Supreme Court nominee hearings in history — those of Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas. Biden then became an influential leader in American foreign policy, helping shape America's post-Cold War approach from his perch heading the Senate's foreign relations committee. He led that committee intermittently between 2001 and 2009.After another failed presidential bid in 2008, his Senate colleague, Barack Obama, picked Biden to be his running mate. The hope was to tap into Biden's appeal to the blue-collar voters Obama hoped to win over in the general election, but also — once in office — to have an experienced Washington insider who could serve as a liaison with Congress. As vice president, Biden helped push the president to vocalize support for same-sex marriage, was crucial in helping the White House close key negotiations with congressional Republicans and served as a behind-the-scenes counselor for the president, with whom he became very close. A key failure came in 2013, after a bill expanding background checks for gun purchases came up short in the Senate.At the twilight of his career, Biden suffered another tragedy when his eldest son, Beau, died of brain cancer in 2015. Despite calls from some in his party and early stumbles by front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton, Biden declined to run for president a third time, saying his grief was still too great and the time to make a decision was running out.
From there, it's up to Biden to write the rest.