Draping himself and his campaign in basic attributes such as decency and empathy to try to salve a country shattered by a viral pandemic and economic collapse, Biden used a deliberately laid-back approach to slay the reelection hopes of a man he believed threatened the fabric of American democracy.
The unassuming candidate campaigned as the opposite of President Trump, a combustible political force who thrived on chaos and division, and prized belligerent machismo above all. Biden’s instinct was not to fight on Trump’s terms but to showcase a seemingly bygone era that favored bipartisanship, unity and a willingness to show emotion in public.
His campaign throughout the tumult visiting the nation was consistent, his closing argument to voters nearly identical to his opening pitch. Even under a months-long assault from Trump and his allies, Biden grew more popular among Americans as time wore on, instead of less.
“This is so much more than about my brother being elected president; that’s the gospel truth,” said Valerie Biden Owens, the candidate’s younger sister and lifelong confidante. “This was about, I think, democracy and preserving our democratic system. There was so much at stake, and I kept trying to reassure myself that it was going to be okay. I used my rosary beads a couple of times: Make it okay. Not make it okay for Joe to win, but make it okay for our country.”
Biden so far has received more than 74.5 million votes, breaking the record for the most ever received by a presidential candidate.
But the margins were not big enough for the swift results that his campaign had hoped for, leading to a drawn-out decision and failing to offer the wholesale denunciation of Trump that many Democrats had desired. Biden also proved unable to lift Senate candidates to victory, imperiling the party’s chances of winning the Senate majority.
Now that Biden has won, his calls for unity in a deeply polarized country, his reputation for bipartisanship in a closely divided Congress and his attempts to keep his own party from splintering will face a more urgent test than at any moment in his nearly half a century in politics.
“I will work as hard for those who didn’t vote for me as I will for those who did vote for me,” he said Wednesday afternoon in a speech that reached for patriotic solidarity.
Biden’s political arc is one with few parallels in American history. He won the presidency 12,205 days after announcing his first run, in 1987, when he was introduced as “a young fella.” He has managed to be both a politician well past his prime and a man who hung around just long enough to find his future.
“He’s like a battery that kept running when others were turned off or advanced to other places,” said Douglas Brinkley, a historian and author of numerous books on past presidents. “It’s the ‘Steady Eddie’ approach to politics. There’s just never been a moment where Biden wasn’t in the mix, for decades. . . . He’s a survivalist in American politics.”
The president who triumphed four years ago on an outsider’s promise to “drain the swamp” ultimately lost to a quintessential creature of Washington. Biden first won a Senate seat when Richard M. Nixon was president — and got a call from the president weeks later, the day after his wife and daughter were killed in a car accident. (“You have the great fortune of being young,” Nixon told Biden, in an awkward minute-long conversation.)
He saw six more presidents come and go before he departed in 2009 to serve as vice president to Barack Obama — and over his 36 years in the Senate, he served with more than 15 percent of all the senators in American history.
Yet through many of those years, he made a point of commuting home on the train each night to Delaware, a habit that became an enduring part of his political identity — the Beltway insider, yes, but with an unshakable devotion to his family that would be tested again in this campaign.
His long tenure inside the corridors of power, not least his upcoming presidency, was hardly preordained. Biden’s stutter was supposed to make it difficult for him to deliver a good speech. His middling grades never set him on the path toward academic prowess. The tragedy that met him when his wife and daughter were killed and, decades later, the death of his elder son from cancer made him question his purpose — and his faith.
But he had a bundle of ambition underneath a toothy smile and affable “hey, buddy” demeanor. He was a county councilor by age 28, a senator by age 30 and discussed as a presidential contender shortly after he reached the eligible age of 35. Now, he will become president at age 78.
A nun once recalled a 7-year-old Biden writing a paper declaring he wanted to be president. Shortly after meeting his first wife, Neilia, at a beach in the Bahamas, he told her that he wanted to be president, her friends later recalled.
Yet, while he never lost a race in Delaware, he had failed on the national level.
Felled by accusations that he’d plagiarized other politicians’ speeches, Biden ended his campaign for the 1988 nomination in September of 1987.
“There’ll be other presidential campaigns,” Biden said as he left, flashing a wide grin before a cluster of microphones. “And I’ll be there.”
Two decades later, a second campaign never gained traction. He was, frustratingly for him, overshadowed by candidates reaching for history — Hillary Clinton attempting to become the first female president and Obama running to be the first African American. Biden’s bid, never crackling in the first place, fizzled out completely on a cold January night after he finished a distant fifth in the Iowa caucuses. In a final speech to supporters, he vowed, just as he had 20 years earlier, that the country hadn’t seen the last of him.
“Let me make something clear to you: I ain’t going away,” Biden said.
He would get another chance when his former foe, a one-term senator in need of a running mate with Senate connections, placed him on the 2008 ticket and ushered in two terms as vice president.
That, too, looked to be the end of his ambitions, when after son Beau Biden’s death in 2015, Biden decided against running in 2016.
But after Trump’s win, even as he began giving speeches and retreating to a more private life for the first time since his 20s, Biden again began mulling his political future.
In the months after Trump’s inauguration, he would invite people to his home to weigh his political options. In May 2017, just four months after Trump took office, Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr. (D-Pa.) was among those who came to talk with Biden and Steve Ricchetti, one of Biden’s closest confidants.
“He was clearly preparing,” Casey said.
Biden also campaigned for Democrats during the 2018 midterms and saw potential clues for a presidential bid. While a great deal of attention went to the wins by liberals such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Biden spent much of his time campaigning for a broader swath of moderate Democrats who won in districts Trump carried in 2016.
Shortly after the midterms, Biden’s granddaughter Naomi utilized a Biden tradition that allows anyone to call a family meeting, bringing the grandchildren together to urge Pop to run.
But more than anything, according to those who spoke with him throughout the months before he got into the race, the chief motivation for Biden was Trump’s reluctance to offer a full-throated denunciation of white nationalism after the 2017 white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville.
“If there’s some parallel universe and Charlottesville never happened, I don’t know if Joe Biden runs,” said Greg Schultz, one of his senior advisers. “But after Charlottesville, 2020 became a possibility.”
Ted Kaufman, who has been with Biden since his 1972 campaign and filled his Senate seat when Biden became vice president, said Biden was deeply affected by the Charlottesville rally. “It was, ‘I know this is going to be hard, I know it’s going to be tough. But how can I not run? How will I feel if Donald Trump wins and I got the rest of my life thinking I could have beat him?’ ”
Biden and his campaign aides met in the basement of a house he was renting in McLean, Va. — a Georgian-style home that, from the front, looked like a brick version of the White House — nearly two years ago to craft a campaign message that they rarely deviated from even amid frequent second-guessing from outside his close-knit circle.
They believed that Biden had one plausible path: to play to the center as the rest of the party moved further left, and to stay true to what he always was. He didn’t buy the advice from some in his frightened party that he respond to every Trump utterance or trolling. And he rarely bought into demands from some of the more-vocal liberal elements in his party.
“Joe Biden’s feeling was, ‘Whether people believe this unity message is right for the moment or not, it’s who I am,’ ” said Kate Bedingfield, a longtime adviser and deputy campaign manager. “ ‘It’s what I’ve always believed. I’m going to get in and run my race. And if it’s what the voters want, then I’ll be successful. And if it’s not, that’s okay, too.’ ”
His campaign was far from risk-free. His party’s left wing, enraged by what it saw as dismissive treatment in 2016, was spoiling for a fight, and Biden was its antithesis. He carried significant baggage from a long career spent in the political center: He had touted how he worked with segregationist senators in the ’70s; he had pushed a crime bill in the ’90s that, while popular with Black politicians at the time, alienated rising Black voters, a politically potent party bloc. Some female Democrats recounted an uncomfortable familiarity on his part, for which he apologized. He was old, male and White in a party whose activists were increasingly young, female and diverse.
Those problems seemed to doom him in the first two voting states, with voters resoundingly rejecting him in Iowa and New Hampshire. The 18-day stretch between his New Hampshire drubbing and his South Carolina victory, however, bore witness to one of the biggest political comebacks in recent memory. He benefited from suburban women and Black voters, who sprang him out of South Carolina and into victories on Super Tuesday, and on toward the nomination.
“Trump has always been able to get people to play his game. And Joe Biden did not play his game,” said House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), whose endorsement just before the South Carolina primary pushed the trajectory of the race toward Biden. “I just don’t see him being able to have gotten this far if he had tried to out-Trump Trump. You can’t out-Trump Trump.”
Biden also relied on voters focusing far more strongly on Trump, pushing the decision to be a referendum on his presidency. That became an even more urgent demand when the coronavirus began spreading late last winter, a scourge that so far has killed at least 237,000Americans and foundered the economy. Biden had warned publicly of a pandemic, positioning himself as the opposite of a president who blustered that the virus would simply go away. He reinforced that position by constantly wearing a mask and practicing social distancing, even in dramatically curtailed campaign events.
“History has created his moment, which is the moment for someone stable, rational, caring, experienced,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who has known Biden for decades. “You know, in other moments, those same qualities might have relegated him the eighth or ninth also-ran. But the combination of an earth-shattering pandemic and an unhinged commander in chief has created a really strong appetite for comfort food. . . . It’s nutritious, it’s affordable, and has deep roots in our psyche. And we prefer it.”
Throughout much of his career, and particularly during the early presidential primaries this year, Biden’s campaign felt that his political acumen and broad-based appeal were too often overlooked. But he was deft in navigating party divisions and potential political perils such as demands to support defunding the police or adding more justices to the Supreme Court, and in dampening Trump’s advantages on the economy.
“Everybody talks about how Biden ended up being unexpectedly the best candidate for this moment in history,” said Anita Dunn, one of his top advisers. “He still is undervalued and underestimated, both in terms of his political instincts and also his governing instincts. His understanding of what being president means, and how to be president, is a huge part of the advantage he had from the day he got in this race.”
Biden’s personal attributes also stood out in comparison with an incumbent bent on division and insult. Throughout his career, Biden has interacted with legions of average Americans, with exchanges meant to be brief often taking much longer as he tested the stamina of much younger aides on the rope line. He has taken phone numbers of people in grief and cancer patients — as recently as Election Day — and followed up to check on their welfare. He’s invited stutterers to review his speech-writing process, sharing how he marks up the text so he can avoid tripping on words.
When Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) delivered her first Senate floor speech to an empty chamber, her cellphone rang. It was Biden, extolling: “Great speech, kid!”
“Joe Biden has always shown random acts of kindness, almost every day, to people. That’s what he’s like,” she said. “People can say he’s going to be more boring than Donald Trump. Oh please, let that be true. I just think people have had it with all this drama.”
His personal touch has had a lasting effect on supporters such as Christine Hunsinger, who was a 15-year-old high school student who volunteered for Biden in Manchester, N.H., when he first ran for president in 1987. She saw a grayer candidate two decades later, and had been anxious this time until recently, when she began to feel like, finally, Biden’s time had arrived.
“He is the person for this moment, and I can’t think of anybody else who is the right person for this moment,” said Hunsinger, who spent the past several days glued to her TV in Cranston, R.I., excited, anxious and eager for the election to be called for Biden.
In recent weeks, the weight of the moment has come over Biden, as he has reflected on the long arc of his career.
He stopped at his son’s grave in Wilmington, Del., and visited his childhood home in Scranton, Pa., on Tuesday morning, writing on a living room wall, “From this house to the White House with the grace of God. Joe Biden 11-3-2020.”
And he has engaged in a bit of gallows humor with advisers, recounting an old joke he and Obama shared as they confronted the depths of the financial collapse near the end of the 2008 campaign: “Is it too late to get out of this thing?”
The first chapter of Biden’s political career began with tragedy; after the deaths of his wife and daughter, he was sworn into office at the hospital bedside of his two surviving sons, Beau and Hunter. The last chapter will begin without a key character.
While much attention has gone toward Hunter — with Trump’s campaign pointing toward some of his foreign business dealings — it’s been Beau who has been a guiding light for his father.
On his left wrist, Biden wears the rosary Beau had when he died. He mentioned his late son at almost every stop. The fact that Vice President-elect Kamala D. Harris had been a good friend of Beau’s — they served together as state attorneys general — helped ease her selection as Biden’s running mate.
During a campaign event last month, Biden drew a direct line from the end of Beau’s life to his decision to run for president. During one visit, Biden recalled in a solemn tone, Beau asked his wife to put their children to bed so he could speak to his father at the kitchen table.
“He said, ‘Dad, look at me,’ ” Biden recalled. “I said, ‘I’m looking at you, honey.’ ”
“He said, ‘Dad, promise me.’ He said, ‘I’m going to be okay no matter what happens. I’m going to be okay. Promise me, Dad, promise me you’ll be okay,’ ” Biden said.
His son’s message, Biden said, was that he not step away from public life.
On Saturday, that promise was kept.