Joe Biden, like any president, is a man of great ambition. This is a guy who started developing a detailed plan for a presidential campaign when he was in college. Actually, trace it back even further: Biden once visited his old Catholic school, and a student asked whether he’d always wanted to become president. Biden demurred, but a nun who’d taught him years before stepped in with a reminder — it turned out young Joey had written a paper about his desire to be chief executive.
Biden, unlike some of his predecessors, is also a politician of striking empathy. To the frustration of his handlers through the years, he regularly blew out his schedule by hanging back at rope lines to clasp the shoulders of parents who’d lost children, or kept donors waiting while he spent time with a kid who stuttered as he once did.
The 46th president of the United States, the oldest ever elected, has a decades-long history of determination and drive, and at least in later years, of a humility not so commonly associated with his profession.
It is a rare and frankly odd combination of character traits. What are Americans to make of the man they have chosen to lead them at a time of severe division, in a moment of shaken confidence in the country’s political system and basic institutions?
“A lot of politicians are very self-centered and their ambition comes from some sort of hole in their psyche,” said David Wilhelm, who ran Biden’s presidential campaign in Iowa in 1987 and later was Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign manager and chairman of the Democratic National Committee. “Often, there’s this yawning emotional void that needs to be filled, like with Trump.
“With Biden, the driver of his ambition is his empathy,” Wilhelm said. “The American people often go with the opposite of what they’ve just had in a leader. Could there be a more opposite person to Donald Trump than Joe Biden?”
How Biden got here is a well-told tale. He fought through searing, heart-rending pain and tragedy — the deaths of his first wife Neilia and baby daughter Naomi in a horrific truck crash in 1972, his own two brain aneurysms in 1988, the loss of his son Beau to brain cancer in 2015. He became a rock of the Senate even as he could never seem to break through in the quest for a lease on the White House.
In a field where the drive to win now is often more readily rewarded than the patience to rise through the ranks, Biden played the ultimate long game — almost comically long. Biden considered running for president — or actually launched campaigns — in the 1980, 1984, 1988, 2004, 2008, 2016 and 2020 elections.
“Biden is obviously deeply ambitious and he’s smart enough to guard his ambition skillfully,” said Tommy Vallely, an Asia specialist at Harvard University who worked with Biden on the 1987 campaign.
Biden obviously never intended to wait so long to win the ultimate prize, but when he hit roadblocks, his instinct was not to push back against them but to use them in service of his long-term ambition. He already was sinking in the Democratic primary sweepstakes in 1987 when word arrived that President Ronald Reagan had nominated arch-conservative Robert Bork to the Supreme Court. It would be Biden’s task, as chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, to lead the effort to kill the nomination.
“Biden immediately sees this as an opportunity to advance his political career even though he’s losing his bid for the presidency,” Vallely said. “He could use the Bork battle to build his standing.”
He would not be the next president, but he could step off the national stage, study up on the legal issues that might sink Bork, and start slowly building toward another run.
In “What It Takes,” Richard Ben Cramer’s epic book on the 1988 presidential campaign, which remains the most influential account of Biden’s life and character, Biden comes off as an eternal climber, yet also a man who was anchored in a humility and realism forged by his upbringing and by the lessons learned in a series of devastating personal trials.
“What does it take? It takes a long time,” Vallely said.
Charm and grit
Biden’s brand in politics has always been the everyman from Scranton, the kid who had to scramble to make it. He is, he has often said, his parents’ son.
His father, Joseph Biden Sr., started a crop-dusting business, and after it flopped, cleaned boilers and sold cars.
The father was hyperalert to matters of status, according to Evan Osnos’s recent biography, “Joe Biden.” He liked to be seen as a success, a man of honor, a guy you could trust.
Biden’s mother, Jean Finnegan, sought to instill in her children a basic empathy. “Nobody is better than you and you’re no better than anybody else,” she’d say.
The recipe produced a kid who was at once charming and determined, a stutterer who got bullied and worked like a mule to overcome his speech impediment. He could be daring, a bit of a showoff, yet friends were eager to be near him. He could be a lot of fun.
At age 10, Joey invented a game at a construction site where a local college was erecting an arts center. He’d climb atop six-story-high steel beams, edge out onto 18-inch-wide girders, grab a rope and swing out into the open sky.
“Joe Biden had balls. Lots of times, more balls than sense,” Cramer wrote.
But as impulsive — and dumb — as that bit of kid’s play may have been, it was hardly a spur-of-the-moment stunt. Joey had spent weeks staring at those ropes on the construction site, watching the workers, assessing the possibilities.
He developed patience early on. When other kids laughed at his inability to speak smoothly, he became keenly aware of, as he put it in his memoir, “the dread, the shame, the absolute rage” he felt at being the butt of the joke.
For a time, he practiced speaking with rocks in his mouth, an anti-stuttering tactic he picked up from Demosthenes, the ancient Greek orator. Like many stutterers, he found ways to express himself beyond speaking. A look, a touch, a nod — he developed a physical vocabulary that let him win over strangers (although sometimes, some have said, Biden came too close.)
Daring and gumption propelled him into an audaciously quick start to his political career. At 29 years old, serving as a county councilman, he took on a sitting U.S. senator — and won.
But despite his lengthy career in the Senate, the top prize eluded him until tragedy, defeat and pain pressed him toward a more public expression of his mother’s credo.
The power of pain
For a very long time, Biden kept his deepest suffering inside. For years after the accident, which came 41 days after he was elected to the Senate, Biden barely spoke about it in public.
In 1984, in his Senate reelection campaign, Biden nixed a TV ad his consultants had made because he was afraid his young daughter might see the part about Neilia’s death.
To be sure, Biden came off as a fighter who’d seen adversity.
“I trust people who start with their gut,” he said at a campaign event last year. “People who arrive at it purely from an intellectual standpoint, they’re not always ones that can be counted on to stay through at the very end when it gets really tough.”
But for many years, he spoke of tragedy mainly when talking about others — and especially in the eulogies he gave at the funerals of fellow politicians, whether they’d been on his side or not.
“He’s at his most eloquent in his eulogies,” said Mark Gitenstein, Biden’s speechwriter during the 1988 election cycle and an adviser for 44 years. “He does them himself. They’re a window into him. They come from his profound faith, part of his religious upbringing. His ability to communicate with people in pain is maybe his most powerful strength.”
Biden used his tributes to the dead to build and cement bridges across the partisan divide, whether he was eulogizing friends such as Republican Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) or notorious leaders such as Sen. Strom Thurmond (S.C.), an avowed segregationist.
Biden “sees the essential goodness of everybody,” Wilhelm said, “in his friends but also in his rivals. He really believes somebody can disagree with you on almost everything and still be a good person. He’d see a Trump fanatic and say, ‘Where does that come from?’ ”
For a long time, Biden struggled to find the right voice in his speeches. He got himself in trouble for borrowing the words of others whose poetry and passion he admired.
In a campaign speech in 1987, he strangely referred to “my ancestors who worked in the coal mines of northeast Pennsylvania” as part of a riff about clawing his way up from a blue-collar background.
But there had never been any ancestors in the coal mines. That bit was lifted from a rousing speech by British politician Neil Kinnock that Biden had seen and admired.
Biden had quoted from the speech before, giving Kinnock credit. But this time, in Iowa, there was no credit. He was caught out, pilloried in the media. There was a piling on, reports of incidents in which Biden had used a Robert F. Kennedy line without attribution.
At his news conference withdrawing from the race, Biden looked gloomy as he prepared to do the hardest thing for most any politician — admit failure.
“The place was of course packed and it was very hot from the TV lights, which were really bright,” recalled Tom Oliphant, then a reporter at the Boston Globe. “From right in front of him, I asked him before he started speaking, half-joking, if he was okay with the lights.”
That is, can you take it?
“Just you watch, Tom,” Biden replied. “And then, in the middle of his oration, he looked straight at me and said, ‘I’ll be back, Oliphant, I’ll be back.’ ”
Twenty years later, looking back on the incident, Biden said that the plagiarism “was born out of my arrogance. I didn’t deserve to be president.”
Soon after the debacle, his aides saw a shift in Biden, a more evident humility.
“There was a flaw in himself and he admitted it,” Vallely said. “He reflected: ‘Who am I?’ ”
The Rev. Jesse Jackson once said that to run for president, you don’t need a fire in your belly; you need a volcano.
“Where does the volcano come from?” Wilhelm asked. “For Trump, it comes from ego. For Joe Biden, in ’87, I would have said it came from his absolute sense of commonality with working-class people. But now, it’s more personal, more intimate.”
Biden became more comfortable with his grief and with using it to connect to others in pain. Two things got him there: time and the death of his son Beau.
The line that explains the change comes up again and again in conversations with those who have known Biden for decades: “The memory of pain falls drop by drop upon our heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.” The quotation is from Aeschylus, the ancient Greek playwright, as cited by Robert F. Kennedy upon the death of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Biden passed on running for president in 2016 — Beau’s death was too raw and Hillary Clinton’s candidacy seemed inevitable — but when Trump responded to the neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville in 2017 by saying there were “some very fine people on both sides,” Biden said that “in that moment, I knew the threat to this nation was unlike any I had ever seen in my lifetime.”
He would run in 2020. At the risk of seeming sanctimonious in an era of primitive political tribalism, he would stake a claim on the moral high ground. He still had the ambition and, with age, he was comfortable showing his vulnerability.
“This man has lived a lot of life,” Gitenstein said. “One of Beau’s ‘parting gifts’ was that in his passing and the public reaction to it and how Biden handled it . . . the rest of the world got to see this aspect of Biden — his decency, his strength.”
In search of the center
Through the years, the ambition and the empathy blended with Biden’s regular-guy demeanor to create a political persona that struck many voters as right down the middle — reasonable, honorable, neither a revolutionary nor a reactionary.
The Vietnam War had presented Biden with his first big confrontation between left and center, between antiwar activists and process-oriented politicians who opposed the war but never were comfortable with the rough-and-tumble of street protests.
Biden never felt drawn to the antiwar movement, to marches and demonstrations. “I’m not a joiner,” he told Cramer. “I was married, I was in law school. I wore sport coats.”
For decades, he gravitated toward the center, arguing that Washington was neglecting the middle class, which he often described as “getting clobbered.” Early in his career, he opposed court-ordered busing to integrate public schools, preferring to use housing policy to encourage integrated neighborhoods. In the Senate, he avoided being tagged as a liberal.
In those years, Biden had a stock speech in which he derided the Reagan presidency as a turn toward selfishness. “The cry of the Reagan years has been ‘Got mine! Go get yours! What’s in it for me?’ ” Biden said. “Ladies and gentlemen, something is wrong.”
“He’s always searching for how to get to the vital center,” Vallely said. “He loves making the deal, getting it done. He’s never going to be the ‘woke’ guy.”
That practicality was evident in Biden’s decision in 2008 to accept Barack Obama’s invitation to join his ticket.
Biden “did not want to be vice president of the United States,” said former senator Ted Kaufman (D-Del.), for many years Biden’s chief of staff in the Senate. “Joe Biden’s never worked for anybody in his life. . . . When Obama first called him, he said no.”
But Obama asked again and Biden gathered his family and close friends, including Kaufman, and Biden’s “mother said, ‘Let me get this straight — the first African American man has a chance to be president and he’s come to you and you said no?’ Game, set, match over.”
Biden and Obama complemented each other, reflecting different aspects of the American character — the cerebral Obama, professorial, cool; and Biden, flashing his car-salesman smile, serving as the great comforter — vice presidents have to attend a lot of funerals — alternately warning about his Irish temper and embracing any stranger in pain.
The empathy was most evident then, but the ambition never left him.
In 2020, Biden ran as the steady alternative to the chaos and clamor on the American extremes, rejecting both the reactionary nostalgia of the Trump movement and the left’s denunciations of the country’s history.
If he won the race, Biden promised early in the campaign, “nothing would fundamentally change.”
Yet as 2020 wore on, through the pandemic and protests, he altered his riff. Now he was saying that the country craved “revolutionary, institutional change” — that the answer to the disinformation and division that led to the frightening assault on the Capitol is making Washington work again, delivering on changes that make life better for regular folks.
Biden’s friends say he’s right for this moment — a politician driven not by a cause, but by his desire to ensure a fair shot, stability and the two most intimate of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms: freedom from want and from fear.
“In another life,” Gitenstein said, “Biden could well have been a priest or a cop who walks the beat and knows everybody. Helping people deal with their pain is what he does.”
Some time after Biden’s 1988 campaign collapsed, Gitenstein asked Cramer whether he thought Biden had a future in politics.
“Someday, they will come to him,” the biographer replied.
“By that, he meant the party and the country will come to him,” Gitenstein recalled. “The moment will be just right for him. We’re at that moment.”