When a mob attacked the US Capitol on January 6, Joe Biden had already left his home in the leafy suburbs of Wilmington, Delaware, to deliver a speech on his presidential plans for the economy and small business. But he rapidly rewrote the day’s script to tackle events in Washington.
In a sombre tone, he called on then president Donald Trump to “end the siege” of Congress, lamenting the “dark moment” that had befallen the country. “The work of the next four years must be the restoration of democracy and the recovery of respect for the rule of law, and the renewal of a politics that’s about solving problems,” Mr Biden said, “not stoking the flames of hate and chaos.”
This week, Mr Biden, 78, started trying to make that promise a reality as he took the oath of office as America’s 46th president. He has reached a position he has coveted for decades, through a political career spanning the Senate and the vice-president’s office. But with the country mired in multiple overlapping crises and still stunned by the insurrection attempt, Mr Biden has chosen to be more reflective than exuberant and repeatedly warn of tough times ahead. “The honest truth is we’re still in a dark winter of this pandemic,” he said on Thursday. “It’s going to get worse before it gets better.” Hemmed by Covid-19 restrictions, his inauguration ceremony was relatively sombre.
He opted to share the spotlight with other participants, particularly vice-president Kamala Harris, in ways that underscored his differences from Mr Trump. “Biden has reasons to be pleased and satisfied, but what we can see from him publicly was not a spirit of celebration, but something graver than that — something prayerful,” says Evan Osnos, who has written a biography of the new president. “I’ve been talking to folks who are close to him over the past few weeks about how he has been processing [the riots] and one of the things that he keeps saying is that this just underscores why [he] got into this race at all,” Mr Osnos adds.
Mr Biden’s first two bids for the US presidency, in the 1988 and 2008 races, both ended in failure. After serving as Barack Obama’s vice-president, he declined to try again in 2016, citing overwhelming grief caused by the death of his son Beau to brain cancer. But after white supremacists marched through the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 and Mr Trump said there were “very fine people on both sides”, Mr Biden decided to take the leap. He kicked off his campaign promising to restore America’s “soul” and ensure that Mr Trump was an “aberrant moment in history”.
During his inaugural address this week, he closed the circle by calling on Americans to unite and end the “uncivil war” ravaging the country. “He’s very, very concerned that the country has come apart and he honestly wants to bring the country back together,” says Patrick Leahy, the Democratic senator from Vermont, who has known Mr Biden since both joined the Senate in the early 1970s. As president, Mr Biden has pledged to deliver New Deal-scale economic relief to Americans and to sharply ramp up coronavirus vaccinations while repairing alliances around the world. But he has also promised to make big structural changes to US society — exemplified by the portraits he has placed in the Oval Office.
Busts of civil rights activists Martin Luther King Jr, Rosa Parks and labour leader César Chavez sit near his political hero Bobby Kennedy, and a portrait of Franklin Roosevelt has replaced Mr Trump’s choice of populist Andrew Jackson. To deliver he will need to draw on skills developed in a career as an extremely effective political operator, who balanced competing interests within the Democratic party and outside of it to achieve his goals. Mr Biden was born in the industrial town of Scranton, Pennsylvania, but his family struggled financially and moved to Wilmington, Delaware, where his father worked as a car salesman. “I grew up in a neighbourhood [where] you either became a firefighter or a priest. I wasn’t qualified for either. So, here I am,” Mr Biden said at a campaign stop in Wisconsin in September. After becoming a lawyer and then a public defender, Mr Biden plunged first into state politics and then into unseating an incumbent Republican to capture a US Senate seat that he held for the next 36 years.
But shortly after the election, Mr Biden’s wife Neilia Hunter and infant daughter Naomi were killed in a car accident as they were Christmas shopping, leaving him in deep distress and alone in caring for his sons Beau and Hunter. Perhaps because of that early devastating loss, empathy became one of Mr Biden’s main traits — he was an early public supporter of easing the travails of working parents. “If I were president of the United States the first thing I would do is put a day care centre in the White House. I mean that seriously,” he said during a June 1987 visit to New Hampshire. As the pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests swept the country in 2020, Mr Biden prioritised proposals to reduce income inequality and racial disparities and address climate change.
Though he had been known as a moderate, he embraced the new leftward tone and ambition of the Democratic party as he responded to the troubling times. This helped him unify the party after the primaries and keep it together during the general election as well. “It was really powerful to have somebody who understands the issues that people are facing and is interested in having a genuine deep conversation about policy that can make lives better,” said Malcolm Kenyatta, a Pennsylvania state lawmaker and a rising star in the Democratic party.
Mr Biden’s political instincts have sometimes failed him, particularly in the 1990s. When he presided over the Senate judiciary committee’s 1991 hearings on Clarence Thomas’s nomination to the Supreme Court, he was criticised for the way he handled Anita Hill’s sexual harassment allegations. It was an episode he would come to regret, and he called her to apologise as he prepared to launch his campaign. He also helped write the 1994 crime bill and boasted about how tough it was. The law is now seen as having sowed the seeds of America’s mass incarceration crisis. B
ut Mr Biden — who played American football in high school, and recently turned to cycling for sport — was attuned enough to the way the political winds were blowing to embrace Mr Obama’s winning 2008 campaign, and later got ahead of the president on supporting same-sex marriage. He made the historically significant decision to tap Kamala Harris to be the first female, black and Asian American vice-president.
Only the second Catholic US president, Mr Biden attends church regularly. He infuses some of his speeches with scripture and cited Saint Augustine in his inaugural address. Among the family photographs he brought to the Oval Office was one of himself with Pope Francis. “As a Catholic in public life, he was imprinted with the idea that politics is a deeply noble profession, a form of ministry, a lay vocation,” says Massimo Faggioli, a professor of theology at Villanova University and the author of a book on Mr Biden’s Catholicism. Mr Biden draws comfort and companionship from Jill, his second wife, whom he met on a blind date in 1975.
They have a daughter together, Ashley. “She gave me back my life,” he wrote in his memoir. Mr Biden is well known for making personal connections — though he can occasionally be long-winded. Mr Leahy remembers a visit they made together to a restaurant in Burlington, Vermont. Then vice-president, Mr Biden went out of his way to greet the kitchen staff and charmed the workers. “They were just glad to see a human being be nice to them, and that’s so typical of Joe,” says Mr Leahy. Joe Biden’s inauguration – the view from Capitol Hill | DC Diary Mr Osnos describes Mr Biden as having an “emotional register” that draws on the “scar tissue of somebody who has had their moments of success, their moments of failure and their moments of catastrophe”.
Mr Biden has not only endured the death of his first wife and two children but also a brain aneurysm in 1988. He also overcame a childhood stutter, an early experience that has given him a very low tolerance for teasing and bullying. As he addressed top officials from his newly-minted administration on a video call on his first afternoon in the Oval Office, Mr Biden highlighted the importance of civility inside the seat of US government, as well as outside the gates.
“I’m not joking when I say this: if you’re ever working with me and I hear you treat another with disrespect, talk down to someone, I promise you I will fire you on the spot,” Mr Biden said on Wednesday. “On the spot. No ifs, ands, or buts.” Whether Mr Biden can succeed in achieving his policy goals with only a narrow Congressional majority remains to be seen. He will be squeezed between obstructionist Republicans still very much in the throes of Mr Trump and an impatient liberal Democratic base. But the US needs a reliable and heartfelt architect of renewal after the disruptions of Mr Trump and he wants to oblige. “He’s shown maturity at a time when the country needed it — he basically said I’m going to get us all through this,” said Mr Leahy. [email protected]