He has been trying to win the White House for more than 30 years. Can he beat Donald Trump in 2020?
It was late afternoon on February 2, the eve of the Iowa caucuses. We were jammed into a high-school gymnasium in Des Moines, the state capital, for Joe Biden's closing rally. No one thought he would win the primary season's talismanic opening contest the following day. Nor was he expected to come close to beating Bernie Sanders, the socialist Vermonter, in New Hampshire the next week. Though he was still ahead in the national polls, the 77-year-old former vice-president was treated as yesterday's news.
A crowd of several hundred was waiting unexpectantly. Biden entered roughly half an hour late, accompanied by a phalanx of retired politicians: John Kerry, 76, the former secretary of state; Chris Dodd, 75, the retired senator from Connecticut; Tom Vilsack, 69, former governor of Iowa; and Harold Schaitberger, 73, president of the International Association of Firefighters. The oxygen seemed to drain from the room. As Biden's surrogates spoke one after the other, the air got progressively thinner. By the time the candidate got up to speak, it was positively embalmed. "This is like a wake," joked one veteran television anchor. Biden's low-key soliloquy did little to lift the energy.
Such are the limits of conventional wisdom. Twenty-seven days later, Biden grabbed the Democratic mantle after sweeping the South Carolina primary. With the notable exception of Sanders, who fought on for another five weeks, most of the rest of the field dropped out and endorsed him. It was a breathtaking twist. With hindsight, Biden officials say they always knew he would be the Democratic nominee. They were playing the long game. "We made a decision from the start not to listen to the loudest voices on Twitter," says Stef Feldman, Biden's policy director. That was not how many sounded at the time. When I asked a Biden staffer in Des Moines about the campaign's mood, he used the TV anchor's same funereal analogy.
Who could blame them? Biden's long history of running for the White House offered no cause for hope. Over a span of more than 32 years, he had not won a single primary. In 1987, he crashed out months before the voting began, having been accused of plagiarising a speech by Neil Kinnock, leader of the British Labour party. In 2008, he quit after having won just 0.9 per cent of the Iowa caucus vote. "At that point, most people thought his presidential career was over," says Shailagh Murray, then a journalist with The Washington Post, who went on to become Biden's deputy chief of staff. He had at least another 12 years to go. Nobody that night imagined that Barack Obama, winner of the Iowa caucus, would go on to pick Biden as his running mate.
The vicissitudes of Biden's 50 years in politics ought to make anyone sceptical of forecasts for this November. In the absence of time machines, we can only go by the numbers. Both the betting markets (about two to one in Biden's favour) and the polls (an average eight-percentage-point lead over Donald Trump) suggest Biden will be America's 46th president.
What manner of president would he make? Half of Washington claims to know the man well. At a year above the median US male's life expectancy, many expect him to be a ceremonial president. Even Biden's close friends admit his energy and power of recall are not what they were.
His would be a restorationist presidency — an erasure of what he is fond of describing as the Trumpian "aberration". Others, notably Trump, depict him as a geriatric prisoner of the Democratic party's left. Most agree that whatever his agenda, and whatever the time of day, he would probably still talk too much. The word "logorrhea" (a tendency to extreme loquacity) has recently come into fashion. Biden's campaign is keen to emphasise he would not, like Trump, be the "Twitterer-in-chief".
Those who know him the best — many of whom spoke to me for this profile — are in little doubt about the character he would bring to the presidency. Their Biden may stray too readily into schmaltz. But his empathy for people is real. In this pandemic-blighted election year, that quality could count for a lot. "Biden is the same guy I first met in 1969 — he was full of piss and vinegar," says Louis Susman, a Chicago-based investor and former ambassador to the UK. "He doesn't suffer from inner demons, he doesn't bear grudges and he loves being around people."
Should he make it to the White House, Biden would have completed the longest marathon in US political history. No other serious figure has tried this long to make it over the finishing line in recent history. A majority of Americans were not born when Biden first entered national politics. At 30, he was the fifth youngest senator in the country's history after he won office in 1972. Biden's 48-year political career is older than John F Kennedy, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama when they were elected.
Yet he sounds remarkably similar today to the ambitious, blue-collar Irish-American that he was then. Staffers tried and failed to get him to avoid using words such as "record player" during the 2020 primaries. Calling someone a "horse's ass" is no longer thought to be cutting. In an interview with Kitty Kelley in 1974, Biden worried about being seen as a "gay young bachelor" around Washington — by which he meant "happy", not "LGBTQ".
So popular are Biden's anachronisms that there is even a "Biden insult bot" — a Twitter algorithm — to which fans can turn. "You got something stuck in your craw, you milk-swillin' circus peanut," reads one tweet. "Shut your piehole, you hood-winked britch soiler," reads another.
Most American voters already know of the tragedy that struck Biden in his early career. A few weeks after he was elected to the Senate, he lost his wife Neilia and one-year-old daughter, Naomi, in a car crash while they were Christmas shopping in Delaware, his home state. His sons, Beau, aged three, and Hunter, aged two, survived but were hospitalised with severe injuries. Most people would have disintegrated. Biden considered not taking his Senate seat. In the end, he was persuaded to be sworn in at the hospital beside one of his sons. He said he could only continue in politics if he saw his kids every morning and night.
Thus was born "Amtrak Joe" — the senator who took the 90-minute journey each evening from Washington to Wilmington to say goodnight to his sons. He commuted until 2008, long after the boys had grown up. Subtracting a tenth of nights for other travel, and nearly half the year for recess and weekends, I calculate that Biden spent at least 21,000 hours — or three years of his life — on that train.
"He knew the names of every conductor and they all loved him," says Paul Laudicina, Biden's legislative director between 1977 and 1982. "Often, he would still be talking when he boarded, and I would go to Wilmington with him and then cross the platform and come straight back."
In the 1974 Kelley interview, the famously acerbic journalist said that Biden "reeks of decency". He nevertheless managed to sound almost Trumpian about his deceased wife. "'Let me show you my favourite picture of her,' he says, holding up a snapshot of Neilia in a bikini. 'She had the best body of any woman I ever saw. She looks better than a Playboy bunny, doesn't she?'" Kelley described his office as a shrine to Neilia.
Biden recently conceded that he has been too invasive of women's personal space — "handsiness" has also entered the DC lexicon. Unlike some of his contemporaries, however, he has not been dogged by rumours of infidelity. A former Senate staffer, Tara Reade, accused him earlier this year of sexually assaulting her in a corridor in 1993. Biden denies it and her story has been criticised as inconsistent.
In 1977 Biden married Jill Tracy Jacobs, a teacher based in Wilmington. On their first date he dressed in a jacket. When he dropped her back home he shook her hand. According to What it Takes, the celebrated 1988 campaign book by the late Richard Ben Cramer, Jill said she could not believe such men still existed. "Jill is Biden's least appreciated strength," says Susman, who often hosted the Bidens for Thanksgiving in his Nantucket home.
Joe doesn't suffer from inner demons, he doesn't bear grudges and he loves being around people." - Louis Susman, former US ambassador
Much of Biden's sense of gravity comes from her. Even when her husband was vice-president, Jill Biden continued to teach every day at a community college in Northern Virginia. When he left office in 2017, the Bidens' net worth was less than US$500,000 ($760,000). They still hadn't paid off the mortgage on their Wilmington home.
Until he was rescued from near-certain genteel decline by Obama, Biden was defined by his disastrous 1988 presidential bid. Most of the people who helped him on that jinxed quest, including Ted Kaufman, his long-running chief of staff, Michael Donilon, his chief strategist today, and Donilon's brother Tom, Biden's foreign-policy adviser, are still around him. They are mostly Irish-American and very tight-knit. Cathy Russell, Tom Donilon's wife, was Jill Biden's chief of staff when she was "second lady". Her husband is tipped as a possible secretary of state. Kaufman is running Biden's presidential transition — that long and rickety bridge between victory and inauguration.
In the 1988 campaign, Biden tried to present himself as the new John F Kennedy — young, Irish-Catholic and handsome. It never quite took hold. Then he saw a video of Kinnock's soaring oratory — "Why am I the first Kinnock in a thousand generations to be able to get to university?" That was the middle-class poetry Biden had been lacking — the story of how the sons and daughters of coal miners had been lifted up by the welfare state, Britain's version of the New Deal. "He grabbed that tape and took it home; he inhaled the thing," wrote Cramer. "It was like when Barbra Streisand came on the radio — Kinnock was singing Joe's song." For the most part, Biden credited Kinnock's words. But the rival Michael Dukakis campaign found one tape where Biden had not. They leaked it.
Suddenly, Biden was inundated with calls asking whether his grandfather had been a coal miner (none of his forebears had been). "It looked like Joe didn't just steal the words, it looked like he ripped off Kinnock's life," Cramer wrote. A few months after dropping out, Biden had a near-fatal aneurysm. Then another. He was given a 50-50 chance of surviving the first nine-hour operation.
"Joe wouldn't be alive today if he had still been running for president," says Kaufman. "He wouldn't have had the time to get his headaches checked out." Or, as Biden said when he emerged from the anaesthetic: "Now I know why the campaign ended like it did." For what it's worth, Kinnock's Labour party lost the election too.
Biden's 2008 loss left less of a mark on him, partly because he became vice-president less than a year later. "How could you begrudge losing to Barack Obama?" says Murray. "Obama was like The Beatles." The campaign Biden still regrets was the one that he didn't fight in 2016. His reluctance stemmed from another tragedy, the death in 2015 of his son Beau from brain cancer. But he had little encouragement from Obama, who had already committed to backing Hillary Clinton.
Biden's internal polls show that he would have beaten Trump. But he had little chance of wresting the crown from Clinton, whose machine he could not hope to match.
In his memoir Promise Me, Dad, named after Beau's request that his father stay in politics, Biden recounts his anger following a Politico story that he was exploiting his son's death for electoral purposes. "It exceeded even my worst expectations of what the opposition was going to be like," he wrote. In truth, he could not discuss running without breaking down. "He would literally start to cry every time we raised the subject," says a Biden confidante.
What leaps out about Biden's people is their competence. Neither he nor his team need training wheels." - John Podesta, former Clinton and Obama official
In another cycle, Biden's lachrymosity might have been an albatross. During coronavirus, his emotional antennae look like a virtue. More than 165,000 Americans have now died in the pandemic. That toll is likely to be approaching a quarter of a million by early November. Trump's inability to express condolences for America's grieving families could not be further apart from Biden's. In 2016, anger was the dominant political emotion. In 2020, it feels more like sadness. "If Trump were matter, then Biden is anti-matter — their characters are opposites," says Laurence Tribe, a Harvard law professor who has been advising Biden on constitutional matters since the mid-1980s.
When Biden was vice-president, Norm Ornstein, a veteran Congressional watcher, lost his son in a tragic accident. "The moment he heard, Biden telephoned and spent an hour on the phone with me and my wife, talking us through it," says Ornstein. "The next day I received a handwritten letter of condolence from him. There is nothing fake about his sympathy. He feels it deeply."
Andrew Yang, the maverick hit of the Democratic primaries, says: "When most people hadn't figured out who I was, Joe took me aside and was very gracious and friendly. This was just as true when things were going badly for him — he's always steady and good-natured, in public and in private."
Some in Biden's world admit they have one or two concerns about the election and beyond. Chief of these is his tendency to make gaffes. In that sense, the lockdown has a silver lining: there is no campaign trail to avoid. Zoom is easier to manage.
When Obama was elected to the US Senate in 2004, Biden invited him to join the Foreign Relations Committee of which he was chairman. Having listened to a trademark Biden disquisition, Obama scribbled a note and handed it to a staffer. It read: "Shoot. Me. Now." When the two men were discussing how they would handle their White House relationship, Obama said: "I want your advice Joe, I just want it in 10-minute, not 60-minute, increments." For the most part, Biden complied.
Sometimes, he could not help himself. The term "Bidenism" — self-inflicted public humiliation — has long been in currency. "Stand up Chuck, let 'em see ya," Biden once said to a Missouri state senator in a wheelchair. "Folks, I can tell you, I've known eight presidents, three of them intimately," he said in praise of Obama, adding: "I promise you, the president has a big stick, I promise you," in a mangled rendition of Theodore Roosevelt's dictum about speaking softly and carrying a big stick. Fear of such miscues saw the Obama camp "quarantine" Biden for most of the 2012 re-election campaign. This year's actual quarantine could thus be helpful.
Many in Biden world are betting that his choice of Kamala Harris as running mate will immunise him against a record of racial gaffes. Earlier this year, Biden apologised after saying that "you ain't black" if you would consider voting against him. As a mixed-race American of Indian and Jamaican heritage, the Harris pick will buy Biden more protection. Given Biden's age, she is far likelier than most running mates to become president. As Biden discovered in the primaries, she also knows how to throw a punch.
It is hard to find anyone in Biden's circle who is losing sleep over three debates with Trump later this year. As Biden showed in 2008 with Sarah Palin and in 2012 with Paul Ryan — the Republican running mates of John McCain and Mitt Romney — he is a surprisingly taut debater. Trump, meanwhile, seems to be afflicted with his own severe dose of logorrhea. His recent boast in a Fox News interview that he recalled five words in order in a cognitive test was greeted with mockery. "I have two words for you," says a senior adviser, when I ask about Biden's age and prolixity: "Donald Trump."
Nor is the campaign worried about Twitter. When I asked two Biden officials whether he composed his own tweets, or would know how to send one, I got an unexpectedly constipated response: "No one has ever asked us that." It turns out that Biden does not physically send his own tweets but is involved with their substance.
If Trump were matter, then Biden is anti-matter — their characters are opposites." - Laurence Tribe, Biden adviser
Their second concern is ageing. At 74, Trump is only a smidgen younger than Biden. The difference with Trump is the people with whom Biden would surround himself. Chief among these is Ron Klain, a long-standing Biden aide who is likely to be White House chief of staff. Tony Blinken would probably be his national security adviser. Other top-job contenders would include Tom Donilon and Susan Rice (successive national security advisers to Obama), Kurt Campbell (who ran Asia policy for Obama), Jake Sullivan (who leads Biden's campaign policy), Nick Burns, a former under secretary of state, and Bill Burns (no relation), a former deputy secretary of state. Michèle Flournoy, a former under secretary of defence, is tipped as a likely Pentagon chief.
One adviser predicted that Biden would choose Romney, the Republican senator from Utah, as his secretary of state. That would annoy Vladimir Putin's Russia, whom Romney described as America's "number one geopolitical foe". It would also upset most Democrats for very different reasons.
Either way, the contrast between Biden's friends and the parade of often bizarre cameos that have staffed the Trump administration is glaring. The current president is now on his fourth chief of staff and sixth national security adviser. By contrast, most of Biden's coterie have known him for decades. "What leaps out about Biden's people is their competence," says John Podesta, a senior official in both the Clinton and Obama White Houses. "Neither he nor his team need training wheels."
There are also lingering worries about Hunter Biden, who has long been a source of concern for his father. "Joe has a total blind spot about Hunter," says a close family friend. Hunter was discharged from the US Navy because he tested positive for cocaine. He launched various business ventures while his father was vice-president. He was accused of monetising the Biden name and subsequently got a seat on the board of a Ukrainian gas company. Trump's attempts to extort Ukraine to supply Biden opposition research resulted in his impeachment last year (though he was acquitted by the Senate). "The campaign just has to keep Hunter out of the picture," says the friend.
What would Biden actually do in office? Tackling the pandemic would be the first, second and third priority of any incoming president. Little can happen while the US economy is under semi-permanent lockdown. Beyond that his economic platform is radical by the standards of any recent Democratic president, including Obama. "We would have the largest mobilisation of investments since world war two," says Feldman. "We would start by putting pandemic logistics and supply on a war footing."
Some people compare the gargantuan challenges of today to 1932, when Franklin D Roosevelt won the election in the middle of the Great Depression. In spite of running a fairly bland campaign, FDR then embarked on a streak of "bold, persistent experimentation" that would remake America.
But the differences are more interesting. For all its ravages, coronavirus is not as intractable as the Great Depression. By next January, the world should be closer to having a vaccine. Biden would also be fulfilling the first rule of any job — always follow an under-performer. He could achieve a lot in his first 100 days simply by covering the basics, such as launching a national coronavirus plan, shunning Twitter and not insulting foreign leaders. "If you have an American president at foreign summits eating with his mouth closed and not throwing cutlery around, the world will give him a standing ovation," says one adviser and friend.
Biden and Bernie may disagree ideologically but they respect each other's integrity." - Ted Kaufman
Low-hanging foreign-policy fruit that Biden would pluck in his opening days include rejoining the World Health Organization, the Paris Agreement on climate change and the Iran nuclear deal, says Jake Sullivan. He would also convene a global summit to tackle Covid-19. Domestic steps would include stopping work on the US-Mexico border wall (such as it is), setting up a daily coronavirus briefing led by Dr Anthony Fauci or Ron Klain (who led Obama's Ebola team) and picking an attorney-general who would embrace planks of Black Lives Matter's criminal-justice reform agenda.
In his dealings both with Republicans and foreign leaders, Biden would place great stock in personal chemistry. Enjoying the company of people is one area where Biden is as different to Obama as he is to Trump. "The thing that Biden most likes is what Obama liked the least — the personal stuff," says Podesta. Nick Burns says Biden revels in the "constant gardening" of diplomacy — talking frequently to his counterparts.
Sceptics point out that today's Republican party is unrecognisable to the one with which Biden grew up. Should he emerge intact from transition with a paranoid Trump, the chances of the defeated party working with him will be slim. Woke nativism will prove a more durable pathogen than Covid-19.
Moreover, Biden's global honeymoon would be unlikely to last long. Most people view his musings about restoring the status quo ante — going back to the world before Trump — as wishful thinking, not that geopolitical trends were particularly stable during the Obama years. China looms far larger today than it did in 2016. Biden's favourite European, Angela Merkel, Germany's chancellor, is due to retire by next year. And Biden will neither be inclined — nor likely in a position — to offer Britain's Boris Johnson the US-UK trade deal he craves.
Not everyone is enamoured of Biden's foreign-policy judgment. In his 2015 memoir, Robert Gates, Obama's first defence secretary, said Biden had "been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy [and national security] issue over the past four decades." This included voting against the first Iraq war in 1991, in favour of the second one in 2003 and opposing Obama's Afghanistan surge in 2009. Biden was also a lonely voice in opposition to the Abbottabad raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
Gates now says he may have been a little harsh on the former vice-president. "If I had one change I would say that Biden and I agreed that Obama mishandled Hosni Mubarak [the autocratic Egyptian leader supplanted by the Muslim Brotherhood with Obama's green light] and we both opposed Obama's intervention in Libya," he says. "Other than that, I stick to what I wrote."
Tony Blinken, Biden's senior foreign policy adviser, says Biden's scepticism about Obama's ineffectual Afghanistan surge looks better and better in hindsight. "I respect Gates tremendously but he just wanted approval for his Afghanistan plan and Biden disagreed," he says. Biden was in favour of US intervention in Bosnia in 1995, he adds, to convey that Biden is not some inveterate peacenik.
Life is about choices, right? Biden or Trump?" - Former CIA official
But Biden's biggest migraine would probably be at home. In the coming weeks, Trump is likely to make a lot of Biden's "socialist" agenda — the hundreds of billions he has pledged to spend on everything from college education to rural broadband. Should Biden follow Obama's example and pick Wall Street-friendly economic advisers, the left's distrust would soon resurface. Last week, Lawrence Summers, Obama's chief economic adviser and Bill Clinton's Treasury secretary, ruled out joining a Biden administration. "My time in government is behind me," he told the Aspen Security Forum.
To many people's surprise, the left has largely fallen into line. Bernie Sanders dropped nearly all his most-cherished demands to agree a joint platform with Biden. This is in stark contrast to Sanders' stand-offish — and simmeringly uneasy — ceasefire with Clinton in 2016. An estimated one-fifth of Sanders' supporters in 2016 either sat on their hands or voted for Trump. Biden has not adopted a universal basic income, Medicare for all or a wealth tax — Sanders' top three priorities.
Yet the Vermont senator seems to be a happy passenger on Amtrak Joe's train. Their policies may differ but their values are not miles apart. "Biden believes that his ultimate calling is to make life better for the middle class," says Jared Bernstein, an economic adviser. "His watchword is 'dignity.'" Ted Kaufman adds: "Biden and Bernie may disagree ideologically but they respect each other's integrity."
Might such charms work on Republicans? I spoke to many people in Biden's world and none thought the Republican leopard was likely to change its spots. One said: "Joe is still a romantic about the Senate. He will have to learn the hard way." The omens for old-fashioned Biden-style bipartisanship are not cheerful. Yet there is an improbability to Biden's odyssey that should give anyone pause. The lyrics may be corny. The music is not. It is an odd mix of Shakespearean tragedy and Shakespearean comedy.
I have heard people describe Biden as the embodiment of America's can-do spirit. Shailagh Murray called him a "spiritual optimist". A campaign official talked of his "strategic empathy". I have also heard people call Biden a "clown", including a former Obama official. Biden loves to talk of when "the man meets the moment". The joke is that he has said this about himself every time he has run for office. There has never been a moment where Biden does not think he should be residing in the White House.
But like a stopped clock, perhaps this time he is right. "Life is about choices, right?" says a former senior CIA official who has interacted with Biden over more than three decades. "Biden or Trump?" He admitted that he occasionally saw Biden as a "mediocre" politician. But he added that Biden always struck him as fundamentally decent, which sounds like a subversive quality in today's Washington. "Even if you thought that Biden was mediocre," he continued, "you would take mediocre over catastrophic every time."
Written by: Edward Luce
© Financial Times