At a moment of extraordinary tumult and pain, America has elected a man haunted by grief, with a seemingly boundless capacity for resilience, to be the country’s next president.
Joe Biden sought the presidency twice before serving as vice-president for eight years in the Obama administration, a role that might have been the capstone of his decades in public life.
But after the election of Donald Trump four years ago, Biden believed he had one last mission. Casting the 2020 election as a “battle for the soul of the nation”, he challenged the incumbent, and the country, on the strength of their characters.
“Character is on the ballot,” Biden told voters again and again, as he promised to be a leader who was empathetic and decent, traits that his opponent saw as weaknesses. Biden told the nation that his life and career had taken him through extraordinary highs and unimaginable lows, and what he had learned from those experiences made him the right man to meet this moment.
“The Bible tells us there’s a time to break down, and a time to build up. A time to heal – this is that time,” he said, citing Ecclesiastes in one of the final speeches of his campaign last week. “God and history have called us to this moment and to this mission.”
Biden became the second youngest senator in American history when he was elected days before his 30th birthday, upsetting a long-serving Republican who few believed was vulnerable. Now, nearly half a century later, the 77-year-old will be sworn in as the oldest president in American history, while the former California senator Kamala Harris will be the first woman and the first woman of color to serve as vice-president.
Biden was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, a hardscrabble former coalmining town that would later serve as the backdrop for the American version of The Office. Though Biden’s father, out of a job, moved the family to Delaware when he was just 10, his hometown roots have defined his political persona as an “average Joe” and a man of the people.
Barack Obama, out on the campaign trail for his former vice-president last month, introduced Biden as the “scrappy kid from Scranton”.
“I came to admire Joe as a man who learned early on to treat everybody he meets with dignity and respect, living by the words his parents taught him: ‘No one is better than you, Joe, but you are better than nobody.”
During a visit to Scranton before polls closed on election day, the current occupant of Biden’s childhood home asked him to sign the living room wall. “From this house to the White House with the grace of God,” he wrote. “Joe Biden, 11-3-2020.”
Despite his reputation as a self-described “gaffe machine,” Biden can also be incredibly disciplined. As a child, he stood in front of a mirror reciting poetry for hours to overcome a stutter that still affects his speech today. Despite his wistfulness for a bygone political era of bipartisan socializing, the Democrat has never had a drink in his life, citing a family history of alcoholism.
Days after Biden won his first election to the US Senate in 1972, his wife, Neilia, and infant daughter, Naomi, were killed in a car accident. His sons, Beau and Hunter, were injured. Tormented and unsure of whether to move forward, Biden was persuaded to serve his term and was sworn in from the hospital, by his children’s bedside.
As a single father raising two young sons alone, Biden rode the Amtrak train home from Washington DC to Delaware every night. He soon fell in love with Jill Jacobs, an educator who he says made his small family “whole again”. They married in 1977 and had a daughter, Ashley.
Decades later, he would lose Beau, to brain cancer at just 46 years old. After his eldest son’s death, Biden announced he would not run for president despite pressure for him to challenge Hillary Clinton in 2016. It was widely believed that his decision finally closed the door on his presidential ambitions.
“When most politicians say to voter: ‘I feel your pain,’ it feels corny or contrived,” said Jeff Wilser, the author of The Book of Joe. “With Biden it’s real, because he truly does feel it. Much of Biden’s life has been defined by tragedy, and right now the nation is living a tragedy.”
More than 225,000 people have died from the coronavirus, and millions have lost their jobs in the economic fallout. For months this summer, US streets were filled with protesters demanding an end to the deaths of Black men and women at the hands of law enforcement.
“I think I know what you’re feeling,” Biden said, in remarks to the families of the coronavirus dead. “You feel like you’re being sucked into a black hole in the middle of your chest. It’s suffocating. Your heart is broken, and there’s nothing but a feeling of emptiness right now.” The next four years may be harder yet for the US, which has just survived one of the most divisive presidential campaigns in history. But Biden was confident he had finally arrived at the moment, when, quoting the Irish poet Seamus Heaney, “hope and history rhyme”.