"America is an idea ...

It instills in every person in this country the belief that no matter where you start in life, there's nothing you can't achieve if you work at it." Joseph R. Biden, April 25, 2019

On Jan. 20, 2021, Joseph Robinette Biden Jr., known to most people as Joe Biden or simply Joe, became the 46th President of the United States of America and the oldest person ever elected to that office. At age 30, Biden was one of the youngest Senators in U.S. history, serving the state of Delaware from 1973 to 2009, longer than anyone else, a record that stands today.

Biden ran in two previous failed attempts to become president—one in 1988, the other in 2008—before finally winning in 2020. Prior to that he served two terms as vice president under Barack Obama, from 2009 until Jan. 20, 2017.

Key Takeaways

  • Joseph R. Biden has been a fixture in U.S. national politics since 1973.
  • He has consistently supported public housing, mass transit, healthcare, and civil rights.
  • He has reversed previous opposition to abortion and called his support for crime legislation in the '90s a "big mistake."
  • He opposed what he called some types of school busing in the '70s and has not changed his mind on that issue.
  • Biden is widely considered to be an expert in diplomacy and a top negotiator.
  • After two previous unsuccessful attempts, Biden won the presidency in 2020 and became America's 46th president on Jan. 20, 2021.

From County Council to United States Senator

In 1970, after a short stint as an attorney, Biden's political career began when he ran for and won a seat on Delaware's New Castle County Council. He ran on a platform that included support for public housing, an area he continues to champion to this day.

He became the junior U.S. senator from Delaware in 1973 after defeating Republican incumbent, J. Caleb Boggs, in a surprise win based on a platform that focused on withdrawing from Vietnam, environmental issues, civil rights, mass transit, tax reform, healthcare, and public unhappiness with "politics as usual."

Unfortunately the joy of victory was short-lived. Biden's wife, Neilia, and infant daughter, Naomi, were killed in a car crash just weeks after the election. He considered resigning his recently won Senate seat, but instead opted to commute by train between Delaware and Washington each night so he could be with his sons Beau and Hunter, a practice he followed for the rest of his Senate career spanning 36 years.

In 1977, he married Jill Jacobs; their daughter Ashley was born in 1981. In 2007, Jill Biden received a Doctorate of Education and has taught at Northern University Community College since 2009.

Senate Committee Assignments

Joseph Biden's longevity in the Senate resulted in membership on the Senate Judiciary Committee from 1981 to 1997. He served as chair from 1987 to 1995. As such, he presided over two contentious Supreme Court confirmations, those of both Robert Bork and later Clarence Thomas. Biden also wrote and helped pass the Violence Against Women Act, legislation that criminalizes violence against women.

As chairman or ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for 12 years, Biden helped shape U.S. foreign policy on terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, the Middle East, Southwest Asia, and the end of apartheid, among other issues.

1988 Presidential Ambitions

After formally declaring his candidacy in June 1987, Biden was initially considered a strong candidate, in no small part due to his high profile as chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee. As testament to his popularity, the Biden campaign raised more money than any other candidate in the first quarter of 1987.

The tide turned following accusations of plagiarism later in the year. This was followed by several false claims and exaggerations including that he had earned three college degrees and that he had graduated in the top half of his law school class (he actually graduated near the bottom). On Sept. 23, 1987, Biden withdrew from the race after fumbling what many considered a half-hearted apology. Years later in his 2008 memoir Promises to Keep: On Life and Politics, Biden wrote, "When I stopped trying to explain to everybody and thought it through, the blame fell totally on me.”

Political Positions Over the Years

Biden has generally been characterized as a moderate centrist Democrat. His ideological score his first year in the Senate, according to UCLA's Voteview pegged him as more liberal than 70% of his fellow Senators and more conservative than 53% of Democrats. His last score in 2009 put him 68% more liberal than the rest of the Senate and more conservative than 52% of Democrats.

He once described himself as a liberal on civil rights, senior citizens, and healthcare but conservative on abortion and the draft. Some of Biden's positions have changed over time, others have not.

The draft

In an interview in 1974 Biden said, "Now, if you still think I’m a liberal, let me tell you that I support the draft. I’m scared to death of a professional army." Over time his position changed and in 2020 he told the Military Officers Association of America (MOAA), "The United States does not need a larger military, and we don’t need a draft at this time. The all-volunteer force has been a source of strength for decades."

Abortion

Biden's position in the '70s reflected both his strong religious beliefs and his desire not to be painted as a far left liberal. "But when it comes to issues like abortion, amnesty, and acid," he said, "I’m about as liberal as your grandmother. I don’t like the Supreme Court decision on abortion. I think it went too far."

The Biden Agenda for Women now includes this: "Stop state laws violating Roe v. Wade. Biden will work to codify Roe v. Wade, and his Justice Department will do everything in its power to stop the rash of state laws that so blatantly violate Roe v. Wade."

School busing

Biden was a leading opponent of busing in the '70s, a civil rights issue where he was not so liberal. At the time he tried to walk a fine line by saying he supported busing to end legalized segregation in the South and he supported court-ordered busing, but that he opposed it to remedy the de facto segregation that took place due to housing discrimination elsewhere.

Biden supported antibusing legislation and constitutional amendments in 1975, 1976, and 1977.  His antibusing history came back to haunt him during the 2020 debates when his-then opponent Senator Kamala Harris took him to task for his stance.

The environment

The environment has been important to Biden earning him a lifetime score of 83% from the League of Conservation Voters. He is credited with introducing the first climate change bill in Congress in 1986. Though that bill died in the Senate, President Reagan, in 1987, signed it into law as an amendment to a State Department funding bill.

Biden's current far-reaching agenda for dealing with climate change demonstrates just how much he has expanded on his original concerns. The Biden plan now includes a $1.7 trillion investment in environmental issues over 10 years.

Arms control

Biden spent much of his early Senate career concentrating on arms control negotiations, meeting with Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko in 1979, at the behest of President Jimmy Carter. He and fellow Senators were tasked with securing changes to the then recently signed SALT II treaty in hopes of convincing the U.S. Senate to ratify the treaty. Despite press reports that changes were agreed to, the mission ultimately failed when the Senate failed to ratify the treaty. It was eventually replaced with START. 

The START treaty will expire on Biden's Presidential watch. Russia has said it wants to extend the treaty. It will be up to President Biden and his administration to decide on how long it wants to extend. Given the relationship Donald Trump forged with Putin's Russia over the past four years, it remains to be seen how negotiations will go this time around.

Law and order

As ranking minority member of the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1981, Biden supported and helped pass the Comprehensive Crime Control Act, tough-on-crime legislation he would later call a "big mistake." Biden supporters, however, pointed to aspects of the law that were considered achievements, such as the Federal Assault Weapons Ban and the Violence Against Women Act.

During the 2020 Presidential campaign Biden was charged by the Trump campaign with wanting to "defund the police." In a USA Today op-ed in June 2020, Biden said, "While I do not believe federal dollars should go to police departments violating people's rights or turning to violence as the first resort, I do not support defunding police."

LGBTQ rights

In 1993, Biden voted for a provision that effectively banned gays from serving in the armed forces. He followed that up in 1996 by voting for the Defense of Marriage Act that prohibited the government from recognizing same-sex marriages. That law was deemed unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2015.

Since then, Biden's evolution on LGBTQ rights has been as striking as any in his years as a public figure. One has only to read "Biden's Plan to Advance LGBTQ Equality in America and Around the World" on his website which opens with a Biden quote from 2012, "“Who do you love? Who do you love? And will you be loyal to the person you love? And that’s what people are finding out is what all marriages, at their root, are about.”

On the website Biden touts the "historic strides toward LGBTQ+ equality" made by the Obama-Biden administration including the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and his own support of marriage equality in 2012 that led to Obama's change of heart shortly thereafter.

A Would-Be President Becomes Vice-President

Biden's decision to run for President in 2008 began with a plan to achieve political success in Iraq while using his many years in the Senate to tout his experience in foreign policy. He failed, however, to gain the support he needed to continue and dropped out of the race on Jan. 3, 2008. Soon after that, Barack Obama asked Biden to be his running mate.

Together Obama and Biden won the election, beating John McCain and Sarah Palin. As America's 47th vice president, Biden was tasked with overseeing the $787 billion economic stimulus package, running the Middle Class Task Force, and helping to negotiate the START treaty with Russia, which will expire on his watch as president. Biden also played an advisory role regarding conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Toward the end of President Obama's second term, Biden's eldest son, Beau, died of brain cancer in 2015. Beau had strongly urged his father to make another run for the presidency and Biden considered running in 2016, but ultimately decided against it.

A Third Run for the White House

Following months of speculation, Joe Biden announced in a video, released Apr. 25, 2019, that he would run for President a third time in 2020.  The announcement focused on what Biden called "a battle for the soul of our nation" using the video to call attention to the 2017 white supremacist protest in Charlottesville, Va.

By June, 2020, Biden had secured enough delegates to grab the nomination. On Aug. 11, he announced that Senator Kamala Harris would be his running mate, and on Aug. 18 and 19, Biden and Harris became the nominees of the Democratic Party for the 2020 Presidential election.

The 2020 Presidential Debates

The first presidential debate Sept. 29, 2020, was, charitably, a messy affair. Advertised as a discussion of six pre-announced topics, it quickly turned into a verbal slugfest as both candidates struggled to score points between interruptions by their opponent. Biden did manage to point to what he called Trump's mismanagement of the coronavirus pandemic.

The second presidential debate, scheduled to take place Thursday, Oct. 15, was changed from an in-person to a virtual event, at which point President Donald Trump announced he would not participate. The event was canceled.

The final debate, which took place Oct. 22, 2020, in Nashville, Tn., was much more productive than the first, thanks to the installation of a mute button designed to prevent interruptions. The candidates stayed mostly on topic.

On COVID, Trump defended his administration's response while Biden said the Trump administration had no plan. The national security segment featured Biden saying any country that interfered in elections should pay a price. Trump used the time to raise the conspiracy theory that Biden enriched himself through corruption with Russia and China.

On the economy Trump noted that he had killed the ACA individual mandate, denounced the ACA, but declined to outline his own plan. Biden made the point that he favored a public option but not Medicare for All. On immigration, race, and climate change, Biden countered false statements by Trump, admitted his crime bills support in the past was a mistake, and rejected Trump's assertion that his climate plan amounted to an endorsement of the Green New Deal.

A Contentious Election—A Message of Unity

In the midst of allegations of a rigged election and widespread voter fraud, citizens cast their ballots by mail and in person—in advance and on Nov. 3, 2020. When it was over, Joseph R. Biden and Kamala D. Harris had won both the popular and the Electoral College vote. The final tally was 81,268,754 votes for Biden-Harris, 74,216,721 votes for Trump-Pence. The Electoral College total was 306 to 232 in favor of Biden-Harris.

On Nov. 7, 2020, Biden and Harris addressed the nation. Biden's message was one of unity and healing. He acknowledged a broad coalition that included “Democrats, Republicans, and Independents. Progressives, moderates, and conservatives. Young and old. Urban, suburban and rural. Gay, straight, transgender. White. Latino. Asian. Native American. And especially for those moments when this campaign was at its lowest — the African American community stood up again for me. They always have my back, and I’ll have yours.

"I ran as a proud Democrat," he said. "I will now be an American president. I will work as hard for those who didn’t vote for me as (for) those who did."

Near the end of his speech, President Biden said this, "With full hearts and steady hands, with faith in America and in each other, with love of country, a thirst for justice, let us be the nation that we know we can be. A nation united. A nation strengthened. A nation healed. The United States of America."

Armed with an ambitious plan for his first 100 days in office, including the first of two major stimulus packages, Biden and Harris plan first to tackle what they consider to be a neglected pandemic and a series of executive actions designed to reverse actions taken by the Trump administration over the past four years.