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WORLD | 31-10-2020 08:56

Joe Biden: From tragedy to verge of triumph

At 77 and leading in the polls just days ahead of the November 3 vote, Democratic hopeful Joe Biden is on the cusp of becoming the oldest US president ever.

Joe Biden has suffered profound personal tragedy and seen his earlier political ambitions thwarted, but the veteran Democrat hopes his pledge to unify Americans will deliver him the presidency after nearly half a century in Washington.

Rarely has the profile of opposing presidential nominees differed so sharply as in the 2020 race, which pits the empathetic Biden, with decades of leadership and a blue-collar upbringing, against brawling President Donald Trump, the billionaire businessman who insists he remains the outsider.

But in his decades-long White House quest – Biden has run twice before – the optimist from Delaware maintains he can shift the tone in the United States from anger and suspicion to dignity and respect.

"The divisions in our nation are getting wider... and our wounds are getting deeper," Biden said in a Tuesday speech in Georgia. "Have we passed the point of no return? Has the heart of this nation turned to stone? I don't think so, I refuse to believe it. I know this country, I know our people, and I know we can unite and heal this nation."

At 77 and leading in the polls just days ahead of the November 3 vote, Biden is on the cusp of becoming the oldest US president ever. 

He would inherit a coronavirus pandemic that shows no signs of abating and an office he believes has had its credibility shattered by the "liar" Trump.

A loss to the unpopular president, the challenger said in a candid moment recently, would mean Biden is a "lousy" candidate – and would certainly lower the curtain on a prolific if ultimately unfulfilling political career.

But Biden is no shrinking violet. He has relentlessly hammered away at Trump's handling of the pandemic and, in 2018, told students at a Florida university that he would "beat the hell out of him" if the two men were in high school.

 

Enduring compassion

Biden hit the national stage at just 29, with a surprise US Senate win in Delaware in 1972. But just one month later, tragedy struck: his wife Neilia and their one-year-old daughter Naomi were killed in a car crash as they were Christmas shopping.

His two sons were severely injured but survived, only for the eldest, Beau, to succumb to cancer in 2015. The tragedies help nourish the empathy that shines through in Biden's interactions with everyday Americans.

Opponents, and even some Democrats, wondered whether Biden, garrulous and gaffe-prone, would stumble in his long campaign against Trump. The 74-year-old president regularly calls him "Sleepy Joe" and accuses him of diminished mental acuity. 

But Biden has shrugged off the attacks, and in a flash of frustration with the relentlessly interrupting Trump during their first debate, at one point told the president to "shut up."

Biden's message is built largely on his association with the still-popular Obama and on his ability to do business with the many world leaders that his former boss sent him to meet ("I know these guys," he often reminds people). He offers moderate politics in a divisive time, but he has pledged to take progressive action as president, on climate change, racial injustice and student debt relief.

 

Historic comeback

Biden almost did not make it this far. Despite being the favourite of the Democratic establishment, he was deemed by some to be too old or too centrist. His campaign looked like it was headed for disaster after disappointing primary losses to the fiery Bernie Sanders early this year. But Biden came roaring back in South Carolina's primary on the strength of overwhelming backing from African-American voters, a crucial base of Democratic support.

Clinching the nomination marked a sharp contrast to his 1988 flameout, when he quit in disgrace after being caught plagiarising a speech by British politician Neil Kinnock.

In 2008 he hardly fared better, dropping out after mustering less than one percent of the vote in Iowa's caucuses. That year he was ultimately picked as running mate by Obama, who dubbed him "America's happy warrior." 

This time around, he has faced a reckoning among Democrats – including Kamala Harris, who would become his running mate – for associating with known segregationists in the Senate and, in the midst of 1970s desegregation, for opposing "busing" policies aimed at transporting black children to predominantly white schools. He also caught flak for helping draft a 1994 crime bill which many Democrats believe drove up incarcerations, disproportionately affecting African Americans. Biden recently called the push a "mistake."

Last year he faced a storm over his own notoriously tactile approach with female voters that could suggest a man out of step with his modernising party. He apologised, and promised to be more "mindful" of women's personal space.

 

‘Get back up’

Biden relays the heart-wrenching details of his family stories so often that, despite his obvious grief, they have become part of a political brand.

The 1972 accident left his sons Beau, four, and Hunter, two, badly injured, and the 30-year-old Biden was sworn in beside their hospital beds.

Biden met his second wife, teacher Jill Jacobs, in 1975 and they married two years later. They have a daughter, Ashley.

Both boys recovered from their injuries and Beau followed his father into politics, becoming attorney general of Delaware, but the Democratic rising star died of brain cancer in 2015 at age 46. "It never goes away," Biden said of the pain that lives within him since that loss. 

Lawyer and lobbyist Hunter Biden has had a different trajectory. He received a lucrative salary serving on the board of a Ukrainian gas company accused of corruption while his father was vice-president.

Trump's push for Ukraine to investigate the Bidens led to the president's impeachment last December by the Democratically-controlled House of Representatives, but he was acquitted by the Republican-led Senate.

Hunter was not personally accused of any criminal wrongdoing, but Trump hasn't let the issue die. He repeatedly insists the Bidens are a "crime family" getting rich off of corruption, but the accusations are of dubious origin and polling suggests they have not stuck with US voters.

Nearly every Sunday Biden prays at St. Joseph on the Brandywine, a Catholic church in his affluent Wilmington neighbourhood. There, in the cemetery, are the final resting places of his parents, his first wife and daughter – and his son Beau.

Back in January Biden confided about Beau and his undeniable influence on him: "Every morning I get up... and I think to myself, 'Is he proud of me?'"

 

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by Michael Mathes

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