Joe Biden: 47th Vice President of the United States

Updated on November 14, 2017
Official portrait of Vice President Joe Biden in his West Wing Office at the White House, Jan. 10, 2013.
Official portrait of Vice President Joe Biden in his West Wing Office at the White House, Jan. 10, 2013.

Early Life

Just a year after America’s entry into World War II, Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. was born into a Catholic family on November 20, 1942, in blue-collar Scranton, Pennsylvania. He was the first child of Joseph Robinette Biden Sr. and Catherine Eugenia Biden. Joe was followed by a sister, Valerie, and two other brothers, James and Frank. His mother had Irish ancestry and his father’s family descended from an English immigrant with Irish roots from Sussex, who came to the United States a few generations before.

Although his father had been well-off for years due to his business ventures, at the time of Biden’s birth, after the war, the good time for the Biden family came to an end as Joe Senior became involved in a couple of bad business adventures with his cousin. The family moved into the small home of Grandfather Ambrose in the Green Ridge neighborhood of Irish, Italian, and Polish families. During the 1950s, Scranton and all the surrounding area went into a severe economic crisis and jobs were scarce. In 1953, they moved to their own apartment in Claymont, Delaware. Once they became secure, they bought a house in Wilmington, Delaware and settled there. Biden Sr. found a moderate success as a car salesman and the family started to lead a comfortable, middle-class life.

Joe Biden attended Archmere Academy, a Catholic prep school, in Claymont and it was during this time that he found his talent for sports. He played football and baseball for the high school teams. From an academic standpoint, he was certainly above-average. He was elected class president and was widely recognized as a natural leader. After graduating from high school in 1961, he went to the University of Delaware. Four years later, showing an early interest in politics, Biden earned his BA with a double major in history and political science. However, he didn’t have an outstanding academic performance.

In 1964, when Biden was still a student, he met Neilia Hunter while on holiday in the Bahamas. She came from an affluent family from New York and was a student at Syracuse University. Despite the distance, they began dating. To be able to visit her more often out of state, Biden gave up his plan of playing for the varsity football team. Biden married Neilia Hunter in a Catholic Church in Skaneateles, on August 27, 1966. The couple had three children, Joseph R. Biden III, Robert Hunter, and Naomi Christina.

After getting his BA, Biden entered Syracuse University College of Law. He received a small scholarship due to his financial situation and managed to get additional assistance for his academic merits. As he later revealed, he did not find law school enjoyable in the slightest and struggled to get by. Nevertheless, he graduated near the bottom of his class in 1968 and was awarded the title of Juris Doctor. One year later, he started his own law practice, after gaining admission to the Delaware bar.

Joe Biden Video Mini-Biography

Early Political Career

Biden’s first political experience was working as a clerk at the law firm of a prominent Republican William Prickett. Although he saw himself as a Republican, Biden disliked Republican presidential candidate Richard Nixon and ignored the attempts of the local Republicans to recruit him. Instead, he registered as an Independent. After being admitted to the bar, he started to practice law at another firm, led by an active Democrat, Sid Balick. Biden became a member of the Democratic Forum and changed his registration to Democrat.

Professionally, Biden was dissatisfied with his law career, even though he founded his own firm, Biden & Walsh. He did not enjoy corporate law and sought ways to supplement his income and find more interesting ventures. Near the end of 1969, Biden won a seat on the New Castle County Council, with an impressive two-thousand vote margin in the election. This was the step of his political career, yet he already had plans for the U.S. Senate. For the next two years, he fulfilled his duties for the County Council and continued to practice private law.

In 1972, Biden entered the U.S Senate election in Delaware. Since Republican incumbent Senator J. Caleb Boggs was supported by Richard M. Nixon and by the party as well, no one among the Democrats wanted to run against him. Although he had no money for the campaign and everyone doubted that he had a chance, Biden decided to enter the race. His sister Valerie and other members of the family offered their help for the campaign. Focusing on pressing issues of the time, such as civil rights, protection of the environment, healthcare, foreign policies, and others, Biden gained the attention of the voters. Another plus was his young age and relentless energy when compared to Boggs, who was ready to retire. On November 7, 1972, Biden won the election.

While his professional life was entering an ascendant path, Biden’s personal life fell apart. Just a few weeks after the election, his wife Neilia was shopping for Christmas with their three children, when a truck-trailer hit the station wagon that she was driving. Neilia and their one-year-old daughter were killed while the older sons Beau and Hunter survived with some minor injuries. Devastated, Biden wanted to resign his political duties to care for his sons but was persuaded to continue.

On January 5, 1973, Biden was sworn into office as a senator. He was only 30 years old and become the sixth-youngest senator in the U.S. history. However, in the aftermath of the accident that killed his beloved wife and daughter, he had trouble focusing on his duties. He was doubting his religious beliefs and was crushed by great anger and grief. He left orders to be interrupted in the Senate whenever his sons called and put them above any political ambition.

In 1975, Biden was a widow, raising his two sons by himself, when he went on a blind date with Jill Tracy Jacobs. The two hit it off and they married in 1977 and had one daughter, Ashley Blazer. Biden talked repeatedly with gratitude about how Jill reawakened his interest in politics and life in a difficult moment of his life. She has multiple degrees and worked as a teacher in Delaware. Biden and Jill are self-confessed Roman Catholics and attend church regularly.

Life in the U.S. Senate

As a senator, Biden was primarily interested in consumer-protection legislation and he also focused on environmental issues. Fellow politicians and media characterized him as confident and ambitious. One of his first important legislative accomplishments was helping the passage of the Comprehensive Crime Control Act. He changed several of the Act’s provisions, for which he was later praised. Biden clashed with the Reagan administration especially on foreign policies, yet he always stood his ground and was appreciated for having coherent political goals and views.

In 1988, Biden though it was time for him to run for the Democratic presidential nomination. His undeclared goal was to enter history as the youngest president since John F. Kennedy. At the start of the campaign, his goal seemed possible to attain and he was considered a strong candidate. He had a high-profile position as chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee and managed to obtain an impressive $1.7 million through fundraising. Despite an initial successful phase, his campaign suffered a big hit in September 1987, when he was accused of having plagiarized the speech of a British politician. Several other accusations of plagiarism emerged shortly and a plagiarism incident from his years in law school was brought to the public attention. Since he hadn’t yet gained the support of a strong demographic group or political group, Biden’s campaign went through a crisis that forced him to quit the race, and on September 23, 1987, he officially withdrew.

From 1987 to 1997, Biden remained a member of the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary. He was involved in the development of many federal crime laws. After 1997, he became more involved with the Foreign Relations Committee, where his policies brought him the label of a liberal internationalist. Records show that he met around 150 world leaders. He actively supported Bosnia during the Yugoslav Wars and even met Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic. His efforts in the Balkans made a great impact because it triggered NATO’s involvement. When the conflict in Afghanistan grew, Biden became a strong supporter of the war. He changed positions several times during the Iraq War and was often a vocal critic of the Bush administration.

In 1991, Biden took a position as adjunct professor at the Widener University School of law in Delaware. His seminar on constitutional law was popular and students were put on a waiting list to get a chance to attend the class.

Biden was very active as a Senator and in May, 1999, he became the youngest Senator ever to cast 10,000 votes in the Senate. Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschel spoke glowingly of Biden, saying, “His steel will, dedication and compassion, reinforcing a powerful intellect and impressive communications skills, have made Senator Joe Biden and exceptional Senator.”

After his first victory in 1972, Joe Biden was re-elected six more times for the U.S. Senate, usually getting over 60% of the vote. However, he rarely had strong opposition. He became the longest-serving senator in Delaware history, yet he was repeatedly ranked as one of the least wealthy senators. During his time as a public official, he became known as a loquacious and confident politician, with strong public speaking skills, but who had weak filters and often said inappropriate things.

Jill Biden, wife of senator Joe Biden in 2008.
Jill Biden, wife of senator Joe Biden in 2008.

Reaching for the White House

On January 31, 2007, Joe Biden officially declared his candidacy for president of the United States. During the campaign, he stressed his expertise in foreign policy to stand out as a candidate. The campaign developed successfully in the beginning, but some of Biden’s remarks stirred controversy. A racist comment he made about fellow Democrat candidate Barack Obama undermined his campaign severely. He struggled with raising funds and attracting people to his rallies, which kept him below double digits in the national polls in the Democratic nomination race. In the first primary vote in Iowa, Biden finished fifth, gathering only one percent of the vote and dropped out of the race. Although defeated, Biden’s position on the political scene changed for the better after his withdrawal since he had now the attention of the voters and the media. The most surprising change occurred in his relationship with Barack Obama. The two senators had worked together before, but only during the 2007 campaign managed to get close and learned to appreciate each other.

In August 2008, Barack Obama publicly announced that fellow Democrat Joe Biden would be his running mate for the White House. By accepting Obama’s offer, Biden also had to accept that he could not run for the presidential nomination in 2016. On August 27, Biden was officially nominated for vice presidency. This time, the campaign ran more smoothly as Biden tried to be succinct in his speeches. He avoided making offhand remarks although, on occasion, Obama grew frustrated with him, condemning his public comments.

On November 4, 2008, Barack Obama was elected President of the United States Biden was also re-elected to the Senate on the same night since Delaware law permitted him to take the position even as vice president. However, on January 15, he resigned from the Senate.

President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden laugh together in the Oval Office, January 22, 2009.
President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden laugh together in the Oval Office, January 22, 2009.

Vice President of the United States

On January 20, 2009, Biden was sworn in as the 47th Vice President of the United States, alongside President Barack Obama. He accomplished his goal of making history, but not as the youngest president of the U.S. but as the first Roman Catholic and the first politician from Delaware to become vice president.

During the early months of the new administration, Biden acted as a counselor on foreign policies and was responsible for gaining Senate support for Obama’s legislative changes. His voice became more prominent when Obama decided to go with Biden’s strategy for Afghanistan. He also became the main responsible for managing the Iraq conflict and made numerous trips there. Locally, Biden was in charge of supervising infrastructure spending and he traveled across the country to meet with hundreds of officials. His reputation for gaffes revived as his new position forced him to assume a public stance on a wide number of issues. Despite their starkly different personalities, Biden and Obama developed a close friendship.

In March 2011, Biden was delegated to lead negotiations between the White House and the houses of Congress on the controversial issue of federal spending under the imminent threat of the debt crisis. Biden bargained with the Congress on the debt question and he became known as the strongest negotiating authority at the White House. However, he continued to make public comments without the consent of the administration, putting Obama in embarrassing situations. However, the conflict died down and on November 6, 2012, both Obama and Biden were elected for second terms.

On January 20, 2013, Biden was inaugurated to a second term. During the first months in the office, the administration tried to tackle the issue of gun violence, violence against women, and sexual harassment, by developing stronger legislation. Biden worked on several other important legislative changes and managed to avoid controversy around his name.

Private Citizen

Near the end of his term, many suspected that Biden had the intention to run for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination. However, as he was approaching the age of 72 in 2015 and his elder son, Beau, had recently died of brain cancer, Biden declared that he had no longer the energy to take on such a big commitment. On October 21, 2015, he officially announced his decision to not enter the race. When Obama endorsed Hillary Clinton, Biden decided to do the same. He also spoke very critically of the Republican president Donald Trump during the election and into Trump’s term in office.

On November 14, 2017 Joe Biden’s new book Promise Me, Dad: A Year of Hope, Hardship, and Purpose is scheduled to be released (I just pre-ordered the book – hope it is good). According the book description, it chronicles the year after his son, Beau, was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. Beau had told his father, “Give me your word that no matter what happens, you’re going to be all right.” Joe Biden gave him his word.

Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden at a Justice Department press conferences in 2013.
Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden at a Justice Department press conferences in 2013.

References:

Biden Withdraws Bid for President in Wake of Furor. The New York Times. Accessed November 9, 2017

Campaign Portrait, Joe Biden: Orator for the Next Generation. Time. June 22, 1987. Accessed November 10, 2017

It's official: Obama, Biden win second term. Los Angeles Times. January 4, 2013. Accessed November 10, 2017

Joe Biden respected – if not always popular – for foreign policy record. Los Angeles Times. 24 August, 2008. Accessed November 10, 2017

Senator Joseph Biden (Democrat, Delaware). U.S. State Department. Accessed November 10, 2017

Witcover, Jules. The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power. Smithsonian Books. 2014.

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    • Larry Fish profile image

      Larry W Fish 2 weeks ago from Raleigh

      A wonderful article on the life of Joe Biden. You did a great job. I grew up about an hour drive south of Scranton, PA. Joe is one of the few politicians that I have a lot of respect for. To many politicians today enter politics for their own personal gain, but Joe is very passionate about what he believes in. Doug, if we had more like Joe Biden in the House and the Senate this would be a lot better country.

    • Sharlee01 profile image

      Sharon Stajda 4 weeks ago from Shelby Township Michigan

      Very nice article. Well written, well researched.

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