Explainer | Joe Biden: biography, net worth, family tragedy and path to presidency
- Joe Biden brings to his political career a mix of blue-collar credentials, foreign policy experience and a compelling life story
- The 78-year-old’s long climb to the political top includes two previous failed presidential bids
A stalwart of American political life for decades, Joe Biden, has experienced many ups and downs during his long career in Washington. Here’s what we know about the US president.
Joseph Robinette Biden Jnr was born November 20, 1942 and raised in the rust belt town of Scranton, Pennsylvania, in an Irish-Catholic family.
His father was a car salesman, but when the city went through tough times in the 1950s and he lost his job, he moved the family to neighbouring Delaware when Joe Biden was 10.
“My dad always said: ‘Champ, when you get knocked down, you get back up’,” Biden said.
He made Delaware his political domain. As a young man he served as a lifeguard in a majority-black neighbourhood, an experience he said sharpened his awareness of systemic inequalities and strengthened his political interest.
Biden studied at the University of Delaware and the Syracuse University law school, and has expressed pride that he is not a product of the elite Ivy League.
He touts his working-class roots and recalls being hampered as a child by a stutter so bad he was cruelly nicknamed “Dash”.
But he overcame the condition, and on the 2020 campaign trail spoke about how he still counsels youngsters who stutter.
In 1972, Joe Biden faced the unthinkable – his young wife Nellia and one-year-old daughter Naomi were killed in a car crash as they went Christmas shopping, and he was left alone to raise his two young sons, who were both injured in the accident.
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 losing Beau. The tragedy prevented him from launching a presidential bid in 2016.
Biden met his second wife, teacher Jill Jacobs, in 1975 and they married two years later. Jill was in the process of divorcing her first husband when she met Biden, eight years her senior.
The couple wed in 1977, and she became mother to Hunter and Beau. The Bidens have a daughter, Ashley, who was born in 1981.
While raising her family, Jill Biden also earned two Master’s degrees. She would eventually earn a doctorate in education, and has taught at Northern Virginia Community College.
Biden’s other son, Hunter, has struggled with alcohol and drug addiction, and was discharged from the US Navy Reserve in 2014 after a positive test for cocaine.
From 2014 to 2019, while his father was vice-president, Hunter served on the board of Burisma, a Ukrainian gas company.
Trump has accused Joe Biden of seeking the removal of Ukraine’s top prosecutor to protect Hunter from a corruption investigation.
Hunter, 50, has admitted displaying “poor judgment” in his business dealings but denied any wrongdoing.
Hunter is now a painter in Los Angeles, and has three children with his ex-wife Kathleen.
He has two other young children, one with his second wife Melissa Cohen, whom he married last year just six days after they met.
He’s been called “Middle-Class Joe”, but Biden is actually a millionaire. Since Biden left public office, his income has surged thanks to lucrative book deals and publicity tours.
Biden and his wife took in more than US$15 million, according to financial documents released in 2019.
That same year, Forbes reported that the Bidens’ fortune included “two Delaware homes valued at US$4 million combined, cash and investments worth another US$4 million or so, and a federal pension worth more than US$1 million”.
Biden’s first book, an account of his son Beau’s death from cancer, briefly topped bestseller lists in 2017. He and his wife have also worked on two other book projects.
Biden earned US$540,000 as a professor and namesake of the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Biden Centre for Diplomacy and Global Engagement. Jill Biden made at least US$700,000 in her own speaking engagements.
Joe Biden’s basic speaking fee was reportedly US$100,000 a speech, but his 2019 disclosure showed that while some appearances were priced as low as the US$40,000 range, others ranged as high as US$190,000 for a lecture at Drew University in New Jersey. Biden’s previous financial disclosure, filed in 2016 during his final year as vice-president, showed that even after eight years at his US$230,000-a-year government salary, Biden held significant personal debt.
The 2016 disclosure revealed financial assets worth more than US$273,000 – including a US$150,000 rental property – and more than US$750,000 in debt. Those liabilities included a recent mortgage worth more than US$500,000 on the rental property and a recent US$250,000 home equity loan.
In September 2020, Biden released his 2019 tax return, which showed that he and his wife paid more than US$346,000 in federal taxes and other payments for 2019 on an income of nearly US$985,000 before seeking a refund of nearly US$47,000 they said they had overpaid the government.
At 78, Biden is America’s oldest ever president. He no longer cuts the same figure he did during his eight years as Obama’s vice-president. Though the dazzling smile remains, Biden’s gait is more delicate and his fine white hair has thinned.
But Biden is no shrinking violet. In 2018, he told students at a Florida university that he would “beat the hell out of [Trump]” if the two men were in high school.
According to the most recent publicly disclosed medical assessment by Biden’s doctor Kevin O’Connor in late 2019, Biden was a “healthy, vigorous 78-year-old male, who is fit to successfully execute the duties of the presidency”.
The report said Biden was 181cm tall, weighed 80kg, and had a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 24.38. His blood pressure was 128/84.
The most “noteworthy” health incident in Biden’s medical history was an intracranial haemorrhage from a cerebral aneurysm in 1988. Biden’s condition was so dire that a priest was called to give him last rites.
Like Trump, Biden doesn’t smoke or drink alcohol. However, Biden does work out “five times a week”, according to his doctor.
His favourite treat is ice cream, with one of his granddaughters saying he was a fan of the half-chocolate and half-vanilla tub of the American classic ice cream brand Breyers.
Biden hit the national stage at just 29, with a surprise US Senate win in Delaware in 1972.
One of the youngest senators ever, he spent more than three decades in the upper chamber before serving eight years as Obama’s deputy.
Biden’s retail politicking skills are peerless: he can flash his million-watt smile at college students, commiserate with unemployed rust belt machinists, or deliver a fiery admonishment of rivals.
That personable, gregarious propensity was curtailed by the coronavirus pandemic, which brought in-person campaigning to a halt in March and prompted a more cautious Biden on the trail.
As a senator for more than 30 years, Biden was known to forge unlikely alliances – and, like Trump, he developed a lack of fidelity to script.
He faced a reckoning among Democrats – including Kamala Harris, who became 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”.
Other Senate episodes also threatened to spoil his presidential campaign: his 2003 vote for the Iraq war, and his chairmanship of controversial hearings in 1991 in which Anita Hill accused Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment.
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.
In 1987, Biden joined the race for the White House for the first time, buoyed by his image as a dashing man in his 40s and starting as a favourite among many in his party.
But he crashed out in humiliating style after making a series of exaggerations about his past and a scandal over plagiarised passages in his campaign speeches.
In 2008 he hardly fared better, dropping out after mustering less than one per cent 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”.
Under Obama, Biden served as a troubleshooter on matters of war and foreign affairs and on domestic issues such as gun control and financial policy.
Obama did not always heed Biden’s advice. Obama gave the go-ahead for the 2011 raid in Pakistan that killed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden despite Biden’s warning that it was too risky.
Despite having completed his service in the White House in January 2017, Biden felt compelled to run again after seeing Trump say that there were “very fine people, on both sides” of a clash between white supremacists and anti-racist demonstrators in Charlottesville, Virginia, later that year.
When he announced his bid in 2019, Biden said the Trump presidency has put at stake “everything that has made America, America” – its core values, democracy and the US standing in the world – and that he would fight for the “soul of this nation”.
Agence France-Presse, Associated Press, Reuters, Kyodo