Joseph Robinette Biden, Jr., was born on November 20, 1942, in Scranton, Pennsylvania, the only U.S. president born between the Great Depression of the 1930s and the end of World War II in 1945. He was the oldest of four children in a family that had fallen on hard times. His father cleaned furnaces and was a used car salesman; his mother was a homemaker. When Biden was in third grade, the family moved from Pennsylvania to Delaware, where Biden would live for most of the rest of his life.
Biden struggled to overcome a childhood stutter by reciting memorized speeches to his reflection and planning conversations in advance. He was more successful on the football field than in the classroom but went on to graduate from the University of Delaware and earn a law degree from Syracuse University in New York.
He soon turned to politics and at age 29 became one of the youngest U.S. senators ever elected. Just days before his swearing in, his wife, Neilia Hunter, and year-old daughter, Naomi, were killed in a car accident. The couple’s two young sons, Beau and Hunter, were seriously injured. At first, Biden wasn’t sure if he should take his Senate seat, but he eventually did; he was sworn in from his son Beau’s hospital room in 1973. He went on to serve in the Senate for 36 years, until 2009.
FROM SENATOR TO VICE PRESIDENT
Biden gained both praise and criticism during his time in the Senate for his work in such areas as judicial appointments, criminal justice, and foreign affairs. During this time, he remarried and with his second wife, Jill Biden, added a daughter, Ashley, to their family.
Senator Biden made two unsuccessful attempts to become president—one in 1987 and one in 2007—before joining the ticket of Barack Obama as the vice-presidential nominee in 2008. Obama hoped Biden’s working-class roots would help him appeal to voters in swing states like Ohio and Pennsylvania.
On November 2, 2008, Obama defeated the Republican candidate for president, Arizona Senator John McCain. On January 20, 2009, he was sworn in as the 44th president of the United States, making Biden the country’s 46th vice president.
As vice president, Biden played an active role in the Obama administration, with Obama tasking Biden with several notable assignments. Biden's main role was as an advisor to Obama, mostly on issues of foreign policy and the economy. Obama consulted with Biden on many decisions, including who to put in his Cabinet and how to handle the two wars the United States was fighting in the Middle Eastern countries of Afghanistan and Iraq. Biden traveled to the Middle East several times.
Obama ran for reelection in 2012 against Utah Senator Mitt Romney, with Biden as his vice president once again. The pair won and went on to serve four more years together in the White House.
Some vice presidents run for president after the president they served under serves two terms and can’t run again. (According to the 22nd amendment of the U.S. Constitution, the U.S. president can only serve for two terms.) But Biden decided against it. In 2015 his eldest son, Beau, had died from brain cancer; Biden noted that the family was still grieving, and he didn’t want to put them through a grueling election. Instead, he campaigned for former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who ultimately lost the 2016 election to businessman Donald Trump.
A THIRD ATTEMPT AT THE PRESIDENCY
Dissatisfied with Trump’s performance as president, Biden decided to run against him in the 2020 election. He announced his candidacy in April 2019—but before he could face off against Trump, he had to beat his fellow Democratic candidates.
At first, Biden didn’t perform well in the race; several other Democratic contenders were considered stronger challengers to Trump’s presidency. But support surged for Biden after he won an important election in South Carolina in late February 2020, prompting other candidates to drop out of the race. By the end of April, Biden was the final remaining Democratic nominee for president.
A PANDEMIC PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGN
By this time, the coronavirus pandemic had started, affecting U.S. citizens and people around the world. Both Biden and Trump faced a unique challenge: how to campaign for president while a highly contagious, deadly disease spread across the country. Trump continued to speak at rallies with high in-person attendance, while Biden chose to enforce stricter social-distancing rules and held many of his campaign events online.
In addition to the pandemic, both candidates had to address racial tensions following several high-profile shootings of Black citizens by police officers. Healthcare was another heavily debated topic.
In August 2020, three months before the election, Biden chose Kamala Harris as his running mate, making her the first Black and Indian-American woman to appear on a major party’s national ticket.
2020 ELECTION RESULTS
To prevent coronavirus from spreading and help keep voters safe, election officials allowed more mail-in voting to take place during the 2020 election as an alternative to in-person voting. As a result, determining the election results took longer. But on November 7, most major news outlets announced that Biden had defeated Trump. Biden won approximately 81 million votes to Trump’s approximately 74 million, winning the popular vote by 51.4 percent. In the electoral college, Biden won 306 votes to Trump’s 232. (The candidate who reaches 270 electoral votes in the electoral college wins the White House.)
Biden was formally elected as the next president of the United States by members of the electoral college on December 14, 2020, making him the nation’s oldest president ever, at age 78.
Few presidents have entered the White House facing as many challenges as President Biden. Some of the many things his administration will have to address include the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, economic hardships the country is facing as a result of the pandemic, and ongoing racial strife in the country. How Biden handles these challenges will shape his presidential legacy.
• Biden has two German shepherds: Champ and Major.
• He’ll be the second Catholic president in U.S. history. John F. Kennedy was the first.
• As a lawyer in Delaware, Biden once defended a fisherman who stole a prize-winning cow.
From the Nat Geo Kids book Our Country's Presidents by Ann Bausum, revised for digital by Avery Hurt