What hindered the Carter presidency

Joe Biden's long road to president

On January 20th, Joe Biden was sworn in as the 46th President of the United States. What is the secret of the politician who, despite all the strokes of fate, made it to the top of the world power?

A Biden doesn't give up, even if it takes him six decades. As a 17-year-old, Joe Biden, like other teenagers, was less enthusiastic about the curriculum of his strict Catholic middle school than about football, cars, and girls. When asked by the father of his best friend about a career, he was not at a loss for an answer: "I want to be President of the United States." He wasn't particularly quick on this path, but at the age of 77 he made it.

It has become common to refer to Donald Trump as one of the most eccentric presidents in American history. There are a few arguments for this - the lack of experience in a political office, his background in show business, his lack of activity. Most people forget, however, that his successor Biden is also a highly atypical figure. His age is only the most superficial point: When he was sworn in on January 20, Biden was 78 years old, seven and a half years older than the previous record holder. But his path to the presidency was also unique. Americans are usually not patient with eternal candidates for the highest office. A failed attempt is certainly enough to honor, but if you fall on your nose twice like Biden, you will otherwise only get ridicule at the third attempt.

His career also deviates from the previous elixir for a successful candidacy: Those who have made themselves comfortable in Congress for 36 years like the long-term Senator from Delaware are usually considered to be remote chair glue who can no longer electrify anyone. When America's voters wanted a change of party in the White House in the last five decades, they always entrusted the office to a fresh face - fresh figures from the member states like Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton, a young herald of change like Barack Obama or, most recently, the anti-politician Trump. Biden falls out of line. It appears to be repealing the laws of American politics.

Young star and early widower

His victory was by no means certain until the end, a fatal misstep always seemed possible. The candidate himself knows well enough that fate sometimes forges other plans. Biden's life is marked by serious setbacks, personal dramas that would have thrown many others off track. Five such turning points are essential for understanding his biography. Fate strikes for the first time when Biden is supposed to be bathing in happiness: In November 1972, he was elected to the Senate as the second youngest politician in history, only 29 years old, a democratic hopeful in an election year that would otherwise bring his party many slips.

The young star, his handsome wife and three small children adorn American journals. Biden is looking for a house in Washington when the bad news reaches him from Delaware: A truck has rammed the car with his wife and children. Neilia and daughter Naomi are dead, their two sons Beau and Hunter are seriously injured.

Biden later spoke openly about this low point in his life. A world is collapsing for him. He is thinking of leaving politics, even suicide. He inquires about the possibility of an ecclesiastical dispensation in order to be able to pursue the career he had already considered as a youth: that of a priest. He finally accepts his mandate anyway; he takes the oath of office at the hospital bed of his eldest son.

In June 1987 - meanwhile newly married and an influential Congress politician for a long time - Biden dared to take the next big step. He is running for the presidency. But just a few weeks later, his campaign derailed. During an election campaign, he borrows extensively from a speech by the British Labor leader at the time, without disclosing it. The press finds out that he also made use of the Kennedy brothers and boasts of his academic record even though he graduated from law school as one of the worst students in his class. These are not deadly sins by today's standards, but a different spirit prevails in 1987. Biden's campaign ends before it really starts. A cerebral hemorrhage almost kills him a little later. The election year 1988 followed Biden mainly from the sickroom, for seven months he was absent as a senator.

Twenty years later, the now 64-year-old Biden makes a new attempt. This time he's just an outsider. The 2008 Democratic presidential nomination includes names like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. In an interview at the beginning of his campaign, Biden would like to say a few appreciative words about the young black colleague from the Senate: He is the first African-American politician who “can express himself well, is smart and clean and nice-looking”. On the first day of his presidential campaign, Biden once again proved his unerring instinct for the next faux pas. His spokesman later put it to the Biden biographer Jules Witcover: "The campaign ended on the day it began." The senator formally gives up the race eleven months later after receiving less than one percent of the vote in the first primary.

The last chance

As Vice President under Obama, Biden has taken on a new stature. Unexpectedly, this opens up a chance for him to realize his dream of the presidency after all. In 2016, in the race to succeed Obama, he would be 73 years old - why should this be too old? Once again it is a family tragedy that sets him back. His son Beau, himself an aspiring politician, died of cancer in 2015. By his own admission, Biden feels mentally incapable of preparing a campaign. That is only part of the truth, however: he would have had an extremely difficult position against his inner-party rival Hillary Clinton.

The aging politician missed his last opportunity in 2016 - or so it seems. And yet another door opens. After Clinton and Obama's departure, the Democratic Party lacks heavyweights. Biden jumps in the void and thanks to his notoriety becomes the front runner among the two dozen Democrats who want to challenge Republican Trump in 2020. However, he was in shock with the first primaries. Biden only managed fourth place in Iowa and fifth in New Hampshire. Political obituaries are again being written on him.

Not without reason: since the creation of the pre-election system half a century ago, no one has won his party's presidential nomination without making it to the top of one of these early pre-election states. However, Biden quickly overcomes this low point. He wins the important South Carolina area code, benefits from the collapse of the money-laden campaign of multi-billionaire Mike Bloomberg and suddenly stands there as the last bulwark against the socialist wing around Bernie Sanders. The way to the party leadership is clear.

But what is the secret of this man who apparently gets up after every fall and climbs higher? It obviously has nothing to do with his political positions, because they are unoriginal.

The answer can be summed up in a short formula: "That's Joe." It is an often uttered sentence about Biden and a colorful one at it. It can be pronounced with sympathy in the voice, but just as well with rolled eyes. "That's Joe." The sentence immunizes the politician, makes him a person with forgivable weaknesses. Over the years he could be heard when Biden had slipped on the verbal black ice again, when he had squeezed a woman's arm a little tightly or when he was late for an important hearing again because he had missed his train.

"It is impossible not to be fond of Joe," writes former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in his memoir - a government colleague who rarely agreed with Biden politically. But he describes him as down-to-earth and full of self-irony.

Obama also experienced this the better he got to know Biden. As a new senator, Obama had to listen to one of the notorious monologues of his older party colleague in the Foreign Policy Committee in January 2005. At some point the thread of patience broke. "Shoot me - now," wrote Obama on a note and handed it to an employee who publicized the episode years later. The bad start in the relationship between Obama and Biden did not prevent the two from getting closer and forming a successful duo during Obama's presidency.

It seems that this slow-moving process of getting to know and appreciate in a figurative sense also applied to growing segments of the American population. One gained trust and smiled away Biden's weaknesses. "That's Joe."

The Irish temperament

Biden's popularity is a political ploy, but not entirely artificial. The politician has sometimes portrayed his origins in the mining town of Scranton in Pennsylvania as if he himself came from the working class. But his father and grandfathers didn't work in the coal mines, they belonged to the middle class. Nevertheless, the young Joe grew up in a milieu in which the hardships of the struggle for existence could be experienced. His father had made money as a young man, but then suffered serious professional setbacks and bit his way through as a service technician for a while, until he moved with his family to Delaware and achieved new prosperity as a car dealer.

Joseph Robinette Biden junior, as the new president's full name is called, was born on November 20, 1942. The middle name refers to Biden's French ancestry, but about five eighths of the politician is of Irish descent - a fact that he likes to emphasize. He lives up to many Irish clichés, with character traits such as emotionality, helpfulness and the ability not to tell a good story unnecessarily briefly. Biden likes to weave Irish expressions into his speeches or expressions that sound at least as if they come from the Emerald Isle. In a television debate he once accused an opponent of telling "a bunch of malarkey" (a bunch of humbug), which is not exactly part of everyday vocabulary in the USA.

Irish are also known for their sense of family, and Biden is outspoken. He, his siblings and his children form a network that is always a support in election campaigns. The various tragedies in the family only made it tighter. While most congressional politicians only see their families on weekends, for decades Biden commuted daily by train between Washington and his home in Wilmington. He began this tradition after the death of his first wife, which enabled him to be with his two surviving children every evening.

The downside of Biden's family spirit, however, is that the politician turned a blind eye when relatives embarked on dubious business. His brothers and son Hunter have a reputation for capitalizing on the famous name. Biden didn't even step in when his son accepted a lavishly paid board seat from a corrupt oligarch in Ukraine, while his father, as vice president, helped shape the course for that country.

Typically Irish, as the politician puts it, is also an attitude that was inoculated into him as a child: "If you hit the ground, you get up again." This attitude has helped him repeatedly in his long career. When Obama honored his Vice President with a medal after eight years, he praised one quality of his friend in particular - his tenacity. He had already proven it as a teenager. A stutterer from childhood, he increasingly suffered from the teasing of his classmates. One of his nicknames was "Bye-bye" because he sometimes only produced these two syllables from his name. Biden writes in his memoirs that he got the disorder of his facial muscles under control by reciting classical texts in front of the mirror for hours. At 19, he gave the graduation speech at his high school without stumbling once.

Your own mouth as the greatest enemy

If you believe bad tongues, this success was tantamount to breaking a dam. It seemed as if, with the release of the speech impairment, Biden would henceforth allow his need for communication to run indefinitely. Too often his mouth was now faster than his head. In the course of his career, the politician said countless things that he hadn't meant and things that he had meant but shouldn't have said.

This self-indulgence could also be observed in a campaign appearance in the fall of 2007 in New Hampshire. Biden rattled down the names of Middle Eastern politicians whom he had all met as a senator, but who were heartily irrelevant to the realities of life of the voters in that market town. He didn't seem to notice the yawning of some of the visitors. In the end there was no enthusiasm in the room, just exhaustion. Biden also looked exhausted, with reddened eyes, but he went on like a motor, almost gratefully grabbed the arm of the journalist from Switzerland, who, unlike the locals, had not yet fled, and did not rest until he also had his Had explained in detail the attitude to the nuclear dispute with Iran. An employee finally pulled him outside.

In all of this, it is remarkable what a global horizon Biden has developed. Only rarely do newly elected presidents take office with such a wealth of foreign policy experience. How much his judgment is worth on such questions is another matter. His government colleague Gates describes Biden as a man who has been wrong on almost every important foreign policy issue for four decades. That is only slightly exaggerated. Biden opposed the 1991 Gulf War, despite the fact that there were compelling arguments in favor of liberating Kuwait from Saddam Hussein's forces; on the other hand, he voted in 2002 on the basis of much thinner facts for authorization to invade Iraq, which in retrospect he himself classifies as a mistake.

In 2007 he refused to increase the number of American troops in Iraq, although they soon stabilized. As Vice President in 2011, Biden was a driving force behind the hasty withdrawal of the Americans from Iraq, which left a vacuum and facilitated the spread of the terrorist militia IS. He was also wrong in the same year when he internally advised against carrying out a commando action against the Qaeda leader Usama bin Ladin in Pakistan.

Trump versus Biden - two personalities in contrast

Biden's questionable record takes a back seat, however, when one looks at the long series of foreign policy mistakes made by the now-elected president. In any case, the choice was not made in the field of foreign policy, but in questions of social and economic policy. There is no justification in Biden's biography for the label of the radical left that Trump tried to attach to his opponent. The Democrat was always a progressive voice, but he always kept his distance from the left wing of his party, even if it cost him sympathy there. He supported the equality of blacks, but as a young senator vehemently opposed the ethnic mix in schools prescribed by the authorities. He advocated the expansion of the welfare state, but as a representative of the financial stronghold of Delaware, he was open to business interests. He also steered a different course than his more radical party colleagues on the most controversial issue of this year's primary elections, health insurance policy. He rejects the creation of a compulsory state unit fund.

“Trump versus Biden” was not just a question of political positions, but also a choice between two very different personalities. In the midst of the current crisis, did the Americans still want a president who lustfully violates all Washington conventions, or a man who speaks to the hearts with joviality and human warmth? For decades, strokes of fate and own inability have blocked Biden's way to the top. Now he is suddenly the man of the hour.

Stations in an unusual political career

1942: Joe Biden was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, the same mining town from which the ancestors of his future party colleague Hillary Clinton came. Biden's family later moves to Delaware, where the politician lives to this day.

1969: Joined the Democratic Party. Above all, the fermenting civil rights issue and the Vietnam War politicized the young lawyer.

1972: Biden, a little-known district councilor for two years, defeats one of the most famous politicians in his state and becomes a senator in Washington.

1983: For the first time he is toying with a presidential candidacy. However, he cancels his acceptance of submitting his application hours later.

1987: Biden's widely acclaimed presidential application ends in a fiasco after three months due to allegations of plagiarism.

1987: The politician has more success in the Senate: As chairman of the justice committee, he cleverly prevents the appeal of the conservative lawyer Robert Bork to the Supreme Court without the Republicans accusing him of a lack of fairness. He failed a similar balancing act in 1991 when federal judge Clarence Thomas was examined: The way in which he downplayed the harassment allegations against Thomas earned him criticism for years to come.

1997: Biden becomes the leading Democrat on the Senate Foreign Policy Committee. He is increasingly sharpening his profile as a foreign politician. In 2002, despite reservations, he voted in favor of the war in Iraq; later he advocates a swift withdrawal from the country.

2008: The second presidential campaign also ended in failure. However, Biden's attention is drawn to the party's new standard bearer, Barack Obama, who makes him Vice President.

2017: For the first time in 44 years, Biden has not held a national office. However, he defies prophecies of doom that he is too old for the presidency. In April 2019 he will launch his third campaign.

2020: Biden emerges as the winner from a race of around two dozen prominent Democrats. He becomes the official challenger of President Trump and wins against him in the election on November 3rd.

2021: Joe Biden was sworn in as the 46th President of the United States on Wednesday, January 20.