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Who is Joe Biden? US president-elect’s political journey started with a family tragedy

Mr Joe Biden, a 77-year-old Democrat, is set to become the oldest president of the United States. What is Mr Biden’s background and what preceded his rise to power?

US president-elect Joe Biden hugging one of his granddaughters as he stands with wife Jill Biden (far right), and grandson and son Hunter Biden (left) in Wilmington, Delaware, on Nov 7, 2020, after he was declared the winner of the presidential election.

US president-elect Joe Biden hugging one of his granddaughters as he stands with wife Jill Biden (far right), and grandson and son Hunter Biden (left) in Wilmington, Delaware, on Nov 7, 2020, after he was declared the winner of the presidential election.

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  • Mr Joe Biden entered the US Senate at age 29
  • Very shortly after, he lost his wife and 13-month-old daughter to a car crash 
  • His first presidential bid started in 1987, but he dropped out three months later following a plagiarism scandal
  • In 1988, he suffered a health crisis and had to undergo brain surgery

 

SINGAPORE — Mr Joe Biden, a 77-year-old Democrat, is set to become the oldest president of the United States.

He defeated incumbent president Donald Trump, 73, and was declared the country’s 46th president-elect on Sunday (Nov 8, Singapore time), after receiving 290 electoral votes to beat Mr Trump’s 214.

He also won the popular vote with more than 75 million votes cast in his favour — breaking the record of 69.5 million previously set by former US president Barack Obama.

What is Mr Biden’s background and what preceded his rise to power?

TODAY takes a look at the man who will officially be inaugurated as US president come Jan 20 next year.

A YOUNG LAWYER TURNED WIDOWER

Mr Biden, whose full name is Joseph Robinette Biden Jr, turns 78 on Nov 20. He was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania — the oldest child of a used car salesman.

When he first ran in the US Senate election in 1972, he was merely 29 years old and was a lawyer who had started running his own law firm about three years upon graduating from Syracuse University.

Mr Biden ran against a popular Republican incumbent for a seat in the US Senate and won to become one of the youngest senators ever elected.

Then, just six weeks after the win — a week before Christmas in 1972 — he lost his wife Neilia Hunter and 13-month-old daughter, Naomi “Amy” Biden, to a tragic car accident.

A tractor trailer had rammed into the station wagon that the wife was driving.

Their two sons, Joseph “Beau” Biden and Robert “Hunter” Biden, who were three and two years old, were severely injured and were hospitalised for months.

Just before the accident, his wife, who was then 30 years old, was out Christmas shopping with their three children while Mr Biden himself was recruiting employees in Washington.

Mr Biden had to be sworn into the Senate at the hospital where his sons were being treated.

Setting his mind on seeing his boys every day, he made the decision to commute to and from Washington by train from Wilmington, Delaware, where his children were based, and he had kept up this practice throughout his tenure in the Senate, which stretched over three-and-a-half decades.

Speaking about his mental health struggles as a result of the car crash in a recent documentary with American news outlet CNN, Mr Biden said that he had tried to drown his sorrow with alcohol although he never had a drink in his life before the accident, and even contemplated suicide. “What saved me was really my boys,” he said.

At work in the Senate, Mr Biden became an influential voice on foreign policy, serving in its foreign relations committee for decades and as the committee’s chairman for several years.

Time magazine reported that he was already seen as “White House material” early on in his career; a 1972 article pointed out that he would be old enough to run for president by 1976.

TWO FAILED PRESIDENTIAL BIDS

In the internet age, Mr Biden was better known for his second presidential bid in 2008 — the one where fellow Democrat Barack Obama also made a bid and won, and then made Mr Biden vice-president.

However, Mr Biden already made his first presidential bid during the 1988 election, having established himself as a prominent Democratic lawmaker.

At that time, US President Ronald Reagan had won two presidential elections.

Mr Laurence Barrett, the national political correspondent for Time who profiled Mr Biden in 1987, said that the Democratic field lacked a frontrunner as the candidates were “too soft, too feminine, too much into interest politics”.

Mr Biden, then 44, was seen as an “antidote” given his good looks and athleticism (he was a football player in college), Mr Barrett wrote.

As it turned out, his bid was short-lived. Mr Biden crashed out of the race three months later, following reports that he had plagiarised part of a speech by UK Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock.

Mr Biden addressed this scandal in a memoir that was published in 2007. He wrote: “When I stopped trying to explain to everybody and thought it through, the blame fell totally on me. Maybe the reporters traveling with me had seen me credit Kinnock over and over, but it was Joe Biden who forgot to credit Kinnock at the State Fair debate.”

In early 1988, Mr Biden found himself suffering ill health and passed out in a hotel room. He had two life-threatening brain aneurysms that required emergency surgery, but recovered after months of strict bed rest and break from work.

CLOSE TO HIS GRANDCHILDREN

On the family front, Mr Biden remarried in 1977. Like his first wife, his second wife Jill Jacobs is also an educator. A young divorcee, Jacobs was first friends with Mr Biden’s younger brother Frank, who introduced them to each other.

Together, the couple have a daughter named Ashley, who is now a 39-year-old philanthropist and social worker.

Ms Ashley Biden’s husband, Mr Howard Krein, had visited Singapore with his father-in-law during Mr Biden’s term as vice-president in 2013. They made a surprise pit-stop at Adam Road Food Centre in the midst of their packed itinerary, which included a meeting with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

In 2015, Mr Biden suffered another personal loss when his oldest son Beau died of brain cancer at the age of 46. He announced months after that that he would not be part of the 2016 presidential race, which later saw Mr Trump getting elected.

Mr Biden’s family now comprises his wife, 69, two children and seven grandchildren.

All of them, with the exception of the two youngest grandchildren who are still under the age of five, featured prominently throughout his latest presidential campaign.

In August, Naomi, 26, Finnegan, 20, Maisy, 18, Natalie, 16, Robert Hunter Biden II, 14, opened the first night of the Democratic National Convention, which formally nominated Mr Biden as the party’s nominee for president, by reciting a pledge of allegiance.

On the final night of the convention, his four granddaughters talked about how they encouraged him to join the presidential race.

Ms Naomi Biden, who is named after her late aunt, said that their grandfather “thought we were calling a meeting to discuss whether or not we wanted him (to run for president) but really, we were calling it… like, get in that race. Hurry up!”

The grandchildren also said that they chat with him every day. "If we don't talk to him for, like, a day, he'd be, like, 'What's wrong?'" Ms Naomi Biden said.

She added: "He has made sure that every single tradition, every holiday, we are all together. I don't think that there is any decision, no matter how big or small, that we haven't decided as a family."

When his presidential victory was apparent, the grandchildren were reportedly the ones who broke the news to him as well. Ms Naomi Biden tweeted a photo of the family group hugging Mr Biden as they celebrated the win.

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