Joe Biden, overcoming disadvantage

First published in 2020

On 20th January 2021, Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. will be inaugurated as the 46th President of the United States of America – and at the age of 78, the oldest.

Throughout the election many jokes have been made about Biden’s age – but with age comes experience. In this article we explore the value that comes with this experience and why Biden’s achievements may have taken him a little longer than average.

Biden comes from a distinctly working class environment: he was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania in 1942 when the area had a largely blue-collar, immigrant population. As a child, Biden suffered from a stammer1, for which he was bullied by his classmates and (even worse) one of the nuns at his Catholic School, Archmere Academy. Over time Biden worked on improving his stammer, with the help of speech therapy and practising to speak in front of a mirror at home. He has referred to his struggle with stuttering as “the single most defining thing in my life”.

Whilst he was the first in his family to attend university, Biden did not have the strongest academic scores. Academic records3 show that he graduated from Delaware with a single bachelor of arts degree and a ”C” average, ranking 506th in a class of 688 students. From law school he graduated 76th in a class of 85. However, that did not stop him from being elected to his first public office in 1969 when he was elected to a county council seat in a usually Republican district of New Castle County, Delaware, running on a liberal platform that included support for public housing in the suburbs2.

Shortly after Biden was elected to the Senate in 1972, his wife and children were involved in a car accident; it sadly took the lives of his wife and daughter, and injured his two sons. Biden took the 90 minute journey on the Amtrak train to see them every night after work, earning him the nickname ‘Amtrak Joe’. Biden sadly lost another of his children, Beau, to Brain Cancer in 2015 when he was just 46 years old.

Biden first ran for President in 1988, and if successful would have been the second youngest elected President after John F. Kennedy. He was forced to withdraw from the race because of controversies relating to plagiarism of speeches he had made and the exaggerated claims of his academic record3.

The second time he ran for President was in 2008, however he was unable to gain the same traction as some of the other candidates – especially Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton. After initially refusing Obama’s offer to be his running mate4 for fear that it would diminish the voice he had established from his current position in the Senate, he later changed his mind. In 2009, he became the first Roman Catholic to be sworn in as Vice President. Whilst he may not have had all of the powers of his predecessor, Dick Cheney, it appears that Obama appreciated Biden’s experience in Security and Foreign policy, was often ‘the last man in the room’ and had the ability to share his thoughts routinely.

Biden launched his third campaign for the presidency on 25th April 2019. His campaign was not without his challenges and his lead strengthened as the other candidates dropped out of the race. On August 18, 2020, Biden was officially nominated at the 2020 Democratic National Convention as the Democratic Party nominee for president in the 2020 election.

So what does this story teach us? Firstly, that we must support people through their challenges: Biden’s mother always told him that his stutter would never hold him back, and his sister Valerie stepped in to care for the family while they were recovering from the fatal car accident. Secondly, it is important to be honest about who you are and your achievements, despite the pressure to fit in – the truth will usually come out in the end and integrity takes time to rebuild. Thirdly, Biden’s decision to change his mind and run as Obama’s Vice President shows the need for adaptability and the need to make a role your own without too much regard for those who have held a role before you – you can use their track record as a guide, but it is up to you to determine the opportunities a slightly alternate route to your goals can give you. Finally, and not something which comes naturally to Biden according to his personality type5, is patience and the ability to see the bigger picture in order to achieve your long-term aims.

A career is a marathon and not a sprint, particularly in politics, and it takes time to shift the paradigm to create lasting change.



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