Joe Biden: Stumbles, tragedies and, now, delayed triumph

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FILE - In this June 11, 2020, file photo Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden smiles while speaking during a roundtable on economic reopening with community members in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum, File)

Days before he left the White House in 2017, President Barack Obama surprised Joe Biden with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, declaring his septuagenarian, white-haired lieutenant “the best vice president America’s ever had,” a “lion of American history.”

The tribute marked the presumed end of a long public life that put Biden in the orbit of the Oval Office for 45 years — yet, through a combination of family and personal tragedy, his own political missteps and sheer bad timing, had never allowed him to sit behind the Resolute Desk himself.

It turns out the pinnacle would not elude Biden after all. His moment just hadn't yet arrived.

Joseph Robinette Biden Jr., 77, was elected Saturday as the 46th president of the United States, defeating President Donald Trump in an election that played out against the backdrop of a pandemic, its economic fallout and a national reckoning on racism. He becomes the oldest president-elect and brings with him a history-making vice president-elect in Kamala Harris, the first Black woman and person of South Asian descent to win the nation's second-highest office.

There are no sure paths to a post held by only 44 men in more than two centuries, but Biden’s is among the most unlikely — even for a man who had aspired to the job for more than three decades, twice running unsuccessfully as a sitting senator and passing on a third bid to try to succeed Obama four years ago.

The president-elect’s allies, though, say it is that delayed, circuitous route that prepared him for 2020, when he could finally offer himself not just as another senator or governor with 10-point plans and outsized ambition. Instead, from his launch on April 25, 2019, Biden sold himself as the experienced, empathetic elder statesman particularly suited to defeat a “dangerous” and “divisive” president and then “restore the soul of the nation” in Trump’s wake.

“A lot of people dismissed it,” said Karen Finney, a top aide to nominee Hillary Clinton in 2016. “But when I saw his opening speech, talking about the fight for the soul of the country, I said, ‘He gets it.’ That’s what a president does. A president looks around the country and understands what’s happening.”

Biden, she said, “met the moment.”