Biography of Joe Biden, Former Vice President of the United States

The Triumphs and Tragedies of an American Politician

Vice President Joe Biden
Former Vice President Joe Biden speaks in Missouri in 2018.

 Scott Olson/Getty Images

Joe Biden (born Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. on Nov. 20, 1942) is an American politician who represented Delaware in the U.S. Senate for 36 years and ran twice unsuccessfully for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination before being elected vice president in 2008 under Barack Obama. Biden's signature legislative accomplishment is the Violence Against Women Act of 1994, which stepped up prosecution of domestic and sexual violence and enhanced services for victims. Biden is also known for both his oddball sense of humor and his stoic endurance of the tragic deaths of his first wife and two of his children.

Fast Facts: Joseph Biden

  • Known For: Vice president of the United States.
  • Born: Nov. 20, 1942, in Scranton, Pennsylvania, USA.
  • Parents: Catherine Eugenia Finnegan Biden and Joseph Robinette Biden Sr.
  • Education: University of Delaware (B.A., history and political science) and Syracuse Law School.
  • Key Accomplishment: The Violence Against Women Act, landmark legislation signed into law in 1994 protecting women from domestic violence and sexual assault. 
  • Spouse: Jill Jacobs Biden, Neilia Biden (deceased).
  • Children: Ashley Jacobs, Hunter Biden, Naomi "Amy" Biden (deceased), and Joseph "Beau" Biden III (deceased).
  • Famous Quote: "If you do politics the right way, I believe, you can actually make people's lives better. And integrity is the minimum ante to get into the game."

Early Life

Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, on Nov. 20, 1942, the oldest of four children to Joseph Robinette Biden Sr., a down-on-his-luck used-car salesman, and Catherine Eugenia Finnegan Biden, who was so protective of her firstborn that she told the would-be vice president at a young age: "No one is better than you. Everyone is your equal, and everyone is equal to you."

Biden, writing in his autobiography Promises to Keep: On Life and Politics, said his mother confronted a seventh-grade nun at the Catholic prep school Archmere Academy who mocked her son for stuttering. "If you ever speak to my son like that again, I'll come back and rip that bonnet off your head. Do you understand me?" Biden recalled of his mother.

Biden's parents moved the family from northern Pennsylvania to Claymont, Delaware, in 1953. He graduated from Archmere Academy in 1961 and entered the University of Delaware. He graduated in 1965 with a double major in political science and history and entered the Syracuse University School of Law.

Family Tragedy Ends First Marriage

Biden got married in August 1966, before graduating from law school. He had met his first wife, Neilia Hunter, during spring break in the Bahamas. Biden earned his law degree in 1968 and began work as a public defender in Wilmington, Delaware. He also launched his career in politics, winning a seat on the New Castle Town Council at age 28. But he had much greater aspirations.

Portrait of Joseph Biden Jr. Smiling
12/13/1978- Washington, DC: Closeups of senator-elect Joseph Biden, Jr., (D-DE) in his office. Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

Biden took on his home-state senator, Republican J. Caleb Boggs, in the 1972 election and won, making him one of the youngest people to win election to the U.S. Senate, at age 29. The following month, Biden's wife and infant daughter Amy were killed when a tractor-trailer struck their station wagon in Hockessin, Delaware. Two other children, Hunter and Beau, were seriously injured but survived. (Beau Biden died at age 46 in 2015 from a rare form of brain cancer.)

Biden nearly gave up his political career after the deaths of his wife and daughter but decided instead to take his seat in Washington, D.C.—and return home to Wilmington on the train almost every night after working in the Senate.

"I did it because I wanted to be able to kiss them goodnight and kiss them in the morning the next day. ... I came to realize that a child can hold an important thought, something they want to say to their mom and dad, maybe for 12 or 24 hours, and then it’s gone. And when it’s gone, it’s gone. And it all adds up. But looking back on it, the truth be told, the real reason I went home every night was that I needed my children more than they needed me."

Complicated Legacy in the Senate

Biden's most significant legislative achievement was President Bill Clinton's signature in 1994 on the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which included the Violence Against Women Act authored by the senator in 1990. The law provided more services for victims of abuse, doubled penalties for repeat sex offenders, and allowed for the prosecution of stalking. Biden has credited the measures for leading to a steep decline in domestic violence.

But that same legislation has since come under fire from advocates seeking to reform the criminal justice system, who point to the law's significant negative consequences—mass incarcerations, particularly among the African-American population. The 1994 law targeted gangs, spent nearly $10 billion on new prisons, and slapped repeat violent offenders with life sentences.

Clarence Thomas Hearings
Clarence Thomas (C) facing Sen. Judiciary Comm. on 1st day of confirmation hrgs. w. wife Virginia (seated behind wearing flowered dress). The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images / Getty Images

Biden also came under fire as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee for his handling of the 1991 confirmation hearings for U.S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. Thomas had been accused by law professor Anita Hill of inappropriate sexual behavior, and Biden endured strong criticism for his failure to stop Thomas supporters from attacking her during her testimony. "To this day I regret I couldn't come up with a way to get her the kind of hearing she deserved, given the courage she showed by reaching out to us," Biden said in 2019. "She paid a terrible price—she was abused through the hearing, she was taken advantage of, her reputation was attacked. I wish I could've done something."

Biden has also been portrayed by critics as being in the pocket of the financial services industry and credit card companies, many of whom have headquarters in Wilmington, Delaware. One of those companies, MBNA, had been Biden's largest campaign contributor, and Biden had been supportive of legislation that made it more difficult for borrowers to claim certain protections when filing bankruptcy. Meanwhile, he was portrayed as too cozy with wealthy bankers; he once said about the faltering economy: “I don’t think 500 billionaires are the reason we’re in trouble. I get into a lot of trouble with my party when I say that wealthy Americans are just as patriotic as poor folks.”

Campaigns for President Derailed

Biden twice sought the Democratic presidential nomination, and he failed both times. The first attempt, in 1987, ended in a "train wreck," as he put it, after he was accused of plagiarism. Biden was forced to publicly acknowledge plagiarizing another author's work. He said he "used five pages from a published law review article without quotation or attribution" in a paper he claimed to have written as a first-year student at the Syracuse University College of Law, according to a faculty report on the incident issued at the time. Biden quit the race.

Joseph R. Jr. Biden [& Family]
Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. standing with his family after announcing his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination. The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images / Getty Images

Biden launched his second bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2007. The crowded field of candidates included U.S. Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, the former first lady. Biden dropped out of the race in January 2008 after placing fifth in the Iowa caucuses.

Obama's Running Mate and Vice President

Obama tapped Biden to be his running mate in August 2008, a move that helped the inexperienced senator from Illinois win the presidency. Biden was seen as the wise elder statesman, a stark contrast to the inexperienced Republican vice presidential nominee that year, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.

Obama won the election and served two terms in office. Biden served as his vice president all eight years. The former senator from Delaware became Obama's most trusted adviser and helped the president form his administration's position in support of same-sex marriage, among many other key issues.

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