WASHINGTON (AFP) — Everything on Joe Biden’s to-do list the day he took office as the oldest US president in history was difficult. One item though was nothing less than existential: bringing back together a nation split in two.
Inheriting a once-in-a-century COVID-19 pandemic, economic shutdown, and a spate of geopolitical challenges from China, Iran, North Korea and Russia, Biden faced a tall order by any measure.
But the man he beat in 2020, Donald Trump, had also left him with the kind of threat to democracy not seen since at least the 1970s — perhaps since the Civil War.
Just two weeks before Biden walked into the Oval Office, a mob of Trump supporters had stormed Congress to try and prevent certification of the presidential election. Teams of Trump lawyers and friendly lawmakers were frantically trying to overturn the results through procedural avenues.
To top all this, Biden was 78, just out of retirement, and entering a role so stressful even in normal times that men three decades younger, like Barack Obama, visibly aged on the job.
The nation had rarely seemed more vulnerable.
But Biden, survivor of seemingly endless political setbacks and personal tragedies, has surprised many doubters.
He oversaw a successful exit from COVID and a strong economic recovery. He is revamping US alliances against a more aggressive China and leading an unprecedented Western response to Russia’s war against Ukraine.
But on his pledge to “heal” the nation — Biden himself admits the job remains undone.
“I said I was running for three reasons,” he said in January.
“One was to restore the soul of America. And the second one was to rebuild the country from the middle out and the bottom down,” he said.
“Thirdly was to unite the country. The third is turning out to be the hardest.”
To supporters, Biden turned out to be exactly what the country needed after Trump — an instinctive centrist, an old-fashioned champion of government service, and believer in the US role as leader of the West.
There have been missteps.
Early plaudits for the mass COVID vaccination program turned to criticism as new variants of the virus swept the nation in 2021. And the administration’s reputation for competency took a hit in the humiliating August 2021 finale to the failed 20-year-war in Afghanistan.
But in his second year in power, Biden saw roaring inflation finally start to taper, the economy grow strongly, and bold US policy in Ukraine win back foreign policy credit.
He has also made strides on key expectations from Democratic voters on the environment. He returned the United States to the Paris climate accord and got a historic spending bill passed by Congress to kickstart US manufacturing in electric vehicle and other climate friendly technologies.
Another domestic win was a bipartisan infrastructure package set to revamp roads, bridges and railways decaying after decades of being ignored.
His marathon secret trip in February to wartime Kyiv, followed by a stirring defense of democracy at a speech in Poland, made history — and highlighted his argument that US global leadership is back.
Biden could also point to having chosen the first female and first Black and South Asian vice president, Kamala Harris, as well as nominating the first Black woman to the Supreme Court, Ketanji Brown Jackson.
Detractors on the left of his Democratic Party see Biden as ineffectual in taking on increasingly hard-right Republicans, while failing to satisfy his base’s demands for greater liberal social change and changing the culture of freewheeling gun ownership.
Among Republicans, Biden is just as deeply disliked as Trump was by Democrats.
Relentless attacks on Fox News fuel an image of a doddery failure who allowed floods of illegal migration over the Mexican border, gave in to “woke” liberals on gender identity and other hot-button social issues, and turned the country away from the Republican pro-business credo towards socialism.
Reflecting the rancor across society, Biden’s approval ratings haven’t topped 50 percent since back in 2021. Even a majority of Democrats don’t believe he should seek a second term.
“People,” Biden acknowledged in July 2022, when asked about the persistent pessimism, “are really, really down.”
Biden effectively spent a lifetime training to be president, serving as a senator for 36 years, making two dismally failed earlier bids for the White House, then spending eight years as deputy to Barack Obama.
By the time he sought the 2020 Democratic nomination, the initial reaction of many even in his own party was to write him off as too old and too gaffe prone.
Biden went on to beat a crowded field of Democratic candidates, before pulling off the statistically uphill task of defeating an incumbent Republican president.
Those who know him were not surprised.
After all, he was just 29 and a surprise winner of a US Senate seat in Delaware in 1972 when a month later his wife Neilia and their one-year old daughter died in a car crash. On top of mourning his wife and baby, he had to look after two other sons who had been badly injured in the accident — Beau four, Hunter two.
But Biden rebuilt his life and often talks movingly of caring for his children as he commuted endlessly between the Senate in Washington and his home in Wilmington, Delaware.
In 1975, Biden married his second wife, teacher Jill Jacobs, with whom he had a daughter, Ashley, and he credits today’s first lady for having “put us back together.” She’d be there again for him when a second heartbreak struck in 2015 — the death from brain cancer of Beau, who at 46 was himself a rising political star.
‘Middle class Joe’
After decades in Washington and countless hobnobbing sessions with millionaires, Biden is a long way from his humble childhood roots in hard-scrabble Scranton, Pennsylvania.
But his affinity for blue collar culture, and perhaps also his family tragedies, helped make the otherwise archetypal professional politician more relatable.
Certainly Biden’s personal sales pitch has never changed: he’s the Washington insider with unparalleled experience of government and world affairs, yet also “middle class Joe,” a leader who knows what the little guy goes through.
And while Biden may seem bland in comparison to Trump or his younger rivals, in an angry, extreme era, that air of moderation may be his political superpower.