Joe Biden: The Making of a Neoliberal
It is no small irony that Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. was born in the cradle of the New Deal order he would later help dismantle. Neither Biden nor the United States is unique in this respect. Look at just about any developed country’s generous postwar welfare state, and among its rich and powerful foes, you’ll find many who benefited most from its generosity, only to turn against the system that created them, convinced they had done it all on their own.
The Irish heritage Biden would stress throughout his public life was only part of his family history. His parents met in high school: Joe Sr. was born to the daughter of a French family with roots in colonial times and a Baltimorian who may or may not have hailed from England; his mother, Jean, to the Scranton son of Irish immigrants and the daughter of a Pennsylvania state senator. “Your father’s not a bad man,” Biden later recalled his Irish aunt telling him. “He’s just English.” Though recounted in jest, Biden’s later approach to various foreign conflicts would suggest he had in fact internalized something from this family lore about the immutability of ancient sectarian grudges.2
The hyper-focus on the middle class that would define Biden’s politics may well have been shaped by his own father’s struggles. Joe Sr. had started out with meteoric success, brought into a burgeoning business by his wealthy uncle who held the patent for a sealant for coffins. Once the Second World War took off, so did the business, which by that point had moved beyond sealant to supplying armor plate, mostly for merchant marine vessels making the dangerous journey across the Atlantic. When Congress passed a law mandating their armor on every US ship trading in the North Atlantic, the business boomed, with Joe Sr., his uncle, and his cousin running the operation across three different locations: Boston, New York, and Norfolk, Virginia, respectively.3
But once the war was over, so was the government largesse, and as Joe Sr. searched for his next venture, he suffered a string of bad luck. Planning to buy a building in downtown Boston and turn it into a furniture store, his business partner absconded with their money. Purchasing an airport and a couple of planes for a crop-dusting business, Joe Sr. struggled to secure contracts, while his cousin, his partner in the venture, squandered what was left of his wartime fortune. His uncle (and financier) pulled his capital. After years of expensive and generous living as a federal defense contractor—hunting pheasant on the weekend and buying dazzling toys for his infant son—Joe Sr. and the family, now mired in debt, moved in with Jean’s parents in Scranton only three years after the end of the war.4
Though the young Biden and his three siblings spent their earliest years in that crowded but loving house in Scranton, their father’s employment prospects would force the family to relocate several times. They first moved when Biden was ten to the outskirts of Wilmington, where Joe Sr. had been commuting every day—a nearly three-hundred-mile round trip. In 1955, they moved to Mayfield, a suburb of Wilmington populated by employees of DuPont, the family and company that had shaped and controlled Delaware’s politics and economy for more than a century. 5
“America seemed to be remaking itself for our postwar generation,” Biden later recalled. “There were new houses, new schools, new car models, new gadgets, new televisions, and new television shows with people who looked just like us.” 6
The Bidens benefited from this beyond just their father’s wartime business success. The suburban dream they were entering was the direct outcome of the postwar New Deal order, as the federal government subsidized a construction boom concentrated in the suburbs. And just as the US military would in essence become the largest government jobs program in the decades ahead, indirectly subsidizing the conservative activists in places like Orange County who leveraged this comfort to get the government off their backs, the government’s fingerprints were wiped just clean enough from all this to convince postwar suburban America it had been a happy accident. 7
But that dream was not all hunky-dory. Although Delaware, a former slave state that waited until 1901 to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment, had a long history of racism, Biden would later explain that he “had just assumed every- one treated everyone fairly” until he worked as a lifeguard on the predominantly black east side of town during his first year of college. While no doubt an exaggeration—he also later told a biographer that he was “always the kid in high school to get into arguments about civil rights”—Biden’s naïveté was entirely plausible given that the government-subsidized postwar housing boom in Delaware and elsewhere was explicitly geared toward ensuring racial segregation, sending affluent whites scurrying for suburban communities that African Americans were excluded from. By 1977, Wilmington’s public schools were 85 percent black, while suburban schools were around 90 percent white.
The young Biden probably wasn’t aware of just how deep this went. He wouldn’t have known that Delaware’s public schools were explicitly and legally created to be segregated and unequally funded, or that the University of Delaware had only admitted its first black student around the time his family moved to the state. He may well have been oblivious to the way that the state, particularly Wilmington, promoted suburban, mostly middle-class white interests at the expense of inner-city, mostly poorer black ones; that the city’s public housing authority engaged in “urban renewal” and federally subsidized slum clearance that tore down black neighborhoods without replacing them, displacing countless families of color; or how the fiercely contested construction of the I-95 highway through the city in the 1960s did likewise, so that car-owning suburbanites could leapfrog a desolate downtown. 9
Biden may not have consciously internalized all this. But the city’s tendency to prioritize predominantly suburban, middle-class interests at the expense of its minority populations would come to embody Biden’s political approach.
Very few politicians come within a heartbeat of the US presidency without a lifetime of plotting out their rise, and Joe Biden was no different. After overcoming a debilitating stutter in childhood—the first in a lifetime of personal setbacks Biden would struggle to overcome—he set his sights on politics, startling those around him with his presidential ambitions.
“It was soon after we met him, before they were even married, before he even got into politics,’” his first father-in-law, Robert Hunter, later recalled. “By God, he came up one day and said he was going to be governor first, and then president of the United States.” When his future mother-in-law asked the college junior the same question, the response was identical: “President.” 10
Biden would deny this again and again over the years, always insisting that he started out with no grand ambitions, that he was simply taking things as they came. During one speech in Wilmington, he repeated this claim only for a nun in the audience to produce a sixth-grade essay he’d written about wanting to grow up to be president. And he wasn’t the only one who believed the White House was his destiny. “From the first day I went to work for him, people said [to Biden], ‘You’re going to be president,’” his longtime aide Ted Kaufman later recalled. 11
By his own admission, Biden had entered law school because it was the best route to a political career. After graduating, he put politics aside for a while, teaching in the Delaware public school system, serving as an assistant public defender, and working for several Wilmington firms, including his own: Walsh, Monzack and Owens. The “Owens” was John T. Owens, a college classmate who had earlier been deputy attorney general of Pennsylvania and would soon marry Biden’s sister. But the political world was never far away: several of the lawyers Biden was associated with at this time, including Owens, were also prominent local Democrats. 12
As a public defender, Biden represented clients in various states of desperation seeing firsthand the frayed line between underclass and criminal. He pled with a judge to go easy on one defendant, a down-on-his-luck fisherman with four kids who had stolen and sold a cow.13 Another, he explained, had been “crazy drunk” and already brain damaged when he killed his roommate.14 The Washington Post would claim in 1975 that Biden had “a largely black, even black-militant clientele” as a lawyer, though it’s unclear how accurate this was, given Biden’s habit of embellishing his civil rights activism and the fact that the article came out at a time when he was especially eager to play up his relationship with the local black community.
A registered independent since the age of 21, Biden was first courted by local Republicans to make a run for office before officially becoming a Democrat in 1969. At only 27, the party tapped him to run for the New Castle County Council the following year, a campaign for which he kept his party affiliation out of promotional material. The district where he was running was overwhelmingly Republican, and the county as a whole was shaped by the politics of suburban white flight: while its population increased fourfold between 1940 and 1980, Wilmington, the county seat, saw its numbers drop by 38 percent. Biden was perhaps the perfect fit. As a former state Democratic Party chairman who observed Biden’s career from the start later recalled, “He had lots of energy and idealism and was always assertive. But to my knowledge, he had no substantive ideology.” 15
Biden would later claim that civil rights and Vietnam had prompted his political career. In 1973, however, he told a local paper that a citizens’ campaign against highways had drawn him into politics. He won the council seat partly by railing against unchecked growth and industrial development swallowing up the county’s green spaces and partly by tapping into themes that would prove electorally fruitful in subsequent decades; he complained about the “rapidly deteriorating crime situation in the county” and the spread of drugs. Most crucially, he had been backed up by what one paper termed his “Children’s Crusade”: an adoring volunteer army of more than one hundred high school kids, college students, and young professionals “one squeak above the equal of a Beatle maniac.” Biden later admitted that as early as this county council campaign, he had his eyes on the presidency. 16
Although later described as a public housing advocate during this time, his was a less-than-full-throated advocacy. “Everybody’s opposed to public housing—no one wants it in their backyard, but damnit, if you have a moral obligation, provide it,” he told the press, while cautioning that he was “not a Crusader Rabbit championing the rights of the people.” The stance nevertheless earned him some enmity during the campaign, including the label of “nigger lover.” 17
Biden became the only county council Democrat elected from a suburban district. Despite winning by the slimmest margin of all the council members, his 2,000-vote victory in November 1970 made Biden the golden boy of Delaware politics—maybe even the state Democratic Party’s great hope for 1972, as a newspaper profile of the councilman-elect offered. Young, handsome, and charming, with a beautiful wife and young family, the Kennedy comparisons came thick and fast (he could be “Delaware’s JFK,” noted the profile). 18
Biden stressed that integrity was his most important quality. “The one thing I want to be known for in politics, in my law practice, in my personal relationships is that I am totally honest—a man of my word,” he said. The profile also gave a glimpse of what would arguably loom far larger in Biden’s political identity: the socially conservative streak he would wear as a badge of honor for much of his political career. “Samuel Clemens said ‘all generalizations are untrue, including this one’ and keeping that in mind, I am a liberal Democrat,” he joked. 19
A teetotaler in his personal life—Biden once even threatened to end a date if the girl didn’t throw away her cigarette—he rubbished the idea of legalizing marijuana. Acknowledging his wife was the brains of the operation, he nonetheless opted for her to stay home and “mold my children.” “I’m not a ‘keep ‘em barefoot and pregnant’ man,” he said. “But I am all for keeping them pregnant until I have a little girl.” 20
Biden’s short time in the New Castle County Council revealed a sharp, ambitious liberal politician genuinely concerned about poverty and environmental degradation and willing to stand up to corporate interests. He fought to block construction of oil refineries and protect vital wetlands,21 called for a halt to the dredging of the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal,22 denounced the destruction of tidal marshes, and tried to “de-escalate” the construction of a controversial superhighway that he called a “10-lane monstrosity.” 23
Biden also criticized a report on public housing for not paying enough attention to the very poor and spoke out against the bulldozing of the dilapidated homes of the county’s poor black residents. Seeing a balance between the county’s growth and the preservation of its natural resources, he worked to restrict development, or at least slow it. He called for more funding for mass transit and denounced the “senseless highways” being built in its place. 24
A county council seat was always going to be too small a pond for someone who had been eyeing the presidency since he was barely out of his teens, and Biden soon locked eyes on higher office. His hand was forced to an extent, with county Republicans scheming to redistrict him out of his seat. Consequently, it took less than a year after his victory for Biden to start mulling a run for the US Senate, a course he’d evidently decided on by the one-year anniversary, when he accidentally called himself a candidate in a speech. Biden’s ambition for higher office soon took priority above the issues that had supposedly animated his career in the first place. When the New Castle County Housing Authority made plans to buy an apartment complex in Biden’s district and convert it into public housing for the “nonelderly,” it did so with no involvement from the councilman himself, who was too busy campaigning to discuss the plan. 25
The daunting task of unseating Republican J. Caleb “Cale” Boggs fell to Biden thanks to a combination of reluctance and ambition. A string of more experienced Democrats passed on almost certainly losing to the 63-year-old Boggs, who since 1946 had served as Delaware’s sole representative in the US House, governor, and now senator. When the opportunity to run consequently fell into Biden’s lap, the ambitious councilman took it, seeing in the race a perfect way to raise his profile, build a following, and set the table for a future campaign. 26
That he would lose was a given. Boggs, a liberal Republican who in 1960 had unseated a conservative Democrat with the help of Democratic voters, was a universally well-liked figure in the state and had won seven straight elections, a state record. Moreover, Delaware hadn’t put a liberal Democrat in the Senate since 1940, and even he had only eked out a single term. Biden himself gave Boggs “five-to-one odds” of being reelected. 27
Yet he ultimately wasn’t. How did Biden, a just-elected county councilman who had only recently decided he was a Democrat and wouldn’t even meet the US Senate’s age requirement when the polls closed, do it?
2 Jules Witcover, Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption (New York: William Morrow, 2010), 6–7; Joe Biden, Promises to Keep: On Life and Politics (New York: Random House, 2007), 17.
3 Biden, Promises to Keep, 16–17; Richard Ben Cramer, “Beautiful Dreamer,” Philadelphia Inquirer Magazine, July 5, 1992, 20.
4 Cramer, “Beautiful Dreamer,” 20, 21; Biden, Promises to Keep, 17.
5 Biden, Promises to Keep, 4–5, 14–15; Witcover, Joe Biden, 16–17.
6 Biden, Promises to Keep, 15.
7 Richard Rothstein, “What Have We: De Facto Racial Isolation or De Jure Segregation?” Human Rights Magazine 40, no. 3 (August 2014): 8–10; James R. Hagerty, The Fateful History of Fannie Mae: New Deal Birth to Mortgage Crisis Fall (Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2012).
8 Nathan Gorenstein, “Biden: The Conscience of a Centrist,” Wilmington News Journal, August 3, 1986, A1, A12; Witcover, A Life of Trial, 30–31; Rothstein, “What Have We,” 8–10.
9 Ralph S. Holloway, “School Desegregation in Delaware.” Social Problems 4, no. 2 (1956): 167; Brett Gadsden, Between North and South: Delaware, Desegregation, and the Myth of American Sectionalism (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013), 23; Jamal Watson, “University of Delaware Honors Civil Rights Lawyer for Inspiring Integration,” Diverse: Issues in Higher Education, September 22, 2013; Alvin Rabushka and William G. Weissert, Caseworkers or Police? How Tenants See Public Housing (Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 1977), 13; “Benefit to Ousted in Slum Clearance Is Under Question,” Wilmington Morning News, 1; Kevin McDonegal, “Wilmington: How We Got Here and Where We’re Going,” September 6, 2012; “Renewing Inequality: Family Displacements through Urban Renewal, 1950–1966,” ed. Robert K. Nelson and Edward L. Ayers, University of Richmond Digital Scholarship Lab; William 202 W. Boyer and Edward C. Ratledge, Delaware Politics and Government (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2009), 94; Mark T. Evans, “Main Street, America: Histories of I-95.” (PhD diss., University of South Carolina, 2015).
10 Stephanie Gibbs, “Biden’s CNY Days Showed Ambition, Syracuse (NY) Post-Standard, June 10, 1987; John H. Richardson, “Joe Biden: Advisor in Chief,” Esquire, January 22, 2009.
11 Joseph X. Flannery, “Biden Wants to Be President, but Family Comes First,” Scranton (PA) Times-Tribune, March 16, 1986, A3; J.L. Miller, “Biden Has Etched a Political Legend,” Wilmington News Journal, October 27, 2002, A16.
12 Curtis Wilkie, “In Triumph or Tragedy, Chutzpah Is Biden’s Thing,” Wilmington Morning News, January 3, 1973, 1; “Bridal at UN for Miss Biden,” New York Times, October 12, 1975, 77; Joe Trento and Ralph S. Moyed, “Biden Family Linked to Probe’s Target,” Wilmington News Journal, March 5, 1978, A10; “Valerie Biden, John T. Owens Wed in United Nations Chapel,” Wilmington News Journal, October 18, 1975, 12; Bob Frump, “Biden May Run for U.S. Senate Seat,” Wilmington News Journal, 2; “Sidney Balick Named State Senate Attorney,” Wilmington News Journal, December 14, 1960, 26; Bob Frump, “Too Early for Senate Bid, but Biden Considering Try,” Wilmington News Journal, September 27, 1971, 3; “Topel Adds Ten Members to Democratic Reform Panel,” Wilmington News Journal, November 23, 1970, 14; Virginia Delavan, “Defender’s Office Has 3 New Faces,” Wilmington Morning News, January 8, 1972, 44.
13 “Fisherman Who Stole Cow Won’t Do 90 Days in Jug,” Wilmington News Journal, June 14, 1969, 14.
14 “Shooting Nets 5-Year Term,” Wilmington Morning News, July 28, 1969, 19.
15 Jack Nolan, “Democrats Seek Status Unquo,” Wilmington News Journal, March 23, 1971, 21; Robert Sam Anson, “Senator Joe Biden Is Back in the Race,” Esquire, June 1982, 64; Boyer and Ratledge, Delaware Politics and Government, 94; Nancy Kesler, “From Voters’ Point of View, It’s a Smorgasbord,” Wilmington News Journal, October 20, 1996, 1, 14.
16 Wilkie, “In Triumph or Tragedy,” 1; Philip Crosland, “Nonfeasance Laid to Connor by Six,” Wilmington News Journal, October 30, 1970, 2; Jane Harriman, “Joe Biden: Hope for Democratic Party in ’72,” Wilmington News Journal, November 11, 1970, 3; “Biden Blasts County Brass on Crime,” Wilmington News Journal, August 10, 1970, 22; “County Police Issue Blurs Political Issue,” Wilmington News Journal, October 7, 1970, 16; “Biden Asks In-Patient Facility for Drug Users,” Wilmington News Journal, 203 Chapt er 1 Notes October 8, 1970, 23; Pat Ordovensky, “Biden Too Young for Presidency, but His Talks Build a Power Base,” Wilmington News Journal, October 10, 1976, 1, 12.
17 “Biden: A Liberal Breaks Ranks,” Washington Post, September 28, 1975; Ordovensky, “Too Young for Presidency,” 1, 12; Harriman, “Hope for Democratic Party,” 3.
18 Harriman, “Hope for Democratic Party,” 3.
19 Harriman, “Hope for Democratic Party,” 3.
20 Witcover, A Life of Trial, 31; Harriman, “Hope for Democratic Party,” 3.
21 “Shell Plans Face Zoning Challenge,” Wilmington News Journal, January 27, 1971, 3.
22 “Biden: Halt Army Canal Dredging,” Wilmington News Journal, 33.
23 Teri Zintl, “Planners Bar Biden Plan to ‘De-escalate’ 141 Project,” Wilmington Morning News, October 4, 1972, 1.
24 Norm Lockman, “Housing—Still Hot Issue,” Wilmington News Journal, February 18, 1971, 23; Jane Harriman, “Belvidere: A Study in Old Age,” Wilmington News Journal, April 13, 1971, 21; Marilyn Mather, “Coordinated Development Is County Aim, Wilmington News Journal, May 13, 1971, 2; “Mass Transit Given Boost by Biden,” Wilmington News Journal, June 22, 1972, 32.
25 “County Council OKs Unstaggered Terms,” Wilmington News Journal, October 8, 1971, 30; Bob Frump, “Enforcement Lag Charged in Fire Code, Wilmington Morning News, July 28, 1971, 2; “Biden to (Oops) MAY Try Senate,” Wilmington News Journal, November 12, 1971, 22; Jane Harriman, “Housing Unit Eyes Price Corner Apt.,” Wilmington Morning News, October 11, 1972, 1.
26 Joe Distelheim, “‘Sacrificial Lamb’ May Rewrite Script,” Wilmington News Journal, October 11, 1972, 39.
27 “Chamber Cup Goes to Boggs,” Wilmington News Journal, March 18, 1972, 2; Bob Frump, “Biden Has Hope in Senate Race,” Wilmington Morning News, January 25, 1972, 33.