U.S. Vice President
Official/Personal Web Site
Current Vice President Joseph Robinette “Joe” Biden Jr. will likely be a strong contender for president of the United States in 2016. In his own words, “There is no obvious reason for me not to run.”1
As a two-term vice president, and candidate for the Democratic nomination himself in 1988 and 2008, Biden has significant experience on the national campaign trail. From the perspective of limited government and supporting strong values, however, Biden presents some serious concerns.
After six terms in the U.S. Senate, Biden is essentially a known quantity on domestic policy. A consistent ally of left-leaning causes, Biden eventually rose to become the ranking member on the Senate Judiciary Committee, leading contentious battles against conservative nominees. As vice president, he has been an especially (and uniquely) vocal supporter of the Affordable Care Act (so-called “Obamacare”), well in line with his views toward expanding entitlements at the federal level.
Active on federal crime issues, Biden has supported personal liberty and privacy to a certain extent.
In terms of foreign policy, Biden is generally seen as more hawkish than other members of his party. As a senator, this allowed him to reach across the aisle. While this demeanor has changed in response to various conflicts, and the political bifurcation surrounding the war on terrorism, his track record suggests he would support robust and active military policies.
Biden has relied on a small cadre of highly experienced advisors, including Democratic lawyer Ron Klain and former Time Washington Bureau Chief Jay Carney, who went on to become Obama’s press secretary. By all accounts, the Obama administration has made it difficult for him to test the waters. There are few hints as to who would form his exploratory committee, though he often relies on his sister, Valerie Biden Owens, who has managed a number of his campaigns.2
For advocates of limited government and free markets, there is little to like in a potential President Joe Biden, although his foreign policy experience and insights and more-hawkish-than-the-average-Democrat may prove less alarming to those who rate national security as their top issue. Often considered an afterthought in the Democratic nomination fight, Biden’s experience, stature as vice president, and national exposure could make him a legitimate contender for the Democratic nomination and a viable candidate in the general election.
Joe Biden was born on Nov. 20, 1942, in Pennsylvania, moving to Delaware with his family in 1953. A poor student, Biden nonetheless graduated from the University of Delaware and Syracuse Law School. A Roman Catholic, he regularly attends mass in Delaware with his family.
Biden’s political career began in 1970, when he served on the New Castle County Council. In 1972, he defeated two-term Republican incumbent J. Caleb Boggs. It is generally accepted that Biden’s youthful exuberance played a key role in the election against Boggs, who was considering retirement. Indeed, at age 30, Biden was the 6th youngest senator in history.
Weeks after the election, Biden’s wife, Neilia, and their 1-year-old daughter, Naomi, were killed in an auto accident. A single father during his early Senate years, Biden famously took the train back to Wilmington each day to spend time with his sons Hunter and Beau, who survived the same crash that took their mother and sister’s lives.
He remarried in 1977 to current wife Jill, and together they have a daughter, Ashley. Hunter and Ashley work as an attorney and social worker, respectively. Beau passed away in early June 2015 from brain cancer.
Biden’s presidential ambitions have been known since his college days. While his family tragedy nearly derailed his Senate career (he strongly considered retiring his seat), he was ultimately re-elected six times. In 1988, Biden embarked on his first presidential run, announcing the fact at the Wilmington train station that would serve as a prop for many of his political endeavors.
In a nomination battle which saw large fundraising returns but uneven support in the polls, Biden’s campaign took a crucial blow when he was accused of plagiarizing a speech by a British Labour Leader.3 Further, it was discovered that he had fudged details of his own family history to comport with the original speech’s content. It was then that a prior plagiarism incident from law school came to light. He withdrew from the race in September of 1987.
Early the next year, Biden suffered a brain aneurysm and was taken to the hospital, where a priest administered his last rites. He endured additional life-threatening conditions while recuperating and credits the early end to his presidential campaign with saving his life.
Biden rose to power on both the Senate Judiciary and Foreign Relations committees through the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s. During that time, he was a crucial ally to President Bill Clinton’s efforts in Bosnia, but also an outspoken critic of the Iraq war.
In 2008, Biden ran for the Democratic nomination. Again, Biden’s words got him in trouble, as he described his fellow candidate Barack Obama as a “clean and nice-looking” African-American.4 The racially charged statements did nothing to help his flagging candidacy, and he dropped out early on in the race after a poor showing in Iowa.
If Obama took umbrage with his remarks, however, all was forgiven as he tapped Biden to be his running mate in the 2008 general election. Obama was elected handily in 2008 and Biden stayed on board for Obama’s successful 2012 bid. Biden is currently serving as vice president of the United States.
Throughout his career, Biden has demonstrated a willingness to take on members of his own party, particularly on issues related to foreign policy. He also endured political criticism for his opposition to mandatory school busing in his home state and has taken his party to task at certain points for being soft on crime.
A relative moderate on trade, Biden has gone to bat for both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama on trade issues. He was a supporter of NAFTA and has publicly confronted Democratic leadership over their concerns with Obama’s free-trade agenda.5
Biden has largely remained consistent in the policies he has advocated, although he has engaged in relatively common political reversals such as criticizing then-Sen. Obama as too inexperienced to be president, only to then join his ticket and proclaim him ready for the Oval Office. He also reversed himself on the Senate filibuster, praising it when the Democratic minority was using it to stop Republican nominees and legislation, but then heavily criticizing the practice when Republicans were in the minority6, and endorsing the Democrats’ use of the “nuclear option” to eliminate filibusters for nominations in 2013.7
Biden has a well-known history of stretching the truth, rhetorical carelessness, and a habit of exaggeration. He withdrew from the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination fight after he was found to be plagiarizing his speeches from a British Labor Party leader, including borrowing biographical details.8 He also received an F in a law school class after being found to be plagiarizing. He substantially inflated his academic achievements and standing on the campaign trail in 1988.9
Biden’s statements regarding his personal finances are another example of stretching the truth. There is no suggestion Biden has personally benefited from his time in office, as he was routinely among the least-wealthy members of the Senate. But at a June 2014 event he claimed “I don’t own a single stock or bond. … I have no savings accounts. But I got a great pension, and I got a good salary.”10 Aside from the fact that he and his wife do in fact share a savings account (and his wife has four in her own name), Biden owns six whole life insurance policies, which are not technically savings accounts but are basically life insurance with a tax-favored savings account attached.11
Considered one of the best retail politicians in the country, Biden rose quickly through the ranks of the Senate. In 1981, he became the ranking minority member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. A prolific lawmaker, Biden has been a key influencer on issues related to foreign policy, budgets, criminal justice and the judiciary.
Biden has demonstrated an ability to work across party lines. He is a noted friend of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and has worked with him on key compromises throughout his tenure as vice president. In concert with his commitment to fighting crime, Biden cites the Violence Against Women Act of 1994 as his most significant piece of legislation.
Biden took the lead for the Obama administration in an effort to pass significant gun control legislation following a mass shooting in December 2012, but nothing was passed. Some suggested Biden’s slow-moving, consensus-building style and deference in allowing Democratic senators to negotiate and advance the bill were obstacles to passage.12
A prolific fundraiser throughout his career, Biden raised $29 million between 1989 and 2010 in spite of holding a safe Senate seat. Even during his failed 1988 bid for the nomination, he was leading the pack in terms of dollars raised before the plagiarism scandal undid his candidacy.
As a senator, Biden has leveraged his political craftsmanship and tenure to make inroads with Democratic presidents. As early as the Carter administration, he was heavily involved with foreign policy matters at the executive level. He was a major factor in Bill Clinton’s Bosnia efforts, and also a supporter of Clinton’s welfare reform bill.
Throughout his career, Biden has been stymied by his inability to control his own message. At varying times throughout his presidency, Obama’s team has been compelled to silence Biden and shelter him from the media eye.
Biden has few written works of note, save for a conventional 2007 memoir titled Promises to Keep: On Life and Politics.
Biden has consistently opposed efforts to cut taxes and frequently voted for higher taxes. He did vote for the Reagan tax cuts in 1981, although only after voting to limit them to taxpayers making less than $50,000 a year and also voting to eliminate the automatic indexing of tax brackets for inflation.13 Since that vote for the Reagan tax cuts, however, he has voted repeatedly for higher taxes, including for the Clinton tax hikes in 199314 and against a 1999 bill that would have reduced taxes by $792 billion over 10 years.15 He voted against the Bush tax cuts that included lowering rates, phasing out the estate tax, and eliminating the marriage penalty,16 and voted to restore high tax rates for higher-wage earners and to increase the capital gains tax.17
Biden played a crucial role in the “fiscal cliff” deal that allowed taxes to rise on high-income earners while the Bush tax cuts for most Americans remained in place, stepping in when Obama was unable to negotiate with Republicans to come to a compromise.20
In the past, Biden has been skeptical of “net neutrality,” which would apply decades-old telephone regulations to the Internet and possibly put the government in control of the communications infrastructure while inhibiting the further growth and development of the Internet.21 He favors raising the minimum wage nationwide to at least $10.10. 22
Throughout his career, Biden has been an ardent supporter of organized labor. As early as his 1972 Senate campaign, labor provided much of what limited funding he had available. He is an opponent of right-to-work laws, which he describes as entailing “the right to work for less” – a common, and misleading, pro-union refrain. He has even supported efforts to eliminate the voting requirement for establishing a union.23
Biden’s attitude toward free trade is mixed. He voted for NAFTA, as well as a bill to establish free trade with 70 African and Caribbean countries. He also voted to normalize trade relations with China. However, he voted against CAFTA, and against trade agreements with Singapore, Chile and Oman.24
Budget & Spending
Biden has criticized former President George W. Bush for “put(ting) two wars on a credit card” and expanding entitlements without funding them.25 However, his concerns over debt seem largely driven by partisan politics. In 2006, he voted against a debt-limit increase, only to support them under the current administration. In terms of spending, he has consistently voted to oppose earmark reform while requesting additional earmarks.26
He has voted in favor of a presidential line-item veto.27
On health care, Biden is a staunch defender of the Affordable Care Act, which he infamously described as a “big (expletive) deal” in a moment unwittingly caught on microphone. He was an early and vocal supporter of the plan, which gives the federal government a much larger role in health care. He did vote against Bush’s Medicaid Part D expansion, which provided a prescription drug benefit to seniors, although he apparently warmed up enough to the program to warn voters in 2012 that a Romney-Ryan administration would take it away.28
Biden voted to eliminate tax-deductible health savings accounts, which empower consumers to control their own health care costs.29 He has been a consistent supporter of drug re-importation, opposed by drug companies who are concerned foreign entities will not respect patent law and that they will not be able to recoup their investment in research and development.30
However, it is worth noting that Biden apparently opposed Hillary Clinton’s Universal Health Plan in 1993. According to newly released documents, Clinton had circled the word “no” next to then-Sen. Biden’s name on a list of lawmakers who either supported or opposed her plan.31
Entitlements & Welfare
Biden has generally favored expanding entitlements and has fought efforts to privatize Social Security or limit Medicare subsidies. During the 2008 presidential campaign he said he favored eliminating the cap on income that is subject to Social Security taxes but seemed to oppose raising the retirement age, saying lifting the cap would solve a funding shortfall. 32 Biden also noted that he was one of the negotiators of the 1983 deal that raised Social Security taxes and raised the retirement age.33
Like many Democrats, Biden did support Bill Clinton’s welfare reform bill, which is now generally regarded as a success.34
On immigration, Biden’s legislative track record is fairly mixed. Biden favors expanding legal immigration, and has voiced that stance as recently as 2012.35 He supports employer verification programs,36 enhanced deportation for immigrants who abuse the system, increasing border controls,37 and the construction of a 700-mile fence along the border.38
As vice president, however, Biden has supported Obama’s recent initiative to utilize executive orders to grant what some perceive to be a de facto amnesty plan for millions of illegal immigrants. He has also supported bills that would allow guest workers to earn a path to citizenship.
Energy & Environment
Biden is a strong proponent of regulating markets to address global warming. He has supported both cap and trade legislation39 and the so-called “Windfall Profits Tax” on oil companies. The Obama administration has generally opposed energy exploration and development, and has stated it will leverage the power of the EPA to curtail carbon emissions. On his part, Biden has written letters to the EPA asking them to impose stricter rules and regulations on energy producers.40
Biden consistently opposed efforts to develop energy resources. He has opposed off-shore drilling in virtually all forms,41 42 opposed drilling in ANWR,43 and even blamed fracking for causing earthquakes.44 He has not, however, made known his personal position on the Keystone Pipeline,45 leading some to believe he might depart from the administration.
Biden has generally been supportive of agricultural subsidies. He voted against an amendment that would have stripped subsidies for sugar cane growers out of an appropriations bill,46 for example, but voted to limit the amount of farm subsidies that could be collected by a married couple.47 In 2000 he voted to provide $7.3 billion in assistance to farmers and has consistently voted in favor of dairy price controls.48
Banking & Finance
Biden voted in favor of the Troubled-Asset Relief Program, the $700 billion taxpayer bailout of big Wall Street banks in 2008.49 He voted for the burdensome Sarbanes-Oxley bill in 2002 that imposed onerous accounting standards on businesses, and also voted against an amendment in 2008 that would have relieved some of those burdens for smaller publicly traded companies.50 He was sharply critical of Gov. Mitt Romney’s proposal to repeal Dodd-Frank’s regulation of Wall Street.51
Biden is an enthusiastic supporter of corporate welfare, particularly in terms of handouts to “green energy” companies such as Solyndra.52 He recently called for eliminating what he termed “tax credits” for the oil and natural gas industry, although he seems to mostly be referring to energy companies’ ability to deduct business expenses. He has said instead he would give those funds to renewable-energy companies.53
He supports subsidies and grants to high speed rail54 and continues to defend the Obama administration’s bailout of General Motors and Chrysler,55 at an estimated cost to taxpayers of $30 billion. Biden did, in the late ’90s, co-sponsor legislation with Sen. Arlen Specter to require National Football League and Major League Baseball teams pay for at least half the cost of new stadiums.56 Sports stadiums often are built mostly at taxpayer expense, and Biden deserves credit for trying to at least limit this particular form of corporate welfare.
Throughout the majority of his political career, Biden has been known as a hawk among his Democratic peers, although he largely opposed many of former President Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy including aid for anti-communist rebels in Nicaragua. He served as chairman or ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee starting in 1997, having been a key architect of Bill Clinton’s policy with regard to Bosnia. In fact, prior to the Clinton administration, Biden was even more strident in his efforts to get the United States involved in that region.
Biden has spoken out against Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, although he has not distanced himself from President Obama’s decision to not provide arms to Ukraine that would allow it to defend itself. 57
Historically, Biden has been a supporter of Israel, and he supports a two-state solution to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict58. However, the Obama-Biden administration has been harshly criticizedfor its worsening relationship with Israel59 including several high-profile snubs and rebukes, such as its criticism of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s address to Congress and its response to an Israeli announcement regarding building plans in Jerusalem.60 Israel has expressed strong concern regarding the administration’s desire to get a nuclear weapons deal with Iran.
Biden supports strengthening diplomatic ties to China.61
He has not spoken directly on the Obama administration’s opening of diplomatic relations with Cuba, but he stood next to the president at a July 2015 Rose Garden press conference called to discuss the changes, suggesting he agrees with and approves of the new policy.62
War on Terror
He has been a visible presence in Obama’s efforts to scale down the war in Iraq, visiting that country eight times since his election, including a visit in 2011 to declare a formal end to that war.63 However, he has joined Obama in criticizing the premise, cost and execution of the war on terrorism. He counseled Obama not to launch the successful raid that killed Osama Bin Laden.64
Like many Democrats who later came to oppose the war effort, Biden voted in favor of many of its signature features. He voted in favor of the Patriot Act,65 though he later voted against its reauthorization.66 He voted in favor of the use of military force in Iraq, though he authored a failed resolution to add the caveat that military force would only be allowed once all diplomatic solutions were exhausted.67 He later explained that he would have opposed the war as it was executed by the Bush administration.68
Biden proposed in 2006 that Iraq be partitioned into three separate autonomous regions or even nations for the country’s Shia, Sunni, and Kurd populations.69
Biden’s rhetoric on ISIS has been largely muted. After initially calling for justice in no uncertain terms following the death of two American journalists, Biden downplayed the ISIS threat, and argued in favor of an international coalition to deal with the problem as opposed to military force. The administration has said it will not put boots on the ground to fight ISIS.
Military Preparedness & Budget
During the 1980s, Biden largely opposed President Reagan’s military buildup, including voting against missile defense and aid for anti-communist rebels in Nicaragua, and also opposing the military buildup and weapons systems including the B-1 bomber, MX missile, and Trident submarine.70
More recently, he has opposed cuts to defense spending, though he did support certain military base closures in 1999 as senator.71 In 1997, he helped to override a presidential veto of funding for 36 military projects.72
Biden has endorsed American exceptionalism, responding to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s criticism of the concept by saying “It’s always been the story … of the journey of this country that the American people have been ahead, and I know I’ve been criticized for saying this, but I’ll say it again: That’s what makes America exceptional.”73 And in 2012 he told a meeting of chief justices from around the country, “The more I travel, the more I’ve learned, the more convinced I have become that this thing that we call American exceptionalism, which is controversial in the minds of some intellectuals and others, that this thing called American exceptionalism does exist,” he said. “It’s particularly found in one overarching area — in our deep commitment to the rule of law, in our courts. That’s the truly exceptional and distinguishing aspect of American democracy.”74
Judiciary & Crime
Biden served on the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee during much of his 36-year tenure in the Senate. He chaired the committee from 1987 until 1995. He served as the ranking Democrat on the committee from 1981 through 1987, and again from 1995 through 1997.75
During his time as chair of the committee, he presided over two of the most contentious Supreme Court justice nomination hearings ever, those of Robert Bork and Justice Clarence Thomas. He played a leading role in scuttling the Bork nomination and voted against Thomas as well. Some have accused Biden of having “wrecked” the judicial confirmation process with his handling of these two hearings.76
During his tenure in the Senate, Biden voted on eight U.S. Supreme Court confirmations in addition to Bork and Thomas. Biden voted to confirm Justices John Paul Stevens, Sandra Day O’Connor, Antonin Scalia, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and Steven Breyer while voting against John Roberts and Samuel Alito, and also voted against elevating Justice William Rehnquist to Chief Justice (he did not vote on Anthony Kennedy’s nomination).77
While vice president, Biden has rarely commented on Supreme Court cases. However, he and his wife, Jill Biden, released a statement in support of the court’s decision in the Obergefell v. Hodges same-sex marriage case.78
Biden has criticized the “judicial activism” of the court’s conservative bloc, saying “[i]t is now conservative judges who are supplanting the judgment of the people’s representatives and substituting their own”79 but who during the John Roberts confirmation hearing probed him about an end-of-life scenario and asked him “not what the Constitution says, what do you feel?”80
As a former attorney, Biden has made criminal justice a key area of focus throughout his career. He is recognized as an architect of the 1994 crime bill, passed at the apex of concern over rising crime rates.81 Biden is a supporter of the death penalty,82 and the 1994 bill made people convicted of drug trafficking eligible for the death penalty. That same year, he also authored the Violence Against Women Act, which increases penalties for crimes against women while coordinating law enforcement efforts at the federal level.83 Many of its provisions have been struck down by the courts.84
A fierce supporter of the war on drugs, Biden has voted to create the office of drug czar. He has supported and authored numerous bills cracking down on exotic and synthetic drugs, though he has yet to weigh in on recent state efforts to legalize marijuana. He served as chairman of the International Narcotics Control Caucus.
Biden has voiced support for the use of executive orders to enact key administration policies.85
Biden voted for No Child Left Behind, but he later said he regretted his vote and didn’t believe it had worked.86 While he has remained largely silent on the subject of Common Core, there is no indication he departs from the administration on the topic.
Free Speech & Religious Liberty
Biden’s views on religious liberty are unclear. He defended Obamacare’s mandate requiring employers, including those with religious objections, to provide contraceptive coverage, misleading voters by saying the mandate did not apply to religious employers.87 But behind the scenes, Biden reportedly urged the Obama administration to scale back the mandate to protect religious employers.88 Like nearly every other senator in office at the time, Biden voted for the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 1993.89
Biden was highly critical of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United90 and is a longtime supporter of campaign finance laws that limit First Amendment political speech rights. He voted in favor of the McCain-Feingold law in 2002.91
Biden is an advocate of strong gun control measures. Following the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, Biden took the lead for the administration in a failed bid to pass more restrictive gun laws,92 including expanded background checks, renewal of the 1994 assault weapon ban, and limiting the capacity of weapon magazines to 10 cartridges.93 He was a leading supporter of the 1994 assault weapon ban.94 In a 2013 interview, he said the Second Amendment protected an individual right to gun ownership and specified it was intended for self-defense purposes.95
Biden has a generally pro-choice record,96 although he has voted in the past for several restrictions including a ban on the late-term procedure known as “partial-birth abortion”97 and opposing federal funding for abortion.98 While he has been supportive of abortion rights throughout his career, he questioned the legal reasoning of Roe v. Wade during his early years in the U.S. Senate, including voting in 1982 for a constitutional amendment to overturn the decision.99 In more recent years, however, he has supported the decision and warned against efforts to overturn it.100
Biden made news in May 2012 when he endorsed same-sex marriage,101 causing some turmoil for the White House because Obama still professed to oppose it. Biden lauded the 2015 decision by the Supreme Court finding a constitutional right to same-sex marriage.102
In the 1970s, Biden helped to end the policy of forced busing that was being used or proposed in some parts of the country to desegregate public schools.103
Even by his own admission, Joe Biden’s greatest vulnerability is Joe Biden. More to the point, his propensity for off-the-cuff remarks, unsubstantiated claims and outright fictions have been lampooned endlessly. While Democrats tend to get more latitude from the mainstream media when it comes to gaffes, the right-of-center blogosphere will be champing at the bit to play the gotcha game.
His propensity toward impromptu, folksy explanations of policy matters and his propensity to outright invent facts has made him the target of derision. He has often been caught inventing details of his history and family life to match thematic elements of particular speeches (he referenced a non-existent diner in his 2008 convention speech) and even went so far as to claim FDR took to the airwaves after the 1929 stock market crash to reassure the American people via TV.104 Of course, Herbert Hoover was president in 1929, and outside of a few researchers no Americans had televisions at that time.
The impact of plagiarism scandals105 remains to be seen but may be given new life given the impact a similar scandal had on the 2014 Montana Senate race. While the instances themselves were of lesser import, the fact that there is more than one instance will surely provide fodder for opponents to question his integrity.
Biden’s history on criminal justice issues and busing could come back to haunt him with progressives and black voters. He was a leading voice against busing in the 1970s and is credited with having turned many liberals against the policy.106 The 1994 crime bill included tougher sentences for criminals, which some have criticized for leading to greater incarceration rates in general and a disparate impact on blacks.107
In addition, Biden has been criticized by some for his handling of the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court confirmation hearings in 1991,108 which could hurt him with female voters. According to these critics, Biden failed to allow several women to testify who might have corroborated Anita Hill’s stories of sexual harassment, and could have done more to bolster her testimony and cast doubt on Thomas.109110 and he was generally regarded as a friend to the credit card industry during his time in the Senate,111 which could be problematic for segments of the Democratic party concerned about the influence of the banking industry.
Biden’s brother James may have used his family connections to help a construction firm for which he was an executive land a lucrative $1.5 billion contract for building affordable housing in Iraq. James Biden had no known experience or qualifications in the homebuilding industry prior to being hired as executive vice president at Hill International, and the contract was awarded just six months after he joined.112 There is little to suggest Joe Biden personally intervened or benefited from the awarding of the contract, but opponents are likely to bring this up as an example of a powerful politician steering taxpayer dollars to favored companies and interests.
Biden will certainly need to address concerns about his age. If elected president, Biden will be 74 by the time he assumes office. While he appears vigorous and energetic, many of his health problems have been quite severe (he was read his last rites in 1988).113 Any indication that his health his failing may compel him to abandon his candidacy entirely.
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