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Joe Biden's Long Journey To The Presidency

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

But last night in Wilmington, Del., Joe Biden delivered his victory speech.

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JOE BIDEN: Tonight, we're seeing all over this nation, all cities in all parts of the country - indeed, across the world - an outpouring of joy, of hope, renewed faith in tomorrow bring a better day.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: As NPR's Scott Detrow reports, Biden has been waiting to win the White House for decades.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Joe Biden will be the 46th president of the United States. He thought about trying to be the 45th. He tried and failed to be the 44th. And two decades before that, he ran to be the 41st. Biden kicked off his very first run in 1987 at the Wilmington train station that now bears his name.

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BIDEN: So it's your help that I seek first, as today I announce my candidacy for president of the United States of America.

DETROW: Biden was just 44 years old. He had been in the Senate since age 30, the youngest possible age to serve. But tragedy struck weeks after he was elected. His wife and daughter were killed in a car crash, and his two sons were seriously injured. Last year, he told the NPR Politics Podcast about the moment he learned the news. He was in the U.S. Capitol.

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BIDEN: And I had to walk out, and I walked through the rotunda. And I remember looking up the rotunda, saying, God, God, why - you know, I got really angry. I shouted out.

DETROW: Biden thought about quitting. He didn't. Instead, he began a career-defining habit of shuttling back and forth between Washington and Wilmington on Amtrak every single night to see his sons each morning. Earlier this fall, at the end of a whistle stop train tour in Johnstown, Pa., a freight train rumbled by behind Biden as he recalled those long commutes.

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BIDEN: That train brought me back to my home base every single night, to my family. It kept me grounded. It kept me connected. It meant I always remembered what and who really mattered in my life.

DETROW: Biden ran for the White House in 1988, but it ended quickly in disgrace after a plagiarism scandal. Biden's reputation rebounded quickly, though, as he chaired high-profile Supreme Court confirmations on the Judiciary Committee and became a top Democratic voice in foreign policy. The longtime senator ran again for president 20 years later. Once again, the bid sputtered out, this time in Iowa. But Barack Obama tapped Biden as his vice president. Biden became Obama's emissary, both to Capitol Hill and to foreign capitals. Biden and Obama grew close.

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BARACK OBAMA: There has not been a single moment since that time that I've doubted the wisdom of that decision. He was the best possible choice not just for me, but for the American people.

DETROW: Despite that close relationship, Obama and his circle made it clear they preferred Hillary Clinton to Biden as the party's 2016 nominee. Biden still weighed a run but ultimately passed, in large part because of another personal tragedy - the death of his son Beau from brain cancer in 2015. As he ran this year, five years later, Biden referenced Beau all the time. He told NPR this last year.

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BIDEN: I get up in the morning, and I hope my son Beau is proud of me because - one of the reasons I wrote the book "Promise Me, Dad" - he knew my instinct would be to withdraw.

DETROW: Any withdrawal ended in summer 2017 when white supremacist rallies in Charlottesville, Va., turned violent and President Trump responded by saying there were very fine people on both sides of the conflict. Biden recalled the moment during his acceptance speech at this summer's mostly virtual Democratic convention.

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BIDEN: At that moment, I knew I'd have to run. My father taught us that silence was complicity, and I can never remain silent or complicit. At the time, I said we're in the battle for the soul of this nation, and we are.

DETROW: That theme - a fight for the soul of the nation - was the centerpiece of Biden's campaign. Throughout the primary and after, Biden was criticized by many on the left for being too out of touch. Biden promised a progressive agenda but kept his focus on defeating Trump and Trumpism. Biden repeatedly vowed to be a different, more unifying type of leader. Declaring victory last night, he made his pitch one more time.

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BIDEN: It's time to put away the harsh rhetoric, lower the temperature, see each other again, listen to each other again and to make progress. We have to stop treating our opponents as our enemies. They are not our enemies. They're Americans.

DETROW: The country and the world are very different than when Joe Biden first ran for president. America's place in the world is far less certain. It's in the midst of a serious economic slump. The pandemic is getting worse. In the final hours before the polls closed Tuesday, I asked Biden what he knows now that he didn't during those first two runs for the White House. He said he hopes with age comes more wisdom but said one view that's never changed is belief in the American people. It's a belief he echoed again last night.

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BIDEN: Well, folks, we stand at an inflection point. We have an opportunity to defeat despair, to build a nation of prosperity and purpose. We can do it. I know we can.

DETROW: Biden will finally make it to the Oval Office in a moment where that sort of optimism will be tested.

Scott Detrow, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.