The Inside Story of Joe Biden’s Most Fateful Decision
His mind was made up about a 2020 presidential run—until it wasn’t.
Updated at 10:36 a.m. ET on May 18, 2021
Joe Biden was in his living room at the Naval Observatory on Election Night 2016. He hadn’t been watching the presidential results. Hillary Clinton was going to win, obviously, so the vice president was more focused on monitoring the fates of the House and Senate candidates for whom he’d campaigned. As the television networks and the Associated Press called each race, he’d pick up the phone. Winners and losers got the same line: “You ran a hell of a race.”
Only late into the night did Biden start paying attention to the presidential election. He’d always been concerned that people simply didn’t like Clinton, and the lack of enthusiasm he’d sensed during his last few appearances for her made him nervous. “The arc of history has always been forward, and what these guys”—Republicans—“want to do is literally move it backward,” he’d warned an audience in Madison, Wisconsin, the previous Friday. “It doesn’t feel right there,” he told aides when he returned to Washington. But Madison hadn’t felt off enough for Biden to really imagine that Donald Trump could win.
The vice president listened as Mike Donilon, one of his closest advisers, insisted that Clinton would be all right. He listened as another aide, Greg Schultz, ran down the numbers from Florida—the same numbers that had Barack Obama, a few miles away in the White House, asking aides why Clinton didn’t have a plan for losing.
Close to 11 that night, Biden stepped out to call his buddy Mike Duggan, the mayor of Detroit. Duggan had been fighting with the Clinton campaign for months, trying to take control of the turnout operation in the city. Three weeks earlier he had gone to its headquarters in Brooklyn, making one last push and getting one last brush-off from top aides, who assured him that the statistical model they had built off their polling showed Clinton five points ahead in Michigan. “What if your model,” Duggan asked them, “doesn’t match the world?” Well, he told Biden that night, it hadn’t. “What’s going to happen?” Biden said. Duggan guessed that Clinton was going to lose the state by about 10,000 votes.
“Oh Lord,” Biden replied.
They talked for a moment about why Biden hadn’t run. Duggan was regretful. Biden was emotional.
“I want to be the first person to sign up for the 2020 campaign,” Duggan told him, “because this never would have happened if you were the candidate.”
Biden, quiet, deflected.
Michigan wound up going to Trump by 10,704 votes.
Biden walked into the next room to call Obama. That conversation didn’t last long. There wasn’t much to say.
Later, Obama phoned Clinton. He was just as level with her as he’d been with everyone else: Democrats couldn’t fight the results. She resisted. He then called John Podesta, Clinton’s campaign chair and his own former senior adviser, catching him after he gave a speech at the Javits Center, trying to buy time. Now Podesta was riding back to Clinton’s hotel in a van full of depressed campaign staffers. “You’ve got to make her concede,” Obama told him.
The president was looking at the numbers as he spoke. She can’t come back. Don’t fight it anymore. Podesta listened, finally agreeing.
“I feel like I really let you down, Mr. President,” he said. “I feel like I really let her down.”
While they were speaking, Clinton’s closest aide, Huma Abedin, called another aide, Jennifer Palmieri, who was sitting in the van next to Podesta. “Well,” Abedin said. “She did it.” Clinton had called Trump to concede. She didn’t call Obama back that night to tell him she had done so.
After Obama himself phoned Trump to congratulate him, he called two of his closest aides, his deputy national security adviser, Ben Rhodes, and his speechwriter Cody Keenan, well into a bottle of whiskey at Keenan’s apartment, to talk through what he was going to say in the Rose Garden in the morning. “I have to do this the right way,” he insisted. He dictated most of the text. “Do you want to put any reassurance in there for our allies around the world?” Rhodes asked. “I can’t give it to them,” Obama answered. They left that part out.
The next few days were full of tears and West Wing moments: Obama saying how proud he was of everyone and urging people to “run through the tape” and stay focused on their work. No one really could. Aides who used to spend their days being snarky and tough had tears streaming down their faces. On the morning after the election, they waited for Clinton to finally give her concession speech up in New York. Then Obama came out into the Rose Garden, Biden at his side, saying something about how the sun would rise tomorrow. There’d never been so many staff gathered there. They did not look as if they believed the sun would rise tomorrow. They could barely see it then.
“I’m not running,” Biden was insisting to people in the spring of 2017.
But then to others he’d say, “If I’m walking, I’m running.”
Biden’s story about his candidacy was already changing. In the new version, he had never intended to get into the 2016 race against his friend Hillary Clinton, no matter how much that account stretched the definitions of never and friend. And he definitely wasn’t going to enter the 2020 race.
“Guys, I’m not running,” he told a crowd of people, including reporters, in April 2017. But he said this in New Hampshire, the state that holds the nation’s first presidential primary every four years.
Then the Nazis marched through Charlottesville. Over the next few days, he talked about the people who’d lived in the houses around the Nazi concentration camps, pretending they couldn’t see or smell what was going on. Aides remember him saying, “We have to speak up—this isn’t who we are.” He started writing down thoughts, trading paragraphs with a small group of aides and advisers. Once he had a draft that satisfied him, he began calling up friends to read sections of it aloud, his voice rising to a shout as he went. “Battle for the soul of the nation” was the key phrase they landed on. It felt like a mission.
“We are living through a battle for the soul of this nation,” he wrote in The Atlantic a few days after the Nazi march. “The crazed, angry faces illuminated by torches. The chants echoing the same anti-Semitic bile heard across Europe in the 1930s”—he would paraphrase this line in his campaign kickoff video a year and a half later, and in nearly every speech he made during the primary campaign. It stayed so consistent that when he gave his acceptance speech in a pandemic-emptied room at the Democratic convention three years later, it was almost exactly intact: “Remember seeing those neo-Nazis and Klansmen and white supremacists coming out of the fields with lighted torches? Veins bulging? Spewing the same anti-Semitic bile heard across Europe in the ’30s?”
Charlottesville “so inflamed, Joe. Maybe as much as anything,” his old friend Tom Carper, a senator and former governor from Delaware, told me. “That’s it. That’s the straw that breaks the camel’s back.”*
No one runs for president six times without lots of ego to spare. Biden ran for Senate at 29—he’d been honing and building that ego his entire life. He would gladly step aside from running, he told people in 2017, if he were sure someone else could beat Trump. “He’s a great respecter of fate,” a person close to him told me that summer. “At some point, it may turn into fate and planning.”
Whatever one thinks of Biden’s other skills, he had always been bad at running for president. He could make speeches, connect with voters. But he never focused on the basic mechanics, and never surrounded himself with operatives who could. Decades of dominating in Delaware had led him to believe that the world worked as it did in his small state, where every voter was a cousin’s neighbor’s high-school classmate’s great-uncle, where fundraising was basically irrelevant, and where campaigns were simple enough to be run by a family member or friend. The years with Obama had warped him even more, as he tried to convince himself that he was a crucial part of the 2008 and 2012 wins, that voters had been excited for the Obama–Biden ticket, more than for the first Black president.
His circle had calcified around him: Donilon; Valerie Biden Owens, his sister and forever shadow campaign manager; Ted Kaufman, his friend and former chief of staff; and Steve Ricchetti, the former Bill Clinton hand and lobbyist who’d become his chief of staff when he was vice president and then stayed in control. Biden seemed like such a political dead end that many younger Democratic operatives were uninterested in working for him. The feeling that he wasn’t good enough ate at him. Why shouldn’t he get the backing that Obama had had? But he didn’t. “He knows he didn’t get the A-team,” an aide said, deep into the campaign.
Aides could see Biden aging. Was his son Beau’s death finally catching up with him? Was he not busy enough, for the first time since he was 29? Was he simply showing his age? They could hear the loudest and smartest voices objecting to a 2020 run, to his politics, to an old white man being the leader of a party that wanted to be the voice of a new America.
Taking stock of a party that wasn’t going to stand for another Hillary Clinton–style coronation, Biden’s aides updated their playbook for 2020. Maybe Biden could get in early and shrink the field. Maybe he could enter really late—say, September 2019—and let all the smaller candidates blow one another up first. Maybe he could make a pledge to serve one term, or announce a running mate right out of the gate.
He started by getting back on the trail. Biden had been flooded with requests for months, but he deliberately began his campaign at the Pittsburgh Labor Day parade. The parade had been the first and final retail-politics stop of his 2015 almost-campaign, back when the Secret Service had all the reporters loaded onto the back of a flatbed truck that he jogged along behind, pointing up at them and teasing them for not getting down and walking the route with him. He’d gone back the following year to try to sell them on Tim Kaine, but it wasn’t the same.
This time he landed in Pittsburgh right after attending the burial of his friend John McCain on a hill overlooking Annapolis. Even before checking into his room that night at the William Penn Hotel, he was telling his staff that he could feel how much harder this campaign was going to be, without a government plane.
Walking out of church after the pre-parade Mass that morning, Biden was asked what was on the line in the 2018 midterms. “Everything,” he said. He kissed foreheads, and repeated stories about his father’s and grandfather’s working-class roots. He talked about unity, decency, and an America that had to reassert what it stands for. He batted back a reporter who tried to ask him about the risk of socialism by replying, “I’m a Democrat.” He knocked back each attempt to get him to talk about Trump by saying, “Everyone knows who the president is.” He stopped to speak with a woman seated along the route who told him that she’d been dreaming of a Biden–Warren ticket since she saw him at the 2015 parade. “Maybe,” he said, smiling.
A few blocks in, he connected with Conor Lamb, a freshman congressman he’d helped win a special election that spring, out in the Pittsburgh suburbs. Biden had started to politically adopt a few proto-Beaus in the years since his son died—young, handsome veterans who had come up through politics with the backing of white working-class voters. Lamb even had a chin just like Beau’s, and the same hair color, parted on the same side. Lamb also came from a political family. His win in this corner of Pennsylvania was supposed to be the beginning of a revival for Democrats, and because Biden was the only national Democratic figure who had been invited to campaign for Lamb, his win was also the first proof of concept for Biden 2020.
Biden again took off in a jog, trailed by aides and the clump of reporters chasing him for clues about 2020. But as he trotted along, he noticed a lot of empty spaces between the lawn chairs set up along the sidewalk.
“There used to be a lot more people than this,” he told Lamb.
The parade route ended at the United Steelworkers’ building. In 2015, Biden had slipped inside for a private reception, to build support for his not-so-secret shadow campaign. This time he hopped in a car in his small motorcade and headed across town to a big reception at the Electrical Workers’ hall, where he gave a short speech. Mostly he just stood in the middle of the room, talking with every person he could, holding babies, and taking selfies.
A white woman in her 50s approached him cautiously. Wearing a union hat and a Republicans for Conor Lamb button, she was the picture of the kind of voter Biden thought he could win back from Trump. She spotted two of his aides and asked them to tell Biden something for her: His son’s death, and everything that he’d been through before it—maybe it was all destiny for him to become president at this moment, given what the country is going through. They told her she could say it directly to him, and should, but she protested that she was shy, and started to edge away. They found her later, and waited with her until they saw an opening.
She wanted to tell him, she needed to tell him, but she was shaking. He came in close. She said it again: Maybe losing his son, losing so much, was what had to happen to make him president right now, for this moment. “God,” she said, “has a strange sense of humor.”
He kissed her on the cheek and hugged her. Then he held her hand tightly and kissed it, and whispered in her ear.
This article has been adapted from Dovere’s book Battle for the Soul: Inside the Democrats’ Campaigns to Defeat Trump
* Due to an editing error, this article previously misattributed a quote from Tom Carper. It was spoken to the author, not Joe Biden."