PRESENTING: Meet Joe Biden, America's imperfect leader

Joshua Roberts/Getty; Skye Gould/InsiderA look into Joe Biden’s past shows a complex leader characterised by working-class roots, perseverance, compromise, and an ability to connect with others.
  • Joe Biden will begin leading the US on Wednesday amid a pandemic, an opioid crisis, and massive political instability.
  • The president-elect presents himself as a conventional leader with a moderate stance toward policy.
  • Yet deep grief, empathy, adversity, and controversy have all informed his leadership.
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

On a rainy day in 2015, David Kessler was driving in Los Angeles when he got a call from a number he didn’t recognise. “We have the vice president on the line,” a voice informed him.

Vice President Joe Biden? Kessler thought.

He immediately pulled over.

As he drove onto the shoulder, another voice came booming through the phone: “Hi, David! It’s Joe! How are you?”

There was a camaraderie in his tone, Kessler would later recall, as if the two had known each other for years, despite having never met.

Kessler is one of the world’s foremost authorities on grief, and he’s published five books on death and bereavement, including “Finding Meaning.” The vice president had been particularly affected by Kessler’s work on finding meaning after loss. As Kessler recalled, Biden felt obligated to abide by his mother’s advice: When you appreciate someone or their work, you thank them.

A few months earlier, Biden had lost his older son, Beau, the former attorney general of Delaware, to brain cancer. He was 46 years old. It was Biden’s third deep wound from grief. In 1972, Biden’s wife, Neilia Hunter, and their baby daughter, Naomi, died in a car accident while out Christmas shopping. Biden, then a senator-elect, was 30.

Kessler listened to the 72-year-old vice president describe his own role as grief counselor — someone who helps others through their grief — and how that has helped him find meaning.

“He is not afraid to connect with the pain,” Kessler told Insider.

But things had been getting harder recently, Biden said. Just a few months after Beau died, he went to Charleston, South Carolina, to comfort survivors and loved ones of the nine Black churchgoers killed in the Emanuel AME Church shooting. The decision followed the dozens of eulogies he’d given for family friends and public figures over the years — a habit that’s earned Biden a reputation of being one of the best eulogizers on Capitol Hill.

“He talked about how being in deep grief, it’s even harder to show up,” Kessler recalled. “But he was undaunted, and it would never have entered his mind not to do it. I think empathy is his secret power.”

Biden checks a lot of boxes as your typical politician. The 78-year-old has a receding hairline, marked crow’s-feet, white skin, and whiter hair. He stands at 6 feet and flashes a bright toothy smile. Politically, he’s viewed as a moderate Democrat.

But a closer look into the life of the president-elect reveals a man deeply shaped by sadness, comfortable with vulnerability, and in possession of a unique ability to connect with others. And yet, over his nearly five decades in politics, he’s faced controversy, scandals, and gaffes, some of which have led to national discussions over Biden’s fit for certain offices.

Insider spoke with several former colleagues of Biden, including former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and official White House photographer David Lienemann, in addition to leadership experts like the “Grit” author and psychologist Angela Duckworth and the writer Evan Osnos, to get a close-up look at what they say are the strengths and weaknesses of America’s new leader.

What emerges is a complex portrait of an imperfect leader.

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