The election of 2020 is one for the history books — as is this year and this era. Indeed, I believe that while the last four years were quite tumultuous, it won’t end with this election. The 2020s will be the new 1960s, filled with serious and fundamental debates on big issues that we as a country have not truly wrestled with in more than a half-century — race, love, gender, work, capitalism, loneliness and more. But while that drama is ahead, it’s worth taking a look back at those who paved the path for Joseph Robinette Biden Jr.’s improbable win more than 32 years after he first ran for president. From his wonderful second wife Jill, to his longtime aide Ted Kaufman and primary rivals such as Elizabeth Warren, there are many heroes — some likely, some less likely — that Biden is reflecting upon right now and who will define his presidency in the years to come.
No one is more responsible for JRB becoming the 46th commander in chief than the smart, slow-talking congressman from South Carolina. The former teacher and son of a preacher saved Biden’s cooked bacon after two painful losses in Iowa and New Hampshire earlier this year by endorsing him ahead of the critical South Carolina primary. With Clyburn’s impactful and vigorous backing, Biden won that race and vaulted back into the game. Clyburn, 80, may be too old to get the full appreciation that usually comes with that kind of once-in-a-generation political lifesaving (see Sherman Adams to President Dwight D. Eisenhower or John Sununu to President George H.W. Bush), but he should get a lot and be to Biden what Oprah was to President Barack Obama.
Despite Biden’s comeback victory in South Carolina, he still faced a daunting task to take on the well-funded, well-organized Bernie Sanders on Super Tuesday. But as LeBron can tell you, nothing is over until it’s over. And sure enough, when Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar decided to get out ASAP after South Carolina and endorse Biden — and were joined by a surprise Texas endorsement from ex-candidate Beto O’Rourke — rather than do the typical thing and hang on a bit longer, it sent a powerful message. Biden aced Super Tuesday, including a devastating come-from-behind knockout blow against Sanders in Texas. After that, Bernie was cooked, and JRB was on his way to the nomination.
3. Elizabeth Warren, “Sting Like a Bee”
Bernie wasn’t the only opponent Biden needed to knock out with a Game of Thrones-style alliance of former foes. Lest we forget, Michael Bloomberg, one of the wealthiest people in the U.S., went from Republican former mayor to Democratic contender. And were it not for a devastating two-minute verbal beating from the former law professor Warren, Biden may have lost to the diminutive tech billionaire. Warren’s uppercut was one of the most devastating debate takedowns in modern history — eclipsing Ronald Reagan’s “There you go again” and Lloyd Bentsen’s “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” With Bloomberg turned into Quibi and Bernie sidelined by the others, Biden became an improbable Democratic nominee at the young age of 77.
The moment the election seemed to change is when Fox News called Arizona for Biden — way before any of the other networks. Audible gasps were heard everywhere, including in the White House. Was this a mistake? Had the old man been consulted? Indeed, top Trump figures had called him. And it seems that like he did in 1997 in the U.K., Murdoch surprised his usual allies and threw his lot in with the challenger. Why? Perhaps family influence. Perhaps a sense that Trump was indeed bad for democracy and would be completely unchecked in a second term — by Fox or anyone. Who knows? But it will be a case study at Harvard’s Kennedy School for a generation to come.
2. Stacey Abrams, “The New Machine”
One of the folks who many hoped would run in 2020 but never did still helped Biden become the president-elect. Abrams, a Yale Law grad, told OZY in 2016: “I’m a Black woman from Mississippi who thinks the Deep South can become a Democratic haven. There’s a romanticism to what I do.” And she did just that, as her brilliant voter registration and turnout efforts in Georgia turned a deep red state into an apparent Democratic win for the first time since 1992. Abrams, who helped register a good chunk of Georgia’s 800,000 new voters in a state Biden is now winning by around 10,000 votes, changed the presidential conversation not just in 2020, but likely for years to come. Her next task will be even tougher: sweeping a pair of January runoffs to give Democrats control of the Senate.
3. Josh Shapiro, “The Tortoise”
His stern warning that every vote would count in Pennsylvania was backed up by a deliberate but decisive counting of the votes — unmarred by the kind of turmoil we saw in Florida in 2000. When Pennsylvania came in at last after several days, Biden was president. And Shapiro — a former high school point guard who charged into his post on a reformist platform — was reelected as attorney general. Look for this ambitious politician to be embraced by the Biden White House as he weighs a run for governor or Senate in 2022.
The youngsters actually came out to vote — with more than half of eligible under-30 voters casting a ballot, up considerably from 2016. And they leaned heavily toward Biden, helping counteract President Trump’s own surge. While social influencers and activists are often underestimated, what started in 2018 has not subsided. So everything from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Twitch streaming to Black Lives Matter activists’ urgency to Cardi B’s Zoom conversation with Biden helped build the movement.
2. The Atlantic, “The Narrative Shaper”
Two stories in the venerable magazine spread like wildfire and helped define the race. First, during the primary, a story about Biden overcoming his stutter reframed the discussion of his verbal gaffes. Then the magazine’s reporting in September on Trump’s comments about military members had a devastating impact at just the time the president was preparing to rally and likely moved more than a few swing voters, particularly men, in Biden’s direction.
3. Valerie Biden Owens and Ted Kaufman, “The Innermost Circle”
The president-elect’s sister has run every campaign he’s waged — except this one, though she was still intimately involved. And Kaufman, Biden’s longtime chief of staff who replaced him briefly in the Senate, was a guiding force. Both helped shape a campaign that was often criticized for being out of step with the times but ended up being pitch-perfect. Kaufman, 81, now has the task of running a transition like no other.
4. President Barack Obama, “MJ”
Barry mattered again. An energetic campaigner, he helped rally support for Biden during the final days in Philadelphia and Atlanta. The closer who helped push Biden across the finish line even sank a clutch 3-pointer along the way. Obama, who revived Biden’s political career by elevating him to the vice presidency in 2008, will remain an important figure in gathering positive support behind Biden’s agenda in tumultuous times to come.
5. Kamala Harris, “The Future”
Biden could have felt stung by Harris’ criticisms in the primary, but he put them aside to tap her formidable political acumen to join the ticket. He was rewarded with an ocean of fundraising cash, the momentum of history with the daughter of Jamaican and Indian immigrants, and a strong performance in the vice presidential debate. That loud “skeeee weeee” you’ll hear on Inauguration Day when Harris appears, from her fellow Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority sisters, is but one sign of the enthusiasm she brought to get Biden through.