A year ago, who would have thought 78-year-old Joe Biden would be sworn in this week as president?
He had just finished fourth in the Iowa caucuses. He would soon finish fifth in the New Hampshire primary. He was derided as old, out-of-touch, an elderly, silvery centrist who said screwball things, as when he told a crowd, "Folks, I can tell you I've known eight presidents, three of them intimately."
He'd run for president twice before and didn't come close. He served two terms as Barack Obama's vice president, but after Biden didn't run again in 2016, was widely thought to be past his expiration date in public office.
During the 2020 primary debates, a fellow Democrat seemed to question Joe Biden's mental clarity onstage, when he asked him sharply, "Are you forgetting what you said two minutes ago?" Another candidate criticized him pointedly and personally for opposing the 1970s policy of busing children to speed school desegregation. That opponent, Kamala Harris, is now vice president: the first woman, first Black person, and first person of South Asian descent to hold that office.
Many of the 81 million people who voted for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris probably know about the president's gaffes, mistakes and flaws. But they may have seen them as badges — or scars — from a long life, burdened by real losses, not just lost elections.
His wife and infant daughter died in a car accident in 1972, just weeks before he was sworn in as a U.S. senator. A lifetime later, he lost one of the sons who survived that crash: Beau Biden, who had grown up to become Delaware's attorney general, and won a Bronze Star for his service in Iraq, died of brain cancer in 2015.
In 2012, Joe Biden, who has contended all his life with a stutter, found the words to tell military families who had lost a son or daughter there was no short route through grief.
"Just when you think you're going to make it, you're driving down the road and you pass a field and you see a flower, and it reminds you," he said. "Or you just look up into the night and, you know, you think, 'Maybe I'm not going to make it. ...' "
To many Americans wracked by loss and isolation in our pandemic year, Joe Biden may have seemed a political insider who still casts himself outside of his own skin to try to understand others.
The oldest president ever to serve will face confounding new challenges: the coronavirus, the faltering economy, and our stark divisions. The Americans who elected him may have a new appreciation for experience, and the way personal loss can stretch and strengthen a human heart.