Instead, he beat him in politics, with words rather than fists. As things turned out, the contrasting styles of his predecessors may have made Mr Biden’s deeply prosaic register an asset after all.
Receiving his party’s nomination in 2008, Mr Obama said future generations might remember the occasion as “the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal”. His high-flown rhetoric raised expectations to messianic levels. Dashed hopes led many voters to look for someone who sounded as little like a politician as possible. In 2016 that meant a political novice who eschewed focus-grouped formulations in favour of provocative, often vulgar tirades. Not only did voters not mind; Mr Trump’s outrageous style was hugely effective. His vernacular delivery implied that he was a real boss, not a backslapping hack, with unique skills to get things done. But in office his coarseness turned some voters off, even as it thrilled others.
All that makes this an ideal time for Average Joe, for whom being able to talk fluidly at all was a hard-won achievement. Mr Biden grew up with a severe stutter, which he overcame as a young man. In one of the most touching scenes of his campaign, he told a boy who stutters, “Don’t let it define you. You are smart as hell.” Mr Biden took the boy’s number and called him with some tips that had helped him; later the boy spoke to the Democratic National Convention.
Even careful presidents make gaffes under constant scrutiny. In office, Mr Biden will no doubt give comics plenty of material to sharpen their impersonations. But if he gets tongue-tied or says the wrong thing every now and then, well, so do most people. After 12 years of extraordinary political speech, Americans may be ready for a president who sounds like them.