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TIME’s Person of the Year over the course of nearly a century has been a measuring stick for where the world is and where it’s going. But how to make sense of 2020, a year without measure? A year marked by multiple crises, all at once, all over the world: A once-in-a-century plague. Brutal racial injustice. Glaring inequality. Apocalyptic wildfires. Democracy under fire.
It was a particularly humbling year for the most powerful nation on earth—a wake-up call for those more accustomed to seeing America, despite its flaws, as a beacon for the world. The U.S. has seen by far the most confirmed cases of COVID-19 of any country, and some of the worst fatality rates. The killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade and many more brought about a reckoning with systemic racism, long overdue and extraordinary in scale. Economic inequality deepened. Almost 1 in 8 American adults reported that their household didn’t have enough to eat at some point in November. Devastating fires across the West Coast showed how unprepared we are for climate change. Conflicts over voting tallies and the science of wearing masks showed how divided we are even on basic facts.
Portrait by Jason Seiler for TIME
Joe Biden was elected President of the United States in the midst of an existential debate over what reality we inhabit. Perhaps the only thing Americans agree on right now is that the future of the country is at stake, even as they fiercely disagree about why. Dismissed as out of touch on the left and misrepresented as a socialist from his right, Biden stood his ground near the center and managed to thrive even as the social, digital and racial landscape around him shifted. With more than 51%, Biden won a higher percentage of the popular vote than any challenger to a presidential incumbent since Franklin Roosevelt in 1932. “What I got most criticized for was I said we had to unite America,” he told me in a conversation (masks off, 16 ft. apart) at his unofficial transition hub in Wilmington, Del., on Dec. 7. “I never came off that message in the primary or in the general election.” Whether America can be, or even wants to be, united is a question he will soon have to face.
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It is noteworthy that a year after selecting climate activist Greta Thunberg, the youngest person ever named Person of the Year, we move to one of the oldest in the 78-year-old President-elect. Biden calls himself a bridge to a new generation of leaders, a role he embraced in choosing Kamala Harris, 56, the first woman on a winning presidential ticket, daughter of a Jamaican father and an Indian mother. If Donald Trump was a force for disruption and division over the past four years, Biden and Harris show where the nation is heading: a blend of ethnicities, lived experiences and worldviews that must find a way forward together if the American experiment is to survive. “I will be the first, but I will not be the last,” Harris told TIME. “And that’s about legacy, that’s about creating a pathway, that’s about leaving the door more open than it was when you walked in.”
TIME from its beginnings has had a special connection to the presidency, as a reflection of America and its role in the world. Every elected President since FDR has at some point during his term been a Person of the Year, nearly a dozen of those in a presidential election year. This is the first time we have included a Vice President. In a year that saw an epic struggle for racial justice, and one of the most consequential elections in history, the Biden-Harris partnership sends a powerful message. “The tell of this election,” says Harris, is that regardless of “your race, your ethnicity, the language your grandmother speaks, let’s move forward knowing that the vast majority of us have more in common than what separates us.”
The task before the new Administration is immense: a pandemic to confront, an economy to fix, a climate crisis to tackle, alliances to rebuild, deep skepticism to overcome with many Americans dubious about unity with Trump voters, and an opposition party still very much under Trump’s sway. How to begin to reach out to, much less lead, the Americans who profess to believe that Donald Trump won the election? I asked Biden. His answer was, more or less, Trust me and trust the American people. “You’re going to see an awful lot of Republicans in the House and the Senate willing to … work with me,” Biden says. “I think that’s what I’ve done my whole career.”
President-elect Joe Biden photographed in Wilmington, Del., on Dec 7, 2020Camila Falquez for TIME
Vice President—elect Kamala Harris photographed in Wilmington, Del., on Dec 7, 2020Camila Falquez for TIME
This will be the test of the next four years: Americans who haven’t been this divided in more than a century elected two leaders who have bet their success on finding common ground. The odds may be long. But it will be among the most critical chapters in the arduous quest for a more perfect union.
For changing the American story, for showing that the forces of empathy are greater than the furies of division, for sharing a vision of healing in a grieving world, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are TIME’s 2020 Person of the Year.
This article is part of TIME’s 2020 Person of the Year issue. Read more and sign up for the Inside TIME newsletter to be among the first to see our cover every week.
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