Joe Biden at SXSW: How Cancer Kept Me from Being President

The former vice president brings his cancer moonshot initiative to SXSW.

Jim Bennett/Getty

Without cancer, Joe Biden might be just about to start his eighth week as the 45th president of the United States.

In one of the many alternative timelines of the 2016 election, Vice President Biden decided to get in the Democratic primary race, overtook Hillary Clinton as the consensus establishment candidate after the email issue began to plague her candidacy. Then, Biden was able to take Donald Trump “behind the gym,” so to speak, and win over enough working-class white voters in the Midwest to get himself elected as president in November.

But that’s not the timeline we’re living in. Instead, Biden made the extremely difficult decision to bow out of the race during the final months of 2015. It was in September, less than four months after his son Beau Biden succumbed to an all-too-common form of brain cancer, that the vice president appeared on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and said that emotionally, he just wasn’t ready to take on the challenge of running for president.

“I don’t think any man or woman should run for president unless, number one, they know exactly why they would want to be president, and two, they can look at folks out there and say, ‘I promise you have my whole heart, my whole soul, my energy, and my passion,’” Biden told Colbert. “And I’d be lying if I said that I knew I was there. I’m being completely honest. Nobody has a right in my view to seek that office unless they are willing to give it 110 percent of who they are.”

When Biden returned to Colbert’s show in December, he added, “I know I made the right decision for my family.” But he also said he regrets “the circumstance that led me not to be able to run,” asking rhetorically, “Do I think I was best prepared at this moment to lead the country? I did.”

Now, Donald Trump is sitting in the Oval Office and Joe Biden is speaking at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas.

On Sunday afternoon, a tanned and tie-less Biden spoke to a packed convention hall—demand was so high SXSW had to issue special wristbands that were gone within minutes—about his new mission in life: stopping cancer in its tracks.

During his final year as VP, Biden launched what he called the White House Cancer Moonshot. Now, that initiative is moving from the government sector to the non-profit sphere as part of the newly-formed Biden Foundation.

Introduced by his wife, Dr. Jill Biden, to cheers of “come back” from the crowd, the former vice president began with a joke about Pharrell Williams before turning more serious. “Your presence speaks volumes,” he said, recognizing how many people in the audience have been “touched” by cancer, with 16 million dying every year currently and up to 26 million per year predicted by 2020.

Biden said the initiative grew out of a desire to “spare other families” from having to go through what he and Jill did when they lost their son. And he continued to open up about his realization that both he and his family didn’t have the “stomach” for a grueling presidential campaign so soon after losing Beau.

He decided not to run, he said, after a “long talk” with President Obama. And the idea for the Cancer Moonshot came out of an off-hand comment he made to the president as they prepared to inform the press about his decision to remove himself from the presidential conversation in the White House Rose Garden.

“I had one regret,” he remembered telling Obama. “And that was I would have loved to have been the president who presided over the end of cancer as we know it.” Biden added that Obama’s announcement during the State of the Union that he would serve as “mission control” came as a complete surprise.

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Over the course of his talk, Biden implored the “techies” in the audience to use the resources at their disposal much as Obama called on the “disrupters” to help solve the problems Congress refuses to tackle when he spoke at SXSW last year.

Alluding to President Trump without mentioning his name, Biden also said, "It is my hope that this new administration, once it gets organized — and I’m not being facetious — will be able to focus on and be as committed and as enthusiastic as we were in the goal of ending cancer as we know it," adding, "I will do everything in my power to work with the new administration."

The overriding theme was “hope,” something we haven’t been hearing much about from politicians in recent months. Quoting John F. Kennedy’s “We choose to go to the moon” speech, Biden ended by saying, “I am unwilling to postpone for one day longer the things we can do now to extend people’s lives.”

Cancer prevented Biden from his shot at becoming president of the United States. He may have lost the chance to save the human race from Donald Trump, but if his moonshot succeeds, he will have given the world something even greater.