President Joe Biden decamped to Wilmington on Friday, escaping the White House he’s likened to a “gilded cage” for a weekend at his Delaware home. It’s yet another weekend away from Washington as the President has spent a noteworthy portion of his first year in office at one of his two Delaware homes or at Camp David, working remotely.
A CNN analysis of Biden’s public schedule indicates the President has spent a significant amount of time away from the White House, particularly on weekends, since his January inauguration. Including this weekend’s trip to Delaware, Biden has taken 35 personal trips and spent all or part of 108 of his first 276 days in office at one of his Delaware homes or at Camp David in Maryland. That includes partial days, like Friday — when he spent the day at the White House and departed in the evening.
Sixty-nine of those 108 days away from Washington were spent at his home in Wilmington, spread over 23 visits; seven days at his Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, beach house over two visits; and 32 days at Camp David over 10 visits.
Typically, his chopper commute from the White House to his Wilmington home takes less than an hour, and a White House official noted that many of the partial days included Biden departing the White House at the conclusion of a normal workday on a Friday or returning to Washington before the start of a workday on a Monday.
That puts Biden ahead of the pace set by former President Donald Trump, who had spent less time at his Florida and New Jersey getaways at the same point in his presidency than Biden has spent in Delaware.
Comparing Biden and his predecessors
While most presidents have prioritized taking time away from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, this is the most time a president has spent away from the White House on personal travel at this point in the presidency in recent history.
By comparison, Trump had spent all or part of 61 days at either his Mar-a-Lago or Bedminster properties in Florida and New Jersey, respectively, during the same period of time, plus all or part of nine days over four visits to Camp David. Trump also visited other Trump-branded properties, including his Virginia golf club and Trump Tower in New York, nearly 100 times at this point in his time in office.
At the same point in his presidency, then-President Barack Obama, who had school-age children during his term, had taken three vacation trips spanning all or part of 15 days, according to presidential record-keeper and CBS News veteran Mark Knoller, including a visit to his home of Chicago, a trip to Yellowstone National Park in Montana with his family and a weeklong escape to Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. Obama had spent all or part of 25 days at Camp David over ten visits at this point, Knoller said.
And then-President George W. Bush, per Knoller’s records, had taken seven trips to Crawford, Texas, spending 27 full or partial days at his family’s Prairie Chapel Ranch in the first months of his presidency, and 19 visits to Camp David over 57 full or partial days, for a total of 84 full or partial days in Texas or at Camp David.
Other presidents have also made it a point to escape the confines of the White House: George H. W. Bush spent time in Kennebunkport, Maine, during his presidency; Lyndon Johnson also traveled to his Texas ranch; Franklin Roosevelt frequented Warm Springs, Georgia; Ronald Reagan visited his “Western White House” in Goleta, California; Richard Nixon went to La Casa Pacifica in California; John F. Kennedy got away to Hyannis Port, Massachusetts; and Harry Truman spent a portion of his presidency in Key West, Florida, while the White House was under renovation.
A ‘gilded cage’
The Covid-19 pandemic has fundamentally changed the work habits of white-collar workers, with many Americans adopting more flexible schedules and eschewing commuting five days per week to instead work from home. The White House doubles as the President’s workplace and home, but Biden can work remotely with secure communications equipment and facilities anywhere he travels, and does so.
“Presidents of the United States are constantly on the job, regardless of their location; whether they’re on a state visit overseas or just 100 miles from the White House for a short trip to Wilmington,” White House spokesman Andrew Bates told CNN.
Bates added, “Wherever he is, the President spends every day working to defeat the pandemic, to ensure our economy delivers for the middle class — not just those at the top — and to protect our national security. Also, as all Americans can agree, it’s important for leaders to avoid becoming ensconced in Washington, DC.”
In the post-presidency, former presidents have frequently lamented the restrictions of home life at the White House, with Truman calling it “the great white jail” and Michelle Obama referring to it as “a really nice prison,” making it not unusual for a president to seek respite at more familiar digs.
“Even in the residence on the second and third floors, the president and his family are rarely alone. They can often hear the chanting of protestors in Lafayette Park across the street. During the Vietnam War, Luci and Lynda Bird Johnson could hear it from their bedrooms,” said Kate Andersen Brower, a CNN contributor and author of “Team of Five: The Presidents Club in the Age of Trump.”
Brower added, “There’s a sense of claustrophobia that comes with the territory. People are coming in and out for tours (in pre-Covid times) and reporters work not far from the Oval Office.”
Biden has expressed similar sentiments himself since taking office.
“I said when I was running, I wanted to be President not to live in the White House but to be able to make the decisions about the future of the country,” Biden said four weeks into his presidency at a CNN Town Hall.
He continued, “And so living in the White House, as you’ve heard other presidents who have been extremely flattered to live there, has — it’s a little like a gilded cage in terms of being able to walk outside and do things.”
Pressed on Biden’s predilection for getting out of town, White House press secretary Jen Psaki defended her boss.
“Because it’s his home. You like going home, right? So does the President. He’s human, too,” Psaki told reporters at an August briefing.
And in early March as Covid-19 cases remained high and the vaccination program was ramping up, Psaki was asked whether Biden should be doing more to set an example about personal travel during the pandemic.
“Well, the President lives in Wilmington. It’s his home. That’s where he’s lived for many, many years. And as you know, as any President of the United States does, he takes a private airplane called Air Force One to travel there. That is, of course, a unique — unique from most Americans, but I think most Americans would also see that as a unique circumstance,” she said.
Getting away from Washington
While in Wilmington, Biden spends time with his family, including the first lady and his grandchildren, but he also uses his home as a workplace.
“Even the president is affected by the new pandemic white-collar lifestyle of working from home, wherever that may be,” Brower said.
She added, “The Oval Office no longer refers to just the physical space, it’s really become wherever the president is. And that’s the case for many people who have the luxury of working remotely.”
Both at or away from the West Wing, Biden, a White House official told CNN, is “constantly strategizing with staff, being briefed on the economy and national security, speaking with lawmakers to advance his legislative agenda, and more.” Modern technology, the official added, makes it “easier than ever” for a president to do the job fully from anywhere, with many staffers working remotely at the start of the administration.
Biden typically attends mass on Saturday or Sunday while in town, and he’s played about a dozen rounds of golf at the nearby Fieldstone Golf Club. He stopped by a local coffee shop, Brew Ha Ha! earlier this month with his granddaughters.
Earlier this month, he and the first lady traveled to his sister’s nearby home for a “small family wedding” of his nephew, Cuffe Owens, to Meghan O’Toole King, a former cast member of the Real Housewives of Orange County. He’s also spent some time in the area on more mundane tasks, like seeing a doctor for a follow-up visit after a foot injury.
Biden has received virtual briefings from his team while away from the White House, per his public schedule, and always travels with senior staff for both domestic policy and national security, White House Communications Agency military personnel, and other aides, the White House official said.
Biden, the official added, is “in frequent touch with a wide spectrum of other staff to continue making progress on all the issues he works on during the week.”
The cost of escape
No matter how near or far, there are always taxpayer resources incurred when a president travels.
“There is a significant level of taxpayer expense any time the president departs the White House grounds, whether that’s just for a local stop in Washington, DC, or an overnight in Delaware,” said Jonathan Wackrow, a former US Secret Service agent and CNN law enforcement analyst.
Those expenses include travel and lodging for Secret Service as agents, officers, and technical professionals descend to the President’s destination. There is secure communications infrastructure installed by military personnel. Local law enforcement and other public safety entities, including the fire department and emergency medical services (EMS), are deployed when a president visits. There are also transportation considerations, Wackrow said, including Marine One and its support structure, fuel, mechanical considerations and aircraft security.
Whoever is in office, and wherever they are going, Wackrow says, “There is a massive bubble that moves with the president. The reason why it’s so large is because you can’t have any interruption in his ability to respond to a moment of crisis — it has to equal that of all the resources in Washington.”
Biden’s trips to Camp David, which is a permanent military installation, are less resource-intensive, however, because the presidential retreat is heavily fortified and supported by the military.
“The infrastructure is built in — Camp David has the built in SCIFs, it has the built-in presidential emergency command centers, it has all of the resources that you typically would bring in temporarily, they’re permanently built in at Camp David,” Wackrow said.
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