'Car guy' Biden puts his spin on the presidency

When President Biden visited a General Motors factory last week to test-drive one of the new electric Hummers, scheduled to debut next year, he wasn't just highlighting the comeback of the automaker. He was putting a personal stamp on his presidency.

"These suckers are something else!" Biden said as he took the SUV for a couple of laps, including a burnout.

"Anyone wanna jump in the back? On the roof?" he asked.

Biden is a self-proclaimed "car guy" who owns a 1967 Corvette Stingray and frequently shows it off, including on CNBC's "Jay Leno's Garage." Along with his tales of riding Amtrak to and from Wilmington Del., Biden has used cars to tell his own story.

"Biden has got some serious automobile cred," said Robert Thompson, the founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. "He took off with that thing like a 15-year-old with his learner's permit," he added of the Hummer joyride.

And cars, Thompson pointed out, are "firmly implanted in the American heart and soul."

"Cars are everything from the stability of the economy to romance and youth and independence," he said.

Biden's predecessors also tried to mark their time in the White House with their cultural interests. Former President Obama frequently reached into television, music and books to telegraph his persona. Each year, for example, he invited an ESPN crew to the White House to unveil his March Madness bracket. He and former first lady Michelle Obama also hosted hundreds of performers - including Stevie Wonder, John Legend and Lin-Manuel Miranda - to showcase the arts as well as their own stylistic choices.

Former President Trump, one of the most divisive public figures, put a stamp on the presidency in a way that others hadn't.

Trump reinvented presidential communication with his regular Twitter use and shunned White House traditions such as the White House Correspondents' Association dinner and daily press briefings.

Trump's presidency often involved inflaming the nation's culture wars. The former president publicly battled with the NFL over players kneeling and rejected NASCAR for banning the Confederate flag. Trump also loved to create spectacles, including his July 4, 2019, salute to the armed forces at the Lincoln Memorial and his norm-busting 2020 Republican National Convention speech held on the White House lawn. He also memorably took the presidential limo for a spin around the Daytona 500 track in February 2020.  

Former President George W. Bush, a lifelong fan of baseball and onetime owner of the Texas Rangers baseball team, made it a point to incorporate the sport during his time in office. After the Sept. 11 terror attacks, wearing a New York City Fire Department jacket, he threw out the first pitch of the 2001 World Series at Yankee Stadium as the crowd chanted, "USA! USA!" He also threw the first pitch at Nationals Park at the team's inaugural game.

"The thing you learn about presidents when you spend time with them, when you work with them, is they're a lot like us," said Tony Fratto, who served as deputy press secretary to Bush. "People want to feel like they have some personal connection to their president. It humanizes them."

And because presidents live in a so-called bubble, Fratto said, they are vulnerable to the criticism that they are out of touch, and they must "find a way to reach out of the bubble."

"Because of the nature of the job you are untouchable," he said. "So seeing signs of those things that are very relatable to us is very important."

The test drive in Michigan earlier this month was just the latest example for Biden.

He also regularly weaves advice from his father into presidential addresses. His willingness to talk about his family - and particularly his experiences with loss in the deaths of his first wife and daughter and his son Beau - has long been a hallmark of Biden's public life.

He hands out cookies to guests in the Oval Office, a nod to his love of sweets. And one can often hear Biden quote poets W.B. Yeats and Seamus Heaney in his speeches, references that hark back to his Irish heritage.  

"This personalization of his White House and his administration is just a continuation of his kind of soulful approach to life. You just feel it," said Moe Vela, a former Biden adviser who served in the Obama White House. "The man never waivers from who he is at his core."

In many cases, Biden has used a personal touch to promote his domestic agenda.

He delighted in his love of trains back in April when he delivered remarks at a train station in Philadelphia to celebrate Amtrak's 50th anniversary and push for funding to upgrade passenger rail. The $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill, which Biden signed into law last week, contains $66 billion to kick-start rail projects along the Northeast Corridor and expand Amtrak's reach.

The infrastructure bill also contains funding to build a network of electric vehicle charging stations and transition to electric school buses, which he highlighted in remarks at the General Motors plant in Michigan.

And Biden has taken to reflecting on his experience trying to care for his two sons as a single dad and a senator in the 1970s as a way to advocate for the child care provisions in the roughly $2 trillion climate and social policy bill moving through Congress.

Still, political observers question if these personal touches actually move voters, however relatable they may be. Biden's approval ratings have sunk since this summer, and poll after poll shows sharp partisan divides in views of his administration.

"I don't think it's that effective, especially in such a polarized age," said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. "Very little moves voters, and I am not sure those small cues - more interesting to the media than most voters - have significant impact."

Pointing to Biden's stop at the General Motors factory, Thompson agreed: "He could have talked about an electric flying car and the people who like him would still like him and the people who don't like him still won't."