Crises keep travel-hungry Biden close to White House
President Biden wants to leave Washington more and promote his policies directly to the American people, but outside circumstances — such as the resurgence of the pandemic or the threat of war between Russia and Ukraine — keep pulling him back to the White House.
The president went to Ohio this week, an important state for Democrats in the upcoming midterms, but he faced questions on if he should have taken the trip at all after warning that Russia could invade Ukraine in the next several days.
Biden in a press conference in mid-January lamented that he hadn’t traveled the country to meet face-to-face with voters enough in his first year in office.
Weeks later, he’s still struggling to expand his travel schedule.
The White House often jokes that Biden would like to get outside of Washington every day. He has been traveling once a week in recent weeks to Pennsylvania, Virginia and Ohio, and the White House has set the State of the Union address on March 1 as a time when he wants to ramp that up.
“I think you can expect that to increase around the State of the Union and after,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters this week.
Psaki pointed to issues in Washington that Biden is “constrained by” when it comes to traveling, noting the continuing resolution (CR) funding and “the fact that there is a whole lot going on in the world.” The Senate passed the CR on Thursday to avert a government shutdown, and Biden signed it on Friday.
“Even though he can be president anywhere, he also has a responsibility to sometimes be in the White House — or oftentimes be in the White House. But he’s looking forward to getting out there more in the coming weeks,” she said.
Last summer, with COVID-19 cases relatively low and much of the country getting vaccinated, Biden was able to work rope lines at administration events around the country, interacting with supporters and local leaders.
But the rise of the delta variant, followed by the highly contagious omicron variant, has forced Biden’s travel schedule to be fairly rigid as aides seek to limit his risk of contracting the virus.
The latest outside factor that has overshadowed Biden’s attempts to meet voters and sell his agenda is the ongoing threat of war in Europe. Biden warned while heading to Ohio on Thursday that Russia could invade Ukraine within days, saying the likelihood of an incursion is high.
The White House was pressed about whether the president should have adjusted his travel schedule in light of the developments.
“I don’t have any updates on any travel for this president. As you know, a president deals with multiple things at one time,” deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters.
When asked if the Ohio trip could distract from the foreign policy issue at hand, Jean-Pierre said, “Every president, whether it’s a Democratic president or a Republican, has dealt with multiple crises at once, and that’s what this president is doing.”
Biden, when he ended his remarks in Ohio, said he had to wrap up and get back to D.C. because “there’s a little thing going on in Europe right now.”
He opted to stay at the White House over the weekend to monitor the growing threat from Russia.
Biden has been visibly frustrated by being constrained to the District during his first year in office. He frequently visits his home state of Delaware on the weekends, and he has openly lamented that he hasn’t been able to meet people face-to-face more often.
“I’m going to get out of this place more often. I’m going to go out and talk to the public. I’m going to do public fora. I’m going to interface with them,” Biden said during a Jan. 19 press conference. “I’m going to make the case of what we’ve already done, why it’s important, and what we’ll do if — what will happen if they support what else I want to do.”
Strategists and Biden allies argue it’s imperative that the president find a way to get out on the road more and interface with voters, saying that’s where he is at his best.
“President Biden wants to be out there, it’s in his nature,” said former Rep. Chris Carney (D-Pa.), a Biden ally. “He’s one of the most gregarious, genuine and common people to ever hold the office, and he thrives on interaction with voters all over the nation.”
The second-guessing about whether Biden should have been visiting Ohio with the looming threat of an international crisis underscored the difficulty of balancing presidential travel.
“Presidents get ‘dinged’ if they are perceived to be too insular, and they get dinged if they are thought to be away from the White House too much. Any criticism of presidential travel is usually politically motivated and usually not overly compelling,” Carney said. “In the issues that matter to ordinary people, presidential travel is way, way down the list.”
Joel Benenson, a pollster who worked on the Obama campaigns in 2008 and 2012, noted there are ways for Biden to connect with voters even if COVID-19 remains a concern. He pointed to the virtual town halls then-President Obama held in 2009 when he was selling the Affordable Care Act to the public.
Once the pandemic has subsided more, though, and the calendar has shifted more fully to campaign mode for the midterms, strategists expect Biden to be a frequent figure holding town halls and appearing in battleground states to sell his accomplishments and his vision for the rest of his first term.
“I think Joe Biden is at his best on the campaign trail,” said Max Burns, a Democratic strategist and an opinion contributor for The Hill. “He’s a retail politician and he engages with these issues so much more fluently in intimate settings than he does in these stuffy White House prerecorded things.”