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President Biden is in Wilmington, Del., this weekend, a place he has spent a lot of time as president. In fact, he has spent twice as many weekends at his home there as in the White House. Sometime next week, he is expected to start a summer vacation in — where else? — Delaware.
For Biden the draw of Delaware — the need to be there with his family, in his home — runs deep. Biden is far from the only president to spend time away from the White House, but so far, he’s spending fewer weekends there than the two men who held the office just before him.
Of the first 29 weekends of his presidency, Biden spent just six at the White House. He was in Wilmington, Del., for 14 of those weekends, and Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland, for eight. (He spent one weekend in Europe at the Group of 7 summit.)
Biden’s downtime puts him just behind George W. Bush, who at this point in his presidency had spent 79 days away, mostly at his Crawford, Texas, ranch, where he cleared brush when he wasn’t holding meetings.
The statistics in this story come from Mark Knoller, a veteran White House correspondent known for his meticulous documentation of presidential movements and trivia.
Over the whole of his presidency, Bush spent a total of more than a year at his ranch, Knoller said. Ronald Reagan spent more than a year’s worth of time at Camp David and nearly a full year at his ranch in California, where he enjoyed riding horses.
Why Biden goes to Delaware
For Biden, Delaware is home. He has said he struggles with the formality of the White House, where people are always around. “It is very hard to get comfortable,” Biden said during a recent CNN town hall, adding he likes to be able to walk out in his bathrobe and grab breakfast for himself.
But it’s more than just comfort. “It’s a very important part of who he is, and keeps him grounded,” said Ted Kaufman, a longtime friend. After Biden’s daughter and wife were killed in a car accident in 1972, then-Sen. Biden rode the train home to Delaware every single night to be with his sons.
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“For 19 years I was chief of staff, so I made 4,827,650 … I don’t know what the number is — some incredible number of trips back and forth with him,” said Kaufman with a laugh.
When they traveled together, Biden would leaf through architectural magazines, sketching out ideas on a pad of paper for his dream home in Wilmington, Kaufman said. Biden spent years planning and designing the house, right down to the doorknobs, Kaufman said.
One time, the train broke down about 15 miles outside of Wilmington. “And he just walked out to the highway and hitchhiked home,” said Kaufman.
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Biden doesn’t need to hitchhike anymore. He takes Air Force One or Marine One, plus a full security detail and top aides. When in Wilmington, he mostly stays at home, though he sometimes leaves to attend Catholic Mass or to play golf.
When in Delaware, Biden’s grandchildren often visit and there are family meals. Kaufman said this is important time, keeping the president centered.
“It is the way he feels most comfortable, especially in a job that is incredibly stressful,” Kaufman said.
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“The world intervenes” on a president’s vacation
The presidential vacation, ensuing minor controversy and administration insistence that it isn’t really a vacation, is something of a summer tradition.
“Every president is always working no matter where they are, right?” said White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Friday. “That’s always how it works.”
Knoller remembers being in California with Reagan when an American aircraft was shot down and the president had to make a hasty return to Washington.
“There have been times like that, during practically each of the subsequent presidents,” said Knoller. “You know, the world intervenes on what you or I might call vacation. But it’s really just a change of venue.”
Barack Obama was on vacation on Martha’s Vineyard in 2014 when Islamic State militants beheaded an American journalist in Syria. He held a news conference and then golfed, sparking heated criticism.
Donald Trump was at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida in 2017 when he ordered an airstrike on Syria, later recalling that he had been eating “the most beautiful piece of chocolate cake” with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the time. Trump was at his Bedminster golf resort in New Jersey when white supremacist protesters descended on Charlottesville, Va., and a counterprotester was killed.
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Trump’s destinations: his commercial properties
What made Trump’s downtime different was the type of destination. He spent his vacation at commercial properties he owned, where there were paying customers. The government paid his family’s company for rooms and golf cart rentals for Secret Service agents.
He was often defensive about his time away from the White House, refusing to admit that he was relaxing.
“We have a series of meetings and more importantly, a series of very well-connected phone calls,” Trump said as he prepared to board Marine One in 2019 to go to Camp David. “We have a great phone system up there, as you know. So I’ll be doing a lot of work.”
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Vacation criticism comes with the job
Criticism of presidential vacations is almost as old as the republic itself, dating back to John Adams, who took lengthy trips to his farm in Massachusetts, says Brendan Doherty, a political science professor at the U.S. Naval Academy. Of course, communications technology has improved significantly since then.
Doherty says says being president is a high-stress job that never really stops.
“Regardless of always being on the job, they get criticized for what they do,” said Doherty. “Nancy Reagan once said, ‘Presidents don’t get vacations. They just get a change of scenery.’ “
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