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Dela-Where He'd Rather Be: Come The Weekend, Biden Leaves D.C.

President Biden rides his bike in Rehoboth Beach, Del., earlier this year with first lady Jill Biden. The family has a beach house nearby.
President Biden rides his bike in Rehoboth Beach, Del., earlier this year with first lady Jill Biden. The family has a beach house nearby.

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.

Biden has spent more of his downtime away from the White House at this point in his presidency than his past two predecessors, according to data kept by veteran White House correspondent Mark Knoller.* Biden spends his time in Delaware. Trump spent time in Florida and New Jersey. Obama made one visit to Chicago. Bush spent time in Texas and Maine.
/ Mark Knoller
Biden has spent more of his downtime away from the White House at this point in his presidency than his past two predecessors, according to data kept by veteran White House correspondent Mark Knoller.* Biden spends his time in Delaware. Trump spent time in Florida and New Jersey. Obama made one visit to Chicago. Bush spent time in Texas and Maine.

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.

In this July 1981 White House photo, former President Ronald Reagan, and then-Vice President George Bush ride horses at Camp David, Md., a compound used by presidents since Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Michael Evans / AP
In 1981, President Ronald Reagan and Vice President George Bush ride horses at Camp David, Md., a compound used by presidents since Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

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.

President Biden's son Beau, his wife Neilia and daughter Naomi are buried in the cemetery at St. Joseph on the Brandywine church in Wilmington.
Mandel Ngan / AFP via Getty Images
President Biden's son Beau, his wife Neilia and daughter Naomi are buried in the cemetery at St. Joseph on the Brandywine church in Wilmington.

"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.

President Biden hugs Jason Casper, a fellow parishioner at St. Joseph on the Brandywine Catholic church in Wilmington during a recent trip home.
Olivier Douliery / AFP via Getty Images
President Biden hugs Jason Casper, a fellow parishioner at St. Joseph on the Brandywine Catholic church in Wilmington during a recent trip home.

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.

Former President Barack Obama (right) walks around Gay Head Lighthouse in 2009 during his family vacation on Martha's Vineyard, Mass.
Jewel Samad / AFP via Getty Images
President Barack Obama (far right) walks around Gay Head Lighthouse in 2009 during his family vacation on Martha's Vineyard, Mass.

"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.

A member of the Secret Service stands guard at Mar-a-Lago club in this 2018 file photo. Former President Donald Trump was criticized for how much money trips to properties he owned cost taxpayers.
Brendan Smialowski / AFP via Getty Images
President Donald Trump was criticized for how much money trips to properties he owned cost taxpayers. A member of the Secret Service stands guard at Mar-a-Lago club in Florida in 2018.

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."

Former President Donald Trump spent a lot of time at his own properties. In 2018, he entertained Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his wife Akie Abe at Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Fla.
Mandel Ngan / AFP via Getty Images
President Donald Trump spent a lot of time at his own properties. In 2018, he and first lady Melania Trump entertained Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his wife, Akie Abe, at Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Fla.

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.' "

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Former President George W. Bush fishes on a pond on his Crawford, Tex., ranch in 2008.
Jim Watson / AFP via Getty Images
President George W. Bush fishes on a pond on his Crawford, Texas, ranch in 2008.