The end of a presidential summer vacation makes for some abrupt trade-offs. The beach for budget battles. Pilates for politics. Sunshine for special counsels.
Heading home from Lake Tahoe on Saturday, President Joe Biden exchanged a week of waterfront seclusion for the more workaday realities of running the country from Washington.
Like many presidents, Biden spent a good portion of August away from the White House, trading the capital’s stifling heat for the beach or the mountains. He rode his bike, he saw a movie in the theater, he took his wife to dinner, he did Pilates with his grandkids.
“It’s magnificent,” Biden said this week of his scenic destination, its lake air scented by pine.
The work has been following him, of course: a devastating wildfire on Maui, flooding on the West Coast, the presumed death of a Russian mercenary leader, the first Republican primary debate, an unfolding Ukraine spending battle, an uptick in Covid cases, several mass shootings – including one in Jacksonville, Florida, on Saturday that resulted in multiple fatalities – and the fourth indictment and arrest of his predecessor and most likely rival for the presidency.
Biden kept abreast of those issues through phone calls, briefings, television news and, in the case of the Hawaii fires, an on-the-ground visit that included around 10 hours of flying time.
Still, his schedule over the past month tells the story of a president eager to escape DC.
Of the first 26 days in August, Biden spent only one day entirely at the White House. On eight of the days, Biden headlined official events, including visits to four states selling his economic agenda, a summit at Camp David and the visit to Hawaii to survey fire damage. He also held events at the White House marking his legislative accomplishments.
The rest of his time was spent between his two Delaware homes, in Wilmington and Rehoboth Beach, and the lakefront home he rented on Lake Tahoe, where he was joined by first lady Jill Biden and members of his extended family, including son Hunter, daughter Ashley, several of his grandchildren and a dog.
Inside the waterfront Glenbrook community, Biden’s unofficial activities were shielded from public view. The neighborhood is one of the most expensive in the country, and prying eyes were kept away by a guard shack and gates. The area has its own private beach and a nine-hole golf course.
The White House did detail some of the presidential tasks Biden undertook. He received near-daily briefings from federal emergency officials about the wildfires and floods devastating parts of the country. He spoke by phone with his national security adviser, Jake Sullivan. On Thursday, he called President Volodymyr Zelensky to mark Ukraine’s independence day and discuss the training of Ukrainian pilots on F-16 fighter jets.
The Bidens stayed at a home owned by the billionaire climate investor Tom Steyer, who briefly ran against Biden for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. The White House said the president and first lady rented the property at “fair market value”; an area website showed one four-bedroom property in the community rents for $12,000 per week.
Summer vacations are routine for presidents, even those who claim to never take them. In August 2017, then-President Donald Trump spent 17 days at his golf course in New Jersey. President Barack Obama regularly spent two weeks each summer on Martha’s Vineyard.
With the vacations usually comes criticism. For Biden, the harshest attacks came following the Maui fires. Although he quickly signed an emergency declaration and worked to marshal federal resources, a “no comment” when questioned about the death toll on the beach led to days of Republican backlash. (The White House later said Biden couldn’t hear the question.)
Aside from a chance to absorb water views and breathe mountain air, an escape in August also allows White House workers to undertake projects that would be impossible while the president is in residence. This year, the driveway was repaved.
Biden did emerge from his wooded enclave in Tahoe on four occasions: to attend church, to make his daylong visit to Hawaii, and twice to take a Pilates class with his family at a shopping center 20 minutes away.
Some onlookers near the Pelodog Pilates and spin studio were incredulous that the president of the United States was inside doing roll-ups and single-leg stretches. At one point a man began singing “God Bless the USA” through a karaoke machine.
On Wednesday, as Biden left the Pilates studio wearing a quarter-zip sweater and carrying a banana-blueberry smoothie, he stopped to take some questions. Did he think Russian President Vladimir Putin was behind the downing of an airplane believed to be carrying the Wagner Group chief Yevgeny Prigozhin?
“There’s not much that happens in Russia that Putin is not behind, but I don’t know enough to know the answer,” he said. “I’ve been working out for the last hour and a half.”
That evening, Biden caught around 80 minutes of the first Republican primary debate at his rental home – “I got the gist,” he said a day later. As Trump was surrendering at the Fulton County jail on Thursday, Biden caught a glimpse of the former president’s mug shot on television: “Handsome guy,” he quipped, a rare nod to his predecessor’s legal sagas.
By his second-to-last day here, Biden’s attention had turned to the myriad issues awaiting him upon his return to Washington. He told reporters he was “concerned” about a potential strike of American autoworkers and revealed he had signed off on a proposal to request additional funding from Congress for new Covid vaccines.
He voiced confidence in a plan to pair a request for new funding for Ukraine with badly needed disaster assistance money, a hint at what could be a prolonged spending battle ahead.
And although two special counsels are now looking into issues related to Biden and his family – one investigating classified documents found in Biden’s personal office and home and the other looking into his son Hunter – the president suggested Friday he wasn’t nearing an interview in the documents matter.
“There’s no such request and no such interest,” he said.
Whether Biden embarks on a similar vacation next summer remains to be seen. When the presidential election is entering its final heat, he could decide to forgo an August getaway, as Obama did in 2012.
That decision is still a year away. Meanwhile, Biden plans to return to Rehoboth Beach next weekend.