Dec 17, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Biden leans on Air Force One sounding board

Animated gif of an airplane overhead panel with a blinking cursor
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

As he travels the country, President Biden is tapping an unofficial group of advisers to help hone his message: the lawmakers flying with him aboard Air Force One.

Why it matters: Previewing his remarks to mostly Democratic lawmakers in the conference room of the iconic aircraft, Biden's found a way to catch up on the kinds of in-person interactions and instant feedback that COVID-era precautions have greatly curtailed on the ground in Washington.

  • In the process, he's made some lawmakers feel a part of his team, building goodwill for battles down the line.
  • He's also gained last-minute, hometown intel to help him avoid potential political blunders on the ground.
  • And for the lawmakers, it's a rare opportunity to share unfiltered thoughts with a president with a notoriously protective staff.

What they are saying: “He listened,” Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) who flew to Kansas City with Biden earlier this month, said of their conversation on the plane. “The reason I know he listened is because he changed some of his speech.”

  • “We went together knee-to-knee for like 20 minutes," recalled Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), who traveled with Biden this summer to South Florida after the collapse of the Champlain Towers South condominium. “I had a chance to look him in the eye to talk him through the detail that would really best prepare him when he landed on the ground.”
  • Rep. Annie Kuster (D-N.H.) described the New Hampshire delegation snacking on presidential M&Ms in the plane's conference room in November as they helped Biden craft a speech to "make it feel very connected to the district."

“The President relishes the opportunity these trips provide for him to talk directly with lawmakers about his legislative agenda and what’s on the minds of their constituents,” said White House spokesperson Michael Gwin.

The big picture: The modern presidency is isolating by nature. Many of Biden’s predecessors have likened the White House, at times, to a well-appointed prison.

  • President Obama grew so frustrated with the bubble that he ditched his press pool one spring day in 2014, making an impromptu run to a Starbucks across the street. He declared: “The bear is loose.”
  • President Trump's workarounds, to the chagrin of some aides, involved constant engagement with friends, lawmakers and unorthodox advisers by phone or in-person at the White House or his Mar-a-Lago and Bedminster retreats, before and during the pandemic.
  • For Biden, who's sought to message responsible COVID-19 precautions, the solitude of the office has only increased as a result of the pandemic and all the public health restrictions the White House has imposed.

Biden is a tactile politician. Traveling outside the White House is one of the few ways he can escape the bubble and interact with people who haven’t been screened by his staff.

  • “When he's able to get out, he does it,” said Sen. Bob Casey (D-Penn.) who traveled with the president to Scranton in October.
  • “There was an impromptu rope line there that ended up being a lot longer than I'm sure they wanted.” Casey deadpanned: “He met all 55 people twice.”

Between the lines: The presidency is vested with immense powers, but COVID-19 precautions have devalued some of the White House’s soft currency — think invites to state dinners and private movie viewings — presidents have used to curry favor with lawmakers.

  • “I have one serious regret,” Biden told donors at the Hotel Washington earlier this week. “I had hoped by now each one of you who had helped us get to where we are would have had full access to the White House.”

By the numbers: So far, Biden hasn't used Air Force One to soar above the partisan divide of Washington.

  • On seven flights that Biden has taken with lawmakers, some 20 Democrats but just one Republican — Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.) — were aboard, according to an Axios review of pool reports.
  • For Biden’s trip this week to view Kentucky's storm damage, the White House invited all eight members of the congressional delegation, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
  • Only one, Comer, accepted.

Go deeper: Lawmakers aren't the only ones giving Biden feedback on these trips. From the motorcade routes to one-on-one interactions, the public is weighing in, sometimes in jarring ways.

  • At Delaware's Dover Air Base in August, his conversations with the grieving family members of troops killed in Kabul were difficult and raw. “Don’t you ever forget that name,” one glaring father admonished the president, according to the Washington Post.
  • On his route through Kentucky this week, “Let’s go Brandon,” signs gave Biden a reminder of the crude passions of many of his critics who align with former President Trump.

The bottom line: Biden craves interaction and a feel for the sentiment on the ground.

  • After spending the flight to Michigan going over his speech, Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) figured Biden would be too busy to talk on the flight home.
  • “But shortly after takeoff, he came back in and sat at the head of the table and was there until we landed.”
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