Biden stays close to home as he plots blue-collar focused presidential travel
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Biden stays close to home as he plots blue-collar focused presidential travel

Want to see President Joe Biden in person? Consider a move to Pennsylvania.

That is where the President visited again Wednesday, his sixth visit to the commonwealth of his birth since taking office six months ago. He toured a Mack Trucks facility in the Lehigh Valley, met with local union members and received a briefing on the company’s new electric dump truck.

“It’s a nice area,” Biden observed to one of the facility’s employees as they walked alongside a cab assembly line. “It’s almost heaven. I’m from Scranton.”

Biden has embarked upon a relatively limited travel radius inside the United States as president, focusing his visits to states that can be visited in a day and don’t require an overnight stay. Aside from Pennsylvania and Delaware, where he frequently spends weekends, Biden’s top-visited states are Ohio and Michigan, each of which he’s been to three times.

Repeat visits to critical electoral battlegrounds aren’t particularly surprising for a first-term president, even though Biden is not himself up for reelection for three years. All are short flights aboard Air Force One from Washington. Pennsylvania and Ohio will be the site of contested Senate races next year. And those states’ working-class towns and industrial heritage make them well-suited to promote infrastructure, Biden’s current chief agenda item.

Still, Biden’s habit of returning again and again to Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan has come at the exclusion of other parts of the country. He hasn’t visited the nation’s most populous state, California, or its most populous city, New York. And aside from his foreign trip in June, he hasn’t spent a night away from the White House, Camp David or his homes in Delaware.

The White House declined to expand on Biden’s travel strategy. But a pattern has emerged in each of Biden’s trips that underscores his attention toward blue-collar workers. Speaking after visiting a training center for electrical workers in Cincinnati last week, Biden underscored why he has focused in particular on union workers.

“If every IBEW person decided they’re going to quit, this country comes to a screeching halt,” he said in a video posted to Instagram. “There’s a lot of white-collar businesses that could actually quit tomorrow and the nation is still going to move.”

On previous visits to Pennsylvania, Biden could be found touring a flooring company in Chester, speaking at a carpenters training facility in Pittsburgh and celebrating Amtrak’s 50th anniversary at Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station. He even briefly dipped into the commonwealth on Saturday when he went for dinner at his sister Val’s home.

He has engaged in similar activities in neighboring Ohio, which he visited most recently last week, and Michigan, where he took a joy ride in one of Ford’s new electric pickup trucks in May.

“Biden’s frequent trips to Pennsylvania and Michigan follow in the footsteps of George W. Bush, Obama, and Trump, who all dedicated a substantial portion of their early presidential travel to states that they had narrowly won or lost in the previous election,” said Brendan Doherty, a US Naval Academy professor who studies presidential travel.

Six months into his presidency, Biden has traveled to 15 states altogether, almost all east of the Mississippi, a strategy emphasizing agenda items benefiting Americans living in middle-class parts of the country.

Trips further afield — including to Houston in February to survey storm damage and to Miami this month after a catastrophic condo building collapse — have occurred after disasters rather than to promote his agenda.

Campaigning for critical seats

The places he has visited most often — Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Ohio — make up a critical voting belt where he hopes to sustain support for Democrats using items like infrastructure investment, expanded support for families and an ongoing vaccination campaign. Democrats are fighting to maintain control of Congress next year in contests that historically go poorly for the sitting president’s party.

Recent stops have targeted House battlegrounds, including a district outside Chicago where Democratic Rep. Lauren Underwood is a top target for Republicans looking to gain seats in next year’s midterms.

“This woman here, hang on to her,” Biden said as he toured a day care facility alongside the lawmaker.

This month Biden has also visited competitive districts in Wisconsin and Michigan, a sign of his early willingness to use his draw to boost Democrats in the coming elections.

Jen O’Malley Dillon, Biden’s 2020 campaign manager and his deputy chief of staff in the White House, said the President has been a supporter of party building throughout his decades in public life and has told his top aides that he wants to do “whatever he can” to help the party while he is in the White House.

“He has made it abundantly clear his priorities are that he continues to do what he’s always done, what he did in ’18, what he did in ’16, which is go across the country and help wherever possible,” said O’Malley Dillon. “He wants to make sure that, as the leader of the party, that the DNC, the state parties have the resources they need.”

Biden’s desire to actively sell his agenda items in the places that will determine Democrats’ fate in next year’s midterm elections reflects his belief that his policy makes good politics. It also a sign he is hoping to avoid what he’s said was a major mistake during the Obama administration: a failure to sell what the President had accomplished during his first years in office.

Visiting swing districts — and even some areas where he lost in the 2020 election — marks a departure from former President Donald Trump, who mostly traveled to places where he was popular and could draw large crowds for his rallies.

Still, presidential travel isn’t all about politics. Commanders in chief are called upon to visit places struck by disaster, spotlight areas of the country overlooked in the national conversation and engage all Americans. Presidents Barack Obama, Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush each visited all 50 states while in office.

Historically, the states that have hosted the most presidential visits over the past three decades are the most populous: California, New York, Florida and Texas.

Biden has sought to highlight West Coast issues by convening governors virtually to discuss historic heat and wildfires. The White House said recently the President was “quite focused” on the fire issue. But he hasn’t made a trip to the Pacific or Mountain time zones.

“At this point in their presidencies, Carter, Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama all had already traveled to the West Coast. Trump’s farthest trip west at this point in his term was to Iowa,” Doherty said.

The close-to-home itineraries are partly due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, which limited travel options in the early months of Biden’s presidency. After new mask guidelines were issued Tuesday for parts of the country with high rates of transmission, Biden’s aides said they would be certain to follow local rules when the President travels.

His wife, by contrast, has ventured further afield, promoting vaccinations in California, Arizona and New Mexico. She also visited Alaska and Hawaii on her way to and from the Tokyo Olympics. Vice President Kamala Harris has also traveled to her home state of California at multiple points since being sworn into office.

By this point in their presidencies, both Trump and Obama had each traveled to a relatively similar number of states at Biden: Trump had visited 15 at the six-month mark while Obama had been to 17.

Like Biden, Trump stuck close to the East Coast but Obama had made stops in Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and California.

All are eclipsed by former President George W. Bush, who had made stops in 29 states by July 20, 2001 — including both of the Dakotas.

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