Smaller events, fewer ties — Biden is heeding advice to loosen up

WASHINGTON — Through decades of political life before he entered the White House, Joe Biden rarely shied from leaning into his public persona as an affable everyman more comfortable in a Dairy Queen than the Situation Room. Now a buttoned-up president who often appears behind a lectern in a suit and tie, Biden is heeding pleas from top advisers to return to his original form, according to multiple people familiar with the conversations.

Biden, these people said, is taking advice from confidants who’ve suggested he try a more casual approach in public to try to ease one of voters’ chief concerns about his 2024 candidacy: his age.

That means more informal remarks, unannounced stops at diners and appearances in social media posts and on podcasts, as well as fewer ties and Rose Garden ceremonies. The series of subtle shifts, which aides say they’ve proposed to him in multiple conversations over the past few months, are meant to signal that Biden is more youthful than his 81 years might suggest.

One of the changes will be on display Friday when Biden travels to Pennsylvania. He plans to ditch his usual format of delivering a prepared speech to an assembled audience and to instead make a series of stops at smaller venues, according to the White House. The format, aides say, allows Biden to engage more organically, and directly, with voters.

Biden embraced the approach this week, too. After he delivered a speech at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, he changed out of his suit and tie for an unscheduled stop at Hannibal’s Kitchen nearby. He entered the restaurant holding a baseball cap, then spent about an hour talking to patrons, posing for selfies and recording a local radio interview.

“I forgot how much I love doing this,” he told aides afterward, according to a senior adviser to the campaign.

While informal is often easier to pull off at some campaign events, Biden is also trying the tactic with official presidential events. For a speech at the Black Chamber of Commerce in Milwaukee last month, he chose not to wear a tie and added a quick stop at a small business before the main event. 

Biden aides say several factors have hindered his ability to regularly engage with voters in that way since he took office, including a Covid-19 pandemic that initially required strict testing protocols and social distancing around the president. There’s also a much heavier layer of security around a president than a vice president and far less flexibility in his schedule, aides note.

But aides say another key factor has been Biden’s own view of the presidency. While he embraced an informal public approach as a senator, vice president and even a presidential candidate, Biden’s inclination since he entered the White House is to always appear “presidential,” aides say.

He views the office with an old-fashioned reverence that aides say has led him to adopt a much more traditional and formal style for events both inside and outside the White House.

With 2024 approaching, top Biden allies set out to change that.

In conversations with Biden last year, a senior campaign official made the case directly that the 2024 race offered a chance for a reset in his public appearances, a person familiar with the discussions said. It can be as basic as an outfit change or a drop-in at a restaurant, the official told him, the person familiar with the discussions said.

It’s a contrast from earlier in Biden’s presidency, when his aides were privately blunt, if not dismissive, when they were faced with questions about what they call “the age issue.” A top Biden adviser quipped at the time that short of building a time machine, nothing could change the reality of the nation’s first octogenarian commander in chief.

But as the issue has persisted, despite attempts to address it with jokes or frame it as an asset by arguing that with age comes wisdom, Biden’s team started looking to his past as a politician whose “Uncle Joe” appeal made him an unlikely sitcom cameo player and the subject of a swaggering Onion alter ego.

“His superpower is his authenticity,” another campaign adviser said. The adviser stressed that Biden’s re-election effort is seeking to put more of that side of him on display in the next 10 months before Election Day. 

Aides, who describe him as the “ultimate extrovert,” hope the efforts will also give Biden a boost. They say he often leaves a room with more energy than he had going into it and note that he has prided himself on being a self-described “tactile” politician.

“Campaign Biden is the best Biden,” said Scott Mulhauser, who was deputy chief of staff to Biden, then the vice president, in the 2012 campaign. “Moments like these, in particular, are a terrific reminder of how genuine he is, just how much he loves interacting with folks on the trail and discussing the issues that matter — and how great that is for him and for the campaign.”

While his experience will certainly be a pillar of his re-election campaign, aides said, the goal is to use that argument and show he still has the vigor to serve another term.

Top Biden aides are also quick to point out the age of their most likely opponent, former President Donald Trump.

“We don’t believe this election is going to be a contrast of age,” given that Trump is the Republican front-runner and 77 years old, a senior Biden aide said. “It’s going to be a contrast of values.”

Yet three-quarters of voters said they were concerned about Biden’s age and mental fitness in an NBC News poll released in September, compared to 47% who had either major or moderate concerns about Trump’s mental and physical health.

In an interview that aired Thursday, first lady Jill Biden, the president’s closest adviser, argued that his wisdom and experience should be viewed as an advantage.

“I see Joe every day. I see him out traveling around this country. I see his vigor. I see his energy. I see his passion every single day,” she told NBC News’ Mika Brzezinski. “I say his age is an asset.”