Bidding farewell to his adopted home state in January, Joe Biden – then the President-elect – grew emotional as he boarded his flight to Washington for the inauguration.
“When I die,” he said, wiping away tears, “Delaware will be written on my heart and the hearts of all the Bidens.”
He was back two-and-a-half weeks later.
Feeling confined by what he’s termed the “gilded cage” of the White House and seeking a dose of familiarity, Biden has begun a regular pattern of leaving Washington on the weekends. For the third time in the seven weeks he’s been in office, Biden returned Friday to Wilmington, continuing a pattern of weekend commuting he began as a senator and continued as vice president and seems poised to maintain as commander in chief.
While he has long been a creature of Washington, Biden has never quite been able to quit Delaware, where his lakeside home acts as a gathering point for a tight-knit family and where his life’s memories, some tragic, are the most concentrated.
He’s also taken a liking to Camp David, the mountainside retreat in Maryland where he spent a snowy weekend in February with his grandchildren, including playing a round of Mario Kart.
For Biden, time is mostly family oriented and private. He has yet to play a round of golf, though that may be more due to cold weather than desire; Biden was considered one of Washington’s better golfers when he was serving as vice president and has been a member of Wilmington Country Club in the past.
Biden's First 100 Days
Officials said they expected Biden to decamp either to Delaware or Camp David frequently on the weekends. Eager for the soothing presence of his family and more space to roam than the highly secure White House grounds can provide, he follows a well-worn pattern of presidents ditching Washington come Friday afternoon.
President George W. Bush’s spent frequent weekends clearing brush at his Prairie Chapel Ranch in Crawford, Texas. President Donald Trump regularly escaped to his clubs in Florida and New Jersey, at which he charged the Secret Service for their lodging.
Those presidents’ activities were fairly well-documented, from Trump’s more than 300 days on the golf course or Bush’s efforts at clearing downed limbs and branches from his property, sometimes using a chainsaw. Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton did not have homes they returned to frequently at weekends, though Obama spent some weekends in the desert outside Palm Springs, California, and Clinton used Camp David frequently.
Like them, Biden brings with him only a minimal number of staffers, which past weekends have included senior advisers Bruce Reed and Steve Ricchetti; National Security Council chief of staff Yohannes Abraham; personal aide Stephen Goepfert; and photographer Adam Schultz.
His home has been equipped with secure communications equipment and facilities, though so far Biden has yet to confront major national security crises from the property as Trump often did from Mar-a-Lago.
Biden’s plans for his weekend excursions away from the White House can sometimes be in flux up until a day or two before he departs. A person familiar with the President’s travel schedule says a presumed upcoming weekend at Camp David, for example, can switch to Wilmington instead – a change of mind that is the President’s to make, but can still throw his support apparatus into a last-minute scramble.
“Departing on Saturday instead of a Friday isn’t a big deal for a civilian and neither is changing where you want to go, but that kind of change with him causes a ripple effect,” says the person. “Dozens of schedules and plans and staff have to be altered.”
In recent weeks, Biden has altered his destination or departure date at least three times on quick trips away from Washington, says the person.
Wilmington, where temperatures this weekend will hover in the mid-50s, does not provide the warm breezes of Palm Beach or the dry heat of Texas. Known primarily for its corporate banking industry, the city is not considered a major weekend getaway destination.
But for Biden, it is a place where the constraints of living in the White House are loosened, even for a few nights. He still has errands to run in town, like having his foot examined by his orthopedist. Some of his grandchildren live nearby. His church, St. Joseph on the Brandywine, is five minutes away.
“The President lives in Wilmington; it’s his home. That’s where he’s lived for many, many years,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said last week, explaining why Biden was returning back so frequently even as the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continues advising against non-essential travel amid the pandemic.
“As any President of the United States does, he takes a private airplane called Air Force One to travel there,” she said. “That is, of course, unique from most Americans, but I think most Americans would also see that as a unique circumstance.”
Speaking during a CNN town hall last month, Biden acknowledged that moving into the White House was an adjustment, likening the experience to living in a “gilded cage” compared to the type of life he was used to, which includes walks outdoors, jumps in a pool or riding his bicycle.
“I said when I was running, I want it to be president, not to live in the White House,” he said, describing feeling confined in the executive mansion, despite its size. Part of the awkwardness, he said, was the doting residence staff, who he praised for their professionalism but nonetheless said had taken some getting-used-to.
“I was raised in a way that you didn’t look for anybody to wait on you,” he said. “And it’s where I find myself extremely self-conscious.”
That is not the case at the Delaware lake house, where the Bidens do not employ a large domestic staff and generally take care of themselves. Before he became president, Biden made a habit of walking his two German shepherds, Major and Champ, around the yard before they went to bed.
The dogs moved into the White House in January, where the superintendent for grounds Dale Haney has taken a role in walking them, a duty he’s assumed since Richard Nixon’s Irish Setter, King Timahoe. They are sometimes seen in the Oval Office.
Last week, CNN reported that the younger of the dogs, Major, had what one person described as a “biting incident” with a member of White House security. Both he and Champ, the elder of the two German shepherds, went back to Delaware, which officials said was common when the first lady was traveling out of town.
So far, Biden has not brought Champ and Major back to Delaware aboard Air Force One, though one weekend last month his granddaughter Naomi brought her brown-and-white dog called Charlie back to Washington on the plane.
Biden’s 6,850-square foot home, situated on a lake west of downtown Wilmington, has been his base since 1996, when he purchased the four-acre plot and built a custom house. It’s situated in one of the pricier areas of the state, and a cottage on his property is rented to the Secret Service in an arrangement that began when he was vice president.
Unlike Trump, whose activities at Mar-a-Lago were tracked by camera-wielding guests and chatty members, or Bush, who staged photo-ops while he was clearing brush, Biden’s pursuits at his lake house remain somewhat more guarded.
The home isn’t visible from the road, and reporters have rarely been allowed down the driveway and into sight of the building.
In a photograph released by the White House earlier this year, Biden is shown phoning service members in Kabul and aboard the USS Nimitz while watching the Super Bowl from his wood-paneled den, arm slung over a brown Chesterfield sofa and an archaic square tube television presumably broadcasting the game in the background (the screen was blurred in the image).
Other images from inside Biden’s home show traditional decor like antique tables and a grandfather clock, a black-and-white tiled foyer and shelves scattered with memorabilia from his long career and photographs of his family. When he spent months broadcasting from home during the campaign, his backdrop was a library-style bookshelf adorned with a folded American flag that had flown over the US Capitol in honor of his late son Beau, who is buried in the churchyard near Biden’s home.
In 2016, Biden told CNN he’d considered selling the house to help care for Beau’s children after he passed away from brain cancer. But he said President Barack Obama, upon hearing of the plan, intervened.
“He got up and he said, ‘Don’t sell that house. Promise me you won’t sell the house,’” Biden said. “He said, ‘I’ll give you the money. Whatever you need, I’ll give you the money. Don’t, Joe – promise me. Promise me.’
In the years after he was vice president, Biden purchased a home in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, which the family frequented during the summer months of the campaign and over the holidays before his latest move to the White House.
When Biden first traveled back to Delaware in early February, he told reporters he planned to “see my grandchildren and hang out with Jill,” referring to the first lady, while gathering his belongings “to move from our house to the other house.”
But it’s become clear since then that back-and-forth trips from the White House to Wilmington will be a more regular occurrence, much like Biden did as a senator and later vice president.
For most of his career the trip was made by train, a workmanlike commute that became central to his political persona and earned him naming rights at the Wilmington Amtrak station. The roughly 90-minute ride between Wilmington and Washington was so central to Biden’s story that the then-senator launched his first presidential bid in 1987 at his hometown train station.
When he began his trips in the 1970s, Biden was a somewhat anonymous senator commuting to work. But during his eight years as vice president, whenever he would return to the train, he would be flanked by Secret Service and his reservation would be anonymous for security reasons.
He told CNN in 2017 as he traveled home to Delaware after Trump’s inauguration that he’d made 8,200 round trips on the train over the years.
CNN’s Kate Bennett contributed to this report.