President Joe Biden speaks during an event on gun safety in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, DC, on September 22, 2023.
CNN  — 

“Not a joke, folks,” President Joe Biden likes to say to punctuate points in speeches that few would mistake for jokes.

But these days, he’s been slinging a lot of actual jokes, letting slip the sarcastic sense of humor that he has tended to keep behind closed doors.

As his reelection campaign lays the groundwork for a potential rematch with Donald Trump, Biden’s joke-telling is a way to keep him from coming off like a stodgy soon-to-be-81-year-old with a “stiffened gait,” as some White House aides put it.

It’s also a way of defusing some of the attacks about his age, which advisers felt he was feeding into by being so transparently sensitive about the topic.

And it’s a way of going after Republicans without going fully into the mean-spiritedness that Biden prefers to avoid, trying to portray them as not just extreme and dangerous – which remains his main theme – but absurd.

Most importantly for a campaign obsessing every day over how to reach millions of tuned-out voters, it’s another way of trying to break through.

This is not like his White House Correspondents’ Dinner routine, which followed weeks of friendly Hollywood comedians and veteran speechwriters emailing in suggested bits and one-liners. Nor did the new approach come from an extensively plotted strategy run through internal polls and focus groups in Wilmington and the West Wing. But after years of running up against Biden’s desire to preserve a reverential feeling around the presidency, several in his inner circle spent the spring encouraging him to use his sense of humor more – and they’re pleased enough with the results that more than one privately claims credit for the idea.

A sampling of those results:

On being asked what he thought of Trump’s mug shot, last month: “Handsome guy.”

On the many doubts about his age, last week at a fundraiser: “I’ve never been more optimistic about our country’s future in the 800 years I’ve served.” Then at another fundraiser: “I know I look like I’m 30, but I’ve been around doing this a long time.” And in the Rose Garden on Friday, reflecting on his 1972 election to the Senate at 29 as he looked at 26-year-old Florida Rep. Maxwell Frost, who was appearing with him: “I remember when I was young. … That was 827 years ago.”

On Republican efforts to impeach him, while speaking at a fundraiser in Virginia the night the inquiry process got started: “I don’t know quite why, but they just knew they wanted to impeach me. And now, the best I can tell, they want to impeach me because they want to shut down the government.” Then a few days later, squinting to hear the questions being shouted at him on his way to Marine One when asked for his response to Republicans opening the inquiry: “Lots of luck.”

More on Trump: “You remember the self-professed king of debt? Well, it turned out he was actually the emperor of debt.” And then a few days later: “We’re making ‘Infrastructure Decade’ instead of – remember, we had ‘Infrastructure Week’ for four years with this guy? Not a joke. I wish it had been a joke.”

In a stage whisper to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about the White House press corps at a bilateral meeting in New York last week: “Surprised they haven’t asked me about the auto strike. They usually ask about things that have nothing to do with what we’re talking about.”

These aren’t the stump speech ha-has that have faded to polite chuckles from decades of being told over and over again. They may not win him a Mark Twain Prize for American Humor or a spot in a post-strike writers’ room. But they also aren’t the standard Biden chestnuts – starting speeches by introducing himself as “Jill Biden’s husband” or following up an impish remark by miming a sign of the cross. They’re far from the dad joke-style groaners like when he started his Air Force Academy commencement address this spring by saying that the Secret Service had stopped him from flying barrel rolls ahead of the ceremony.

“It’s a different kind of humor than Trump’s sense of humor, which is always vicious,” said comedian and former Democratic Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota, evaluating how Biden’s laugh lines land.

Biden has let his sarcasm slip out at points before. Aides insist it was an unrehearsed moment at the State of the Union this year when he said, “I enjoy conversion,” after goading House Republicans into standing up next to Democrats when he challenged Congress not to cut Social Security. Or, a few months later, when asked about Elon Musk’s criticism of the economy, he responded by rattling off his own statistics before jabbing at the SpaceX founder: “So, lots of luck on his trip to the moon.”

But several who have known Biden for years now sense a different confidence from a man who says he still looks around when he hears the Marine band playing “Hail to the Chief.” What these associates also detect is a little annoyance and amusement from Biden at what he sees as him being underestimated again heading into what will likely be his final time on the ballot after the longest career at the top level of American politics.

“It’s good to show that you’re not taking things so seriously, and that you’re riding above things a little bit,” said Franken, who resigned from the Senate in 2018 amid allegations he inappropriately touched women. “It’s not about let’s judge this joke, let’s judge that joke. That’s beside the point. You’re saying, ‘I like this guy because there’s a little bit of a lightness there.’ And in the atmosphere that we’re in right now, that is something that I think people value a lot.”

But, Franken suggested, Biden might want to bring in a few more experienced comedians to feed sharper lines.

Cashing in on the jokes

For Biden’s reelection campaign, most of the attempts at humor have focused on milking “Dark Brandon,” the internet meme that depicts a grinning Biden with red lasers shooting out of his eyes and that White House aides and Democratic lawmakers have co-opted to tout his accomplishments. While the meme – which started as an attack by people suggesting Biden’s fuzzy uncle persona was masking a deep agenda – initially needed to be explained to the president, he’s into it now.

“I think you should buy this mug. I’ll ask you nicely,” Biden says in a video posted earlier this month to demonstrate a new color-changing Dark Brandon mug the campaign is selling. “But he won’t,” he adds, referring to his alter ego.

Two-thirds of the merchandise that the reelection campaign has sold online is Dark Brandon-themed, according to officials.

“You would spend millions of dollars trying to AstroTurf that,” said Rob Flaherty, who spent two years at the White House crafting Biden’s online presence and is now expanding on those efforts as one of his deputy campaign managers.

Biden landed the latest video in one take, to his own pride and to the surprise of some on the production team. They have not all come that easy, with aides needing to gently nudge the president on delivery, tweak his lines and suggest that his timing is not quite right.

That can prompt snipes from Biden, with aides recalling him complaining that he didn’t think he would still be hearing from staffers about how to be and what to do when he became president.

Most of Biden’s targets laugh along with him – though several who have been on the receiving end told CNN he can sometimes go a little far and cut a little deep.

Leaning into Dark Brandon and the other bits they’re trying, Flaherty said, “wouldn’t work if there wasn’t a hint of that there’s some truth to who he is.”

Aides on the campaign and in the White House have gotten in on this, as well, consciously deciding that part of their media strategy will be to mock reporters for what they see as double standards, biases and unserious coverage. Tuesday morning, they responded to an article about Biden wearing sneakers partly as a way to mitigate potential slips by posting photos of their own sneakers.

“Whether they come from double standards, sensationalism, burying context, or spreading rightwing spin,” White House spokesman Andrew Bates said in a text message, “it’s important to point out distortion and put absurdity into perspective.”

The White House gets in on the joke

Unlike the former president with whom he may be heading toward a rematch, Biden does not write most of his social media posts.

But, more and more, those who do have been keeping up with the new spirit. Last week, the official White House account on X, formerly known as Twitter, posted a classic meme from The Onion to mock both Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy over the looming government shutdown. On Thursday night, after McCarthy sent members home after hard-liners in his conference bucked him on a key procedural vote, Biden’s official X account responded, “Last time there was a government shutdown, 800,000 Americans were furloughed or worked without pay.” And then, on the next line, “But enjoy your weekend.”

Biden will occasionally chime in with edits to his social media posts. In June, Oval Office aides were briefing him on the language they were going to use to hit back at Republican Sen. Tommy Tuberville’s touting of new federal funds to expand broadband in his home state of Alabama despite voting against the bill that provided those funds. But Biden stopped them. Forget the pablum about red states and blue states agreeing it was a good bill, he told them, and just do a sharper version of the line he had landed at his State of the Union address this year: “See you at the groundbreaking.”

Pennsylvania Rep. Brendan Boyle, who has spent a lot of time with Biden over the years and proudly talks about being fully on board with the president, said he’s glad that the rest of the world is getting to see more of the kind of ribbing he’s heard – and occasionally been hit with – in private.

“I love that,” the Philadelphia Democrat said. “I think Joe Biden is at his best when he’s at his most authentic.”