WASHINGTON (AP) — One handshake, one hug, and one selfie at a time. If President Joe Biden could greet every American in this way, his longtime allies say, his approval rating would soar.
Biden has never been at his best in big speeches, where his speech can be stilted, his stories sometimes meandering. It’s the end of his speech that often marks the beginning of Biden’s favorite part of an event – the rope line, in political agent parlance. He turns, scans the crowd and targets his first target for a one-to-one connection.
It could be with someone like Tim Eichinger, a brewery owner in Milwaukee, who asked Biden a question at a TV town hall 20 months ago, and has since had a one-on-one video conference with the president and Biden a few letters. sent to his grandson.
It could be a small kid – Biden likes to have some cash on him so he can discreetly give kids a few bucks and encourage them to buy ice cream. It could be someone who stutters – they come in for special attention from the president.
After Biden gave one speech about student loans on Friday, at Delaware State University, there were lavish handshakes and photos with the students on the podium. Last Tuesday, at a Democratic National Committee event in Washington, Biden invited an audience member backstage for a private photo, signing some of the abortion rights signs participants had waved and robbed in a handful of selfies.
Aid workers say the 79-year-old has perfected his selfie arm, the products of which are widely shared on social media.
At an August event for Maryland Democratic nominee for governor Wes Moore, Biden spent more than 75 minutes in three different rooms greeting people after the speech ended. He got cheers when he grabbed the baton of a high school drum major and posed with it for a picture for the marching band.
It’s all part of an approach that Biden has largely perfected through decades of rejoicing in his home state of Delaware, which had a population of just over 1 million and about half that when Biden was first elected to the Senate in 1972. .
It’s been challenging to scale that kind of personal politics to the presidential level, first when Biden campaigned for the Oval Office in the COVID-19 pandemic that curtailed his public obligations and now he’s in the White House, where the demands of his time — and security — are greater.
The hard fact, politically speaking, is that one-on-one warmth and empathy only go so far. They helped him forge bipartisan ties in the Senate, but from the White House, most voters usually only see the president at scripted or staged moments. Biden staffers have sought ways to show voters the president’s private interactions, with behind-the-scenes videos of some of the meetings, even if it’s unlikely they’ll ever stand a chance.
Still, Biden insists that time be built into his schedule so he can interact with people during his events — encounters like these seem to energize him and help inform his policy making.
There can also be occasional awkward moments, such as when a presidential quip comes off badly, which in today’s partisan environment is often broadcast online by its political rivals. But they are outnumbered by the positive interactions that have shaped Biden’s career and tested the stamina of his aides.
“He outlives us,” White House deputy chief of staff Jen O’Malley Dillon told The Associated Press of Biden’s tendency to shake hands for 30 minutes, an hour, sometimes longer.
“He will take as much time as he wants,” added Stephen Goepfert, Biden’s former personal assistant, or “body man.”
The president, whose polls have risen in recent months but remain negative, have held relatively few major political events in the run-up to midterm elections. Many Democratic candidates don’t see a Biden appearance as a plus. Assistants say his schedule — and the size of his audience — will increase as his party turns to get the votes.
But don’t expect the little encounters to disappear.
Biden, aides said, seems to detect when someone is going through a personal or family crisis — perhaps based on his own experiences of grief and challenge: the death of his first wife and daughter in a car accident, the loss of his son to cancer. , his recovery from a pair of life-threatening brain aneurysms, a decades-long struggle to overcome a stutter.
“He just instinctively knows how to show up for what that person needs, in whatever way,” O’Malley Dillon said.
Goepfert followed hundreds of events during the campaign and stepped into the White House behind Biden before leaving in August. “I’ve seen him comfort people who were in tears over their personal hardships, comfort someone who was recently diagnosed with cancer, honor an experienced soldier with a handshake and one of his challenge coins, and also give a youngster money for ice cream just to get the speech — and all in the same line,” he said.
As Biden makes his way through a crowd, he often calls on an assistant to take someone backstage for a photo, gather their information for follow-up, or jot down the phone number of a loved one who couldn’t be there for a surprise call from the president.
In his armored limousine after an event, Biden is “ready to follow up on the people he met, and he’s already on the phone,” Goepfert said.
These fleeting encounters sometimes evolve into lasting relationships.
Before becoming president, Biden often gave his cell phone number to young people seeking advice on how to overcome the speech impediment. Now in the Oval Office, Biden is still in touch with many of them by phone, sending feedback and words of encouragement from Air Force One.
Thirteen-year-old Brayden Harrington’s speech about how candidate Biden coached him to overcome his stutter was a emotional climax of the 2020 Democratic National Convention.
Another 13-year-old boy, Ryan, of Arlington, Virginia, continues to exchange texts and video messages with Biden through the staff after meeting the president at a meeting in 2019. Ryan, whose mother asked not to use his last name, said that Biden “helped me be brave” and joined his school’s choir.
On another occasion, Biden’s brief meeting with France’s deputy ambassador about their shared connections with Ireland yielded a touching letter to the diplomat. “over the moon” son.
Annie Tomasini, director of Oval Office operations, and her associates monitor Biden’s interactions and coordinate the phone calls and letters that often follow rope-line meetings. Some of these relationships have been around for more than a decade.
“He takes those orders and they stay with him,” Tomasini said, adding that they are reflected in Biden’s policy goals.
“It really drives how he comes back and says, ‘Hey, listen, guys, we need to focus on these pieces,'” she said. His staff has become accustomed to asking about specific things Biden hears about from Americans on the rope or whom he met when leaving the church.
“It’s just really who he is,” said O’Malley Dillon. “He has been in many of the shoes the American people are in.”
Eichinger, co-owner of Black Husky Brewing in Milwaukee, hadn’t given it much thought when Biden promised to follow up on a question he asked the president during a cable news town hall. A few days later, he received a call from Ashley Williams, deputy director of Oval Office Operations, who wanted to put him in touch with Biden’s economic staff for a briefing and to schedule a Zoom with Biden that would eventually take 30 minutes. to last.
“I said I really didn’t expect them to do that,” Eichinger recalls. “She said, ‘No, he’s not like that. If he says something, he expects us to follow up and keep that relationship going.’”
Eichinger and his family later toured the White House over Christmas, and Biden sent his school-age grandson a letter praising his violin playing after Williams showed him a video Eichinger had sent.
“I’m just one of 330 million people here,” Eichinger said. “They continue to feel that what I have to say is important.”
Follow AP’s coverage of the election at: https://apnews.com/hub/2022-midterm-selections
Checking out https://apnews.com/hub/explaining-the-selections to learn more about the issues and factors involved in the 2022 midterm elections.
JOIN THE CALL