WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden has served in elected office for almost four decades. He has interacted with nine presidents. He is accustomed to staff waiting on him, traveling by motorcade, and knew his way around the Oval Office and the mazelike layout of the West Wing from eight years as vice president.
“It feels like I am going home,” he said on Inauguration Day as he approached the White House along the parade route.
But not all of the accouterments of power are old hat for the country’s oldest president. When he flies on Air Force One Friday afternoon to go home to Wilmington, Delaware, for the weekend, it will be his first flight aboard the presidential jet in more than two decades.
As President Barack Obama’s vice president, Biden was prohibited from flying on the Boeing VC-25 that is known as Air Force One. For security reasons, the vice president and the president never fly together. Air Force Two, a Boeing 757, is a smaller, much more cramped and much more modest plane.
Despite his decades in public office, the only trip aboard Air Force One that anyone in the White House or Biden’s circle could recall him taking was in the summer of 2000. Back then, Biden traveled to Colombia as part of a delegation with President Bill Clinton, helping unveil an emergency aid program to fight the narcotics trade and prop up the country’s democracy. Late Friday night, a former Clinton administration official recalled Biden also riding on Air Force One during a 1997 trip to Bosnia.
That means that Jill Biden, the first lady, who accompanied Obama to a community college in Michigan aboard Air Force One in 2015, has been on board more recently than her husband. (At the time, she said she spent her time on the flight grading papers.)
Biden rode on Air Force One on Friday afternoon, but not the one that has so delighted his predecessors. He jogged up the stairs of the Boeing 757-200, which is a smaller, narrow-body jet used for smaller airports like the one Biden was bound for in Wilmington.
“It’s a great plane,” Biden told reporters traveling with him. “It’s the same plane that we had as vice president, only it’s much nicer.”
The trip that has typically left the commander in chief, whoever he is, giddy and gawking at his new perk will have to be postponed.
“When that 747 lands, it’s a sight to behold,” said John Podesta, a former White House chief of staff to Clinton. “When the president walks down those steps, you feel the power of that. He will feel the power of that. It’s a little different from the 757.”
Even President Donald Trump, who liked to brag about his own Trump-branded plane, was impressed.
“This is a very special plane,” he told reporters after taking them to his front cabin for a rare peek en route to Philadelphia. He had been in office for only six days when he showed off a navy blue Air Force One jacket. His press secretary at the time, Sean Spicer, described him as “in awe of the splendor of this plane.”
In 2018, Trump bragged that the plane, equipped to act as a mobile White House, had “about 20 televisions.” Still, he had plans for a makeover for the plane, plans that never came to fruition and that the Biden administration has made clear could not be lower on its list of priorities.
Obama appeared equally captivated by his new ride when he took his first flight in the third week of his presidency, traveling a short distance to Williamsburg, Virginia, to a retreat for House Democrats.
“What do you think of this spiffy ride here? It’s not bad,” Obama said to reporters sitting in the back of the plane. Like Trump, he also made a show of his crew jacket, which had his name stitched on it.
Clinton took his first flight 22 days after taking office in 1993. He flew to Detroit for a nationally broadcast town hall event to lay the groundwork for the economic policies he was set to unveil, while his staff made jokes about how relieved he was to give up his rickety campaign plane, nicknamed “Air Elvis.”
President George W. Bush’s first trip aboard Air Force One after moving into the White House came less than a month into his presidency, when he visited military families and troops at Fort Stewart, in Georgia, part of a slate of trips intended to promote his national security policies.
White House officials would not say when Biden would take his first domestic trip but said that a typical presidential travel schedule was on hold because of the coronavirus pandemic. “Certainly, his preference would be to get on a plane and fly around the country, but that’s not the step we’re planning currently,” the White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, said during a briefing last month.
Other senior administration officials insisted that Biden was not grounded and would travel domestically soon, pointing to the fact that he safely made two trips to Georgia during the transition to campaign for Democratic Senate candidates.
Presidential travel is expensive and time-consuming, but it is also essential to the job, former White House officials said.
“It’s critical for people to feel the presence and be aware of the fact that the president took the time to come to the place where they are,” Podesta said. “One of the things that underlies the deep divisions in the country is people feeling like, ‘You forgot about me.’ Showing up changes that dynamic.”
Podesta said it would be critical for Biden to travel after addressing a joint session of Congress this month, even if it meant taking on some health risks. “He’s going to lay down a lot of ideas of what needs to get built, and he’s got to go to some places where those things will get built,” he said.
But given the pandemic and the politically fragile moment the country is in, Michael Beschloss, the presidential historian, said that staying in Washington more often may work better for Biden.
“After John Kennedy’s assassination, the country was so agitated that the new president, Lyndon Johnson, made a commitment not to travel abroad for a period of time,” he said. “Although for different reasons, Biden’s staying close to the White House has reminded me of that. I believe that right now, seeing Biden in the State Dining Room, announcing how he’s dealing with one supreme problem after another, is more reassuring than it would be to see him on the road, in the middle of a pandemic, trying to find a crowd to speak to.”
Biden, however, may not agree once he has been on the plane.