Much of this would ordinarily be utterly unremarkable. But in a nation that has endured more than a year of being tossed from its routines and unmoored from any sense of equilibrium, the past week was perhaps Biden’s closest return to a traditional presidency.
It was one where the coronavirus, while still a concern, was not the all-consuming crisis that it has been for the past 15 months. Like a conventional president, Biden released his federal budget proposal, toured small businesses and prepared for his first international trip. Like a politician in normal times, he dispensed hugs and handshakes.
It was a week where Biden seemed to slide into the routines he had embraced for almost a half-century, but was forced to suspend early last year.
After one of his longtime Senate staffers died, the frequent eulogizer attended a wake in Wilmington, Del., the kind of activity that he and most Americans avoided during times of social distancing. Later in the week, when Biden got an urge for a treat, his motorcade pulled off the highway for ice cream.
At times, Biden veered close to flippancy. Asked on Thursday afternoon for his reaction to Republicans preparing to block a commission into the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, Biden held his ice cream aloft.
“Eat some chocolate, chocolate chip,” he said, before catching himself. “I can’t imagine anyone voting against the establishment of a commission on the greatest assault, since the Civil War, on the Capitol,” he offered.
“But at any rate,” he continued. “I came for ice cream.”
On Friday, Biden was in Virginia, touring a rock-climbing facility in Alexandria, talking to spotters and bantering with reporters on whether he would attempt a climb.
Biden has set Independence Day as the moment when he wants most of the country to begin feeling normal again. But Memorial Day is now staking its claim to that position, albeit with some mixed signals and confusion.
Airplanes are filled again, with levels approaching what they were in 2019 before the dramatic drop-off last year. Biden’s administration on Friday warned holiday weekend travelers that they will see lines at Transportation Security Administration checkpoints.
Drivers were cautioned about congested roads and highways. This weekend, more than 37 million people are expected to travel more than 50 miles from their home, according to AAA, a significant increase from the record low 23 million last year.
Demand has caused a rise in gas prices to their highest level since 2014, according to AAA, prompting the White House to try to get ahead of the issue.
“The president knows that gas prices are a pain point for Americans — especially the middle-class families he’s put at the center of his economic agenda,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Friday, adding that Biden opposes raising the gas tax.
Biden has increased his own travel schedule notably in recent weeks, veering into swing states that could be important in next year’s midterm elections. He traveled to Ohio on Thursday and made two stops in Virginia on Friday.
Perhaps the most striking part of his week has been the shift away from the coronavirus. While Biden has said repeatedly that the fight against the pandemic is not over, much of his rhetoric is optimistic — and much of his attention suddenly elsewhere.
Over five days this week, the White House released nine statements and only one had anything to do with covid.
“Finally, after a long year, there are some very bright lights at the end of this long tunnel,” Gov. Ralph Northam (D-Va.) said while joining Biden at Sportrock Climbing Centers in Alexandria on Friday morning.
It was the first day since March 2020 that Virginia had no capacity or social distance limits on restaurants and other businesses, Northam said, adding, “We are closer to a more normal life than we have been in the past 14 months.”
A high school junior then took the microphone, recounting the long stretch of washing hands, wearing masks and avoiding the swimming pool.
“I’m able to be here today fully vaccinated and without a mask. It feels great,” said Jacob Bosley, a 17-year-old from Lake Braddock High School in Fairfax County. “And I’m really excited to get back to normal and enjoy my summer vacation.”
Biden, too, took note.
“We’re getting our lives back,” Biden said. “Stores and restaurants up and down Main Street are hanging open signs on their front doors. And here at the rock climbing gym . . . we’re greeting one another with smiles with our masks off.”
He then looked up.
“And I’m about to do this 60-foot wall,” he joked.
On Friday afternoon, Biden was in another traditional presidential setting: before a giant American flag, addressing a crowd of service members. At an appearance at Joint Base Langley-Eustis in Hampton, Va., he told the troops: “You make up 1 percent of the population defending 99 percent of the rest of us. We owe you.”
He also defended his decision to pull U.S. troops out of Afghanistan, arguing that “the greatest threat and likelihood of attack” on the country is no longer from Afghanistan but other regions of the world.
He assured the service members they had accomplished their mission in the war-torn country. “You never gave up until we delivered justice to Osama bin Laden,” Biden said. “I got criticized after 9/11 for saying, ‘We’ll follow the son of a . . . gun to the gates of hell till we get him. It’s exactly what you did.”
Biden left out the fact that he had expressed skepticism about the raid authorized by President Barack Obama that resulted in bin Laden’s death.
Biden also told the service members of his late son, Beau, whose Army National Guard unit was deployed to Iraq. It was part proud father — “I shouldn’t be talking so much about my son, but I’m not going to apologize for it” — and part citing Beau as someone they could relate to.
“He’s like a lot of you,” Biden said. “You do your duty.”
By midafternoon Friday, he did what many other Americans were also doing in a return to old habits: cut out of work a bit early on the Friday before Memorial Day.
He boarded Air Force One with his wife, and they flew home to Wilmington, arriving at home at 4:20 p.m.