Politics

How Biden Uses His ‘Car Guy’ Persona to Burnish His Everyman Image


WASHINGTON — At a Secret Service training facility in Maryland late this summer, President Biden peeled out in his cherished 1967 Corvette Stingray, pushing it to 118 miles per hour, according to the speedometer that flashed across the screen in an upcoming episode of “Jay Leno’s Garage.”

Mr. Biden and Mr. Leno, a fellow car enthusiast, gushed during the show about an electrified classic Ford F-100 — the president’s latest attempt to bridge a passion for muscle cars with an environmental agenda that relies on a transition to electric vehicles.

Two years into his presidency, Mr. Biden is once again embracing a persona that has served him since his earliest days in politics almost five decades ago: the car guy.

The president has long used his affinity for cars to burnish his workaday origins and, more recently, to conjure an aura of vitality despite being the oldest president in American history. In the run-up to the midterm elections next month — with control of Congress and the future of his agenda at stake — Mr. Biden is hoping his gearhead reputation will appeal to some parts of the Republican base.

In a country of car lovers, polls suggest that Democrats are still headed to defeat. But people close to Mr. Biden say his love of cars goes beyond the usual political posturing that is put on display only when voting is near. It is something of an obsession, they say.

In Oval Office meetings to chart the future of America’s car industry, Mr. Biden regales aides with obscure trivia about automobiles that were made before many of them were born.

Ahead of a gathering of car executives at the White House last year to highlight the electrification revolution, the president huddled with staff members to ponder an important national question: Which vehicle might he test-drive for the cameras? He took a hybrid Jeep Wrangler for a spin on the South Lawn — a perk of the presidency he was happy to accept.

“You all know I’m a car guy,” Mr. Biden said at the Detroit auto show last month. “Just looking at them and driving them, they just give me a sense of optimism.”

He added, “Although I like the speed, too.”

The son of a car dealership manager, Mr. Biden has attributed his love of fast cars to his father, who he has said was a great driver. His lineage came with automotive benefits.

In high school, a young Mr. Biden drove a 1951 Plymouth convertible. On the occasion of his senior prom, he impressed his date with a Chrysler 300D that he borrowed from his father’s lot. By the time he was in college, Mr. Biden had purchased a Mercedes 190SL.

The Corvette Stingray, which was maintained by Mr. Biden’s sons during his vice presidency, was a surprise wedding present from his father.

Secret Service rules prohibit presidents and vice presidents from driving on public roads for safety reasons. Once you reach the highest office, you are relegated to the back of a bulletproof limousine.

In 2011, when he was vice president, Mr. Biden told Car and Driver magazine that the security requirement that forbade him to rev engines was “the one thing I hate about this job.”


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Former President Ronald Reagan famously cherished his red 1962 Willys Jeep, which was a gift from his wife, Nancy, that he would only ride around his ranch. In the early 1990s, Mr. Reagan once gave Mikhail S. Gorbachev a ride in his Jeep Scrambler with a license plate that read “Gipper” during a visit to the ranch.

President Bill Clinton used to lament that he could no longer drive his blue 1967 Mustang convertible. In 1994, he drew cheers from a crowd that might have otherwise been hostile when he took his old car for a short drive at the Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Even President Donald J. Trump was known to have a multimillion-dollar luxury car collection, though he was rarely seen driving over the years.

“It’s convenient for senior American politicians to have a favorite American muscle car,” said David A. Kirsch, a professor at the University of Maryland’s business school and the author of “The Electric Vehicle and the Burden of History.” “It is a type of affinity with the American worker, and I think it does connote an image of male virility and machismo that is important for a leader who wants to appear strong.”

Mr. Biden’s love of cars has always been part of his political image.

The 2009 recovery act that Mr. Biden oversaw as vice president was instrumental in saving the American car industry and the rescue of Detroit after the financial crisis the previous year. At the time, Mr. Biden helped lead the rollout of $2 billion in research grants to accelerate the development of batteries for electric vehicles.

When Mr. Biden was seeking re-election in 2012 on the ticket with President Barack Obama, his mantra at campaign rallies was: “Osama bin Laden is dead, and General Motors is alive.”

The White House has sought to capitalize on Mr. Biden’s knowledge of cars and the industry, regularly scheduling events at manufacturing facilities owned by Ford, General Motors and Chrysler. The visits also offer the president the opportunity to engage in car talk while shining a light on an industry in transition.

After Mr. Biden’s visit to Ford last year, when he test-drove the electric F-150 Lightning, the company received 200,000 reservations for the new truck.

“When the president is driving it, people see this is a piece of automotive technology that’s cool,” said Mark Truby, Ford’s chief communications officer.



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