But perhaps more significant was his choice to worship at Georgetown’s Holy Trinity, the oldest Catholic church in Washington. For Biden, only the second Catholic elected to the presidency, attending mass where John F. Kennedy once prayed was a potent symbol of his faith and its importance in his life.
Most of all, it was a sign that Biden intends to engage with the nation’s capital. Every president makes a mark on the city, and every restaurant, cultural institution and charity hopes some of that will translate into attention and support — in this case, what’s being called the “Biden Bump.”
The Kennedys made Georgetown dinners the most coveted invitations in town. Ronald and Nancy Reagan brought their Hollywood glamour to Washington’s social scene. The Obamas turned date nights into a showcase of the city’s new restaurants. Donald Trump spent his four years going to the Trump hotel, his golf club across the river in Virginia and little else.
After decades as a senator and then vice president, Biden is no stranger to the city. His Washington is a collection of places, passions and emotions — a window into the man and his relationship to the place he now lives. If past is indeed prologue, it’s also a peek at how the new president and first lady will write the next chapter in their adopted town.
The most important thing to understand about Joe Biden, his friends explain, is that he is a homebody at heart.
Unlike most politicians, he spent his days in Washington and his nights in Delaware. What started as a necessity to take care of his young sons after the 1972 death of their mother and sister became a beloved ritual: taking the 90-minute train ride every day to and from Union Station, earning Biden the nickname “Amtrak Joe.”
“He went home every night,” says former Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe. “He didn’t have time for socializing. And he’s more comfortable at home.”
Even when the Bidens lived at the vice president’s residence at the Naval Observatory, they were not what anyone would call social butterflies. They rarely attended Washington’s annual black-tie dinners: In his eight years as vice president, Biden was spotted just once at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner (including a surprising stop at the French Embassy afterward), and only a smattering of times at others, like the Kennedy Center Honors, Ford’s Theatre gala, the American Ireland Fund dinner and the Gridiron. As president, he’s likely to attend these parties more often (if only out of a sense of tradition) and they’d be thrilled to have him.
Still, it is worth noting that most presidents and vice presidents seldom venture out after dark: Their day jobs are grueling, they have precious little downtime, and the apparatus of moving around town is complicated. It is more common to see members of Congress — who typically stay in Washington from Monday to Thursday — and Cabinet members attending fundraisers, private dinners and other A-list events.
The Bidens, long after their children were grown, preferred to stay home. They quietly hosted dinner parties for wounded service members from Walter Reed Army Medical Center and larger receptions at Christmas that became so popular there were often two a night. The final holiday party — and most spirited — was reserved for the friends from Delaware. And, as a proud Irish Catholic, Biden threw an annual St. Patrick’s Day reception, one of the best in the city, McAuliffe says.
And then there were more private gatherings. Philanthropist Adrienne Arsht, who was born in Delaware and has known the president for decades, was invited to the Naval Observatory when Biden was vice president. It was just Joe, Jill and her; no agenda, “just come over for breakfast,” she says. Arsht later became president of the Vice Presidents Residence Foundation, which uses private donations for furniture and art, and the second lady once came to Arsht’s home to speak about education. But Arsht says she never invited them for one of her dinners because “it just wasn’t something they did.”
The Bidens’ most public event was their annual summer party at the Naval Observatory for staff, the press and their families. The cookout was casual, raucous and wet. Sporting khakis and his trademark Ray-Ban sunglasses, Biden would inevitably end up holding a huge water gun, rounding up the delighted kids and soaking their parents. No one had more fun than Joe.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment, but the consensus is that the Bidens will follow the same pattern once the pandemic poses no threat: hosting receptions and dinners at the White House, some of them with little or no press coverage. There will be elegant state dinners — probably several, to rebuild global alliances — but the essence of Biden is playful and family friendly. Think barbecue, not black tie.
The other thing to know about Joe Biden? “He likes to live as much as a regular life as he can,” says a former senior staffer who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak publicly about the president. “He likes to engage.” In other words, social but not socialite.
That means he’s less into fancy dinners and exclusive parties, says the staffer, and more into church, ice cream stops, Rehoboth Beach and spins in his 1967 green Corvette Stingray, although driving is off the table for the foreseeable future.
It probably means, given the security restrictions of the presidency, more “OTRs”: off-the-record, unannounced stops, which Biden loves because he can chat with average, uh, Joes instead of VIPs.
Biden has a weak spot for unpretentious food; one caterer called it “very Joe-from-Scranton.” As veep, Biden had several burger dates with Barack Obama and reportedly ordered a cheeseburger while dining with his wife and granddaughter at trendy French bistro Le Diplomate in 2013.
Italian food is a family favorite — no surprise, because of the first lady’s Sicilian roots. The Bidens hosted a dinner at the upscale Masseria for the Biden Cancer Initiative in 2018, but were also regulars at Pete’s New Haven Style Apizza, where he could be spotted picking up a pizza or spaghetti. Cafe Milano in Georgetown was a regular stop; Biden last ate there in 2019 with his son and grandchildren, then headed up Wisconsin Avenue to Thomas Sweet for ice cream.
There are not enough words here to fully explain the president’s passion for the frozen treat, so we’ll use his: “My name is Joe Biden, and I love ice cream,” he said in 2016. “You all think I’m kidding — I’m not. I eat more ice cream than three other people you’d like to be with, all at once.”
His favorite flavor? Chocolate chip, a fact confirmed by the president via Twitter. His favorite brand? Jeni’s, which he discovered during a swing through Ohio in 2012. His presidential campaign spent more than $12,000 last year sending packages of six half-pints to generous donors. Owner Jeni Britton Bauer returned the favor with the recently released White House Chocolate Chip.
According to his granddaughters in an interview with Harper’s Bazaar, the president eats ice cream all the time. And there are a few Jeni’s shops in the area, including 14th Street and Capitol Hill, so it’s not crazy to think there may be more OTR stops.
Biden likes to combine good food with good causes. In 2018, Biden and Obama dropped by Georgetown’s Dog Tag Bakery, which hires disabled veterans, military spouses and caregivers.
In November, Vice President-elect Harris showed up at the bakery to chat with employees. “She came out in a driving rain in the midst of a pandemic to share a cookie and honor their service,” says owner Connie Milstein.
For several years, the Bidens have met with patients at Walter Reed, as the president did on Friday. After November’s election, a grateful father wrote into the Northwest Florida Daily News about their Christmas Day 2011 visit to his daughter Christi, the wife of a naval officer, who had Stage 4 cancer. “Joe and Jill Biden visited the floor for about 4 hours without any press coverage,” he wrote, adding, “They went from room to room and, if there were children in the room, Joe would sit on the floor and read to them. When he arrived at Christi’s room, he sat on the bed, stroked her hair, and quietly talked to her for about 20 minutes.”
This was, of course, before their son Beau was diagnosed with the cancer that killed him in 2015. The Bidens considered selling their Wilmington, Del., home to pay for his treatment; Obama offered to loan them the money instead.
As it turned out, they were able to keep the house and purchased another in Rehoboth Beach thanks to a three-book deal they signed after Biden left the vice presidency in 2017. The $2.7 million beach house was a dream come true — both for the Bidens, beloved regulars around the popular beach town, and for the locals, who hope the new summer White House will revive local business crushed by the pandemic.
They also spent about two years renting a home in McLean, Va., both to be near Northern Virginia Community College (where the first lady will continue to teach English) and, according to friends, to be close to their granddaughters in Washington during son Hunter Biden’s very public and very messy divorce.
The Bidens leased the McLean house from venture capitalist Mark Ein, starting around the time he brought the former veep to a Wizards game in early 2017. Biden got a standing ovation from the fans, but that should not be construed as his support of Washington sports.
The first lady, who grew up near Philadelphia, is passionate about her teams. “Philadelphia fans are the most, uh, most persistent fans in the world,” Biden said in 2010. “My wife is counted among them. . . . It’s a simple proposition. I root fervently for the Flyers or I sleep alone. It’s not a hard call. It’s not a hard call at all.”
A smart bet? On baseball’s Opening Day, the president throws the first pitch . . . in Philly.
But there may be a bigger prize for Biden’s Washington. The president and vice president both support statehood for the District of Columbia, making it closer to reality than it has been in decades.
As Biden tweeted in June: “DC should be a state. Pass it on.”