The cameras were rolling in the Oval Office as President Biden placed a surprise call last month to Ghostburger, a local eatery with bright pink decor that debuted during the pandemic in 2020, ordering cheeseburgers to the White House for his weekly lunch with the vice president.
Ghostburger quickly highlighted Biden’s order on its social media pages — to good effect. “Our sales are up almost 100 percent,” Josh Phillips, co-owner of Ghostburger, said two weeks after the president’s takeout order. “People have been coming in asking for the same thing Biden ordered.”
Biden has leaned into his role as consumer in chief, eating Jeni’s ice cream, donning Ray-Ban sunglasses, test-driving electric vehicles and telling stories about his 1967 Corvette convertible. Traveling the country, he stops at local taco shops and ice cream joints to get takeout, posing for pictures and chatting with staff. A few days after Biden’s inauguration in 2021, his motorcade stopped at Call Your Mother deli, a Washington bagel shop co-founded by his incoming chief of staff, Jeff Zients.
Many presidents have made a point of patronizing picturesque small businesses, a way to show off their common touch and sometimes to accentuate a policy push. President Barack Obama ate at places like the tiny Kenny’s BBQ Smokehouse on Capitol Hill. President George W. Bush dined at the Peking Gourmet Inn, in a modest shopping center outside Washington, a place his father also frequented.
But few have embraced small-time eateries and ice cream parlors, or showcased their habit of hitting local stores and boutiques, as regularly as Biden. The practice is central to his political image as an ordinary American — one who grew up in Scranton, Pa., and commuted for years on the Amtrak — even if he has, in fact, not been a regular citizen for decades. It has also become a way for him to highlight the new businesses that have opened during his administration.
But in an era when even the biggest all-American brands, including Disney and Coca-Cola, can find themselves caught up in the country’s polarized debates and culture wars, not all businesses are eager to be too closely associated with any president.
In October, Biden made an impromptu shopping trip to menswear store Jos. A. Bank near his home in Delaware. “We were pleasantly surprised to see President Biden arrive at our store,” said John Tighe, president of Tailored Brands, the parent company of Jos. A. Bank. “Our store associate even shared how patient the president was waiting in line behind another gentleman who was checking out.”
But Jos. A. Bank also opted not to play up the Biden connection, perhaps seeking to stay out of the political fray. The company did not publicize the president’s October visit and also stayed mum after his second trip to the same store in December.
“We are proud to have had many notable figures shop with us over the years,” Tighe said, adding that the company’s policy toward customers is to “respect their right to privacy” and treat everyone, including the president, the same. He declined to disclose whether Biden’s visits to Jos. A. Bank led to a bump in sales, saying the retailer “saw strong customer interest and sales across our store portfolio both before and after the president’s visit.”
Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump — who is vying to unseat him in 2024 — has been treated even more circumspectly by the businesses he favors. Four years ago, Trump invited photographers to document a spread of sandwiches from Burger King, Chick-fil-A and Wendy’s that he had ordered to the White House to feed dozens of college football players.
Trump was seeking a workaround during a government shutdown that had sent the White House cooks home, and the response from the companies involved were notably cautious, aware of the potential drawbacks of associating with a president in the midst of a political battle.
With Biden gearing up for a potential reelection bid, he is turning ever more noticeably to companies and brands to showcase his economic record and his personal side. Trump, meanwhile, is blasting Biden’s policies as disastrous for small businesses while also aiming to reengage with the kind of business-focused campaigning that he pursued before a number of brands distanced themselves from his turbulent presidency.
Such efforts to navigate retail politics are a way for candidates to locate themselves in the country’s cultural and social landscape, said Russell Riley, a presidential historian at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center.
“There is an interesting dynamic between a president’s image and the products a president is known to use, or the establishments a president is known to frequent,” Riley said in an email. “The president can shape his own public image depending on which ‘products’ he uses. And commercial interests can be advantaged (or not) by getting a president’s practical endorsements.”
Aides to Biden say he plans to continue showcasing both small businesses and large companies as he pitches his economic record in the coming months. The effort involves both impromptu stops at local establishments and highly choreographed events at larger companies, though aides emphasized that Biden does not make official endorsements of private companies.
The president posted the video of his call to Ghostburger on Twitter as part of a White House push to celebrate the more than 10 million new businesses created since he took office. “More proof that our economic plan is working,” he wrote.
But Republicans are spotlighting Biden’s record by focusing on business owners, attempting to link their struggles with high inflation and economic uncertainty to the president’s policies.
“A box of limes that I used to be able to find for $30 now costs me $90,” Dina Rubio, owner of Don Ramon Restaurant in West Palm Beach, Fla., told a House committee last year. “I have been forced to raise prices just to stay profitable, alienating my loyal customers on a fixed income who do not understand my predicament.”
Republican lawmakers cited her words in the report that the committee released in December. “Unfortunately, stories like Ms. Rubio’s are not uncommon across America right now,” they wrote.
Trump, who has also pledged to bring down prices if voters return him to the White House, made a rare stop at a local restaurant in West Columbia, S.C., on Saturday, posing for selfies and ordering takeout.
“Do you recommend this food?” he asked an employee at Zesto, a local fast-food staple, before the woman asked if she could pray for him. A Trump aide captured the moment on camera and posted it on social media, where it was shared widely.
The owners of the restaurant also posted pictures of Trump’s surprise visit on their Facebook, Instagram and Twitter pages. “For all those that want to know: he ordered 10 white snacks and 10 chocolate dipped cones for him and his team,” they wrote.
Trump largely steered clear of local establishments during his four years in office, opting to eat at his own restaurants, golf at his own courses and stay at his own properties. And some of the companies behind the products Trump publicly embraced during his presidency — including Diet Cokes, Sharpies and Big Macs — were reluctant to play up the endorsement from a president whose own brand evoked such strong emotions.
“Due to a large order placed yesterday, we’re all out of hamberders,” Burger King tweeted in 2019 after Trump ordered some of its sandwiches to the White House, poking fun at a spelling error by the president the day before. The restaurant added that it was “just serving hamburgers today.”
When Taylor Gourmet co-founder Taylor Patten was photographed shaking hands with Trump in 2017 during a White House roundtable on small business, the sandwich shop in majority-Democratic D.C. immediately faced a Twitter outcry and calls for a boycott. Sales at the restaurant, which Obama frequented during his presidency, dipped after news of the meeting with Trump, a person close to the restaurant told The Washington Post at the time. Taylor Gourmet closed its doors in 2018 and reopened under new ownership in 2019.
Trump, a self-described branding expert, saw other brands distancing themselves from him during his tenure. Retailers like Macy’s and Sears pulled his merchandise from their racks and high-rise buildings removed his name from their facades, citing his incendiary rhetoric toward immigrants, minorities and other marginalized groups. His encouragement of the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection caused even more businesses and institutions to cut ties.
In recent weeks, Trump has sought to begin marketing himself again to broader audiences, with his campaign successfully lobbying to have his Facebook and Instagram accounts reinstated.
In the past, consumer brands have been more eager to highlight their proximity to presidents, Riley said.
Ronald Reagan’s love for Jelly Belly jelly beans, for example, helped the supercharge company’s sales, as it became known that the 40th president had a standing order for 720 bags of its candies for the White House and other federal offices each month.
Presidents John F. Kennedy, Richard M. Nixon and Jimmy Carter each invited instructors from Evelyn Wood Reading Dynamics to give speed-reading courses to White House staff, a fact the company cited in its marketing.
Brooks Brothers has touted the fact that several presidents have worn the company’s suits, a tradition going back more than two centuries. A.T. Cross, the company that produces many of the pens used by presidents to sign legislation, has said it was “honored” to see Biden using its product to sign his first executive orders.
But as political polarization has seeped into the world of commerce, the relationship between politicians and business has become more fraught. Democrats have increasingly called out corporations over increasing income inequality, and several GOP politicians have embraced a more populist approach to corporate America.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) has targeted Disney, BlackRock and other “woke” corporations with punitive legislation. DeSantis, a potential contender for the GOP presidential nomination, is one of several high-ranking Republicans who have sought to challenge companies over their stances on issues like diversity, climate change and immigration.
Biden has also put some companies in his crosshairs. On Tuesday, after ExxonMobil posted a record annual profit of $55.7 billion for 2022, the president took to Twitter to blast the oil and gas industry and Republicans who have criticized him over gas prices.
“The only thing stopping Big Oil from increasing production is their decision to pay shareholders billions instead of reinvesting profits,” Biden wrote. “I’m doing my part to lower prices, it’s time Big Oil did theirs.”