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‘I’m a car guy’: Biden zips around in electric Ford truck to boost clean-energy agenda

The Debrief: An occasional series offering a reporter’s insights

President Biden stops to talk with reporters from the driver’s seat of an electric Ford pickup in Dearborn, Mich. (Evan Vucci/AP)

When President Biden on Tuesday took the stage at a Ford plant he said, “I’m a car guy.” And then, shortly afterward, he proved it.

Biden — in an excursion that probably made his Secret Service detail squirm — jumped into a new F-150 Lightning electric truck and pressed the accelerator, zipping around an empty lot.

“This sucker’s quick!” he exclaimed to a group of reporters.

“I don’t know if anybody has a stopwatch,” he mused. “But I think we’re going zero to 60 in four-point-three. Four-point-four?”

The day revealed Biden not so much in rare form but in his truest form. His entire life has been crafted, in many ways, around cars. The affection for automobiles is as much a part of Biden as his Irishness and his love of ice cream, and it’s one that has deepened over the years.

The event on Tuesday also married that longtime love — his affinity for cars — with the clean-energy policy that he’s attempting to push the country toward, one that would have electric charging stations spread more readily around the country.

But it’s cars that reveal as much about Biden the person as it does Biden the politician.

When the Onion wrote a parody of Biden in 2009, the headline was “Shirtless Biden Washes Trans Am In White House Driveway.” He showed up at the 2014 Detroit Auto Show, speaking about the future of the industry and climbing into various cars and declaring: “I’m like a kid in a candy shop.”

“I’ve always loved to drive,” he told Jay Leno in 2016. “I shouldn’t say it on TV — but I like speed.”

Biden’s father was a car dealer, a job that his father didn’t actually like but one that is emblematic of the Biden family story. It represented hard work and determination, and it provided a steady paycheck.

For Biden, it also provided a certain bit of schoolboy cachet. His dad would lend his son a fresh car for the prom or, during college, for the weekend.

“On the weekend, Joe always showed up with a car from his dad’s dealership, always a convertible,” Fred Sears, a longtime friend, recalled in an interview last year. “That definitely set him apart with the girls. He had the wheels.”

Biden, in a 2011 interview with Car and Driver, ticked off the cars he owned early in life.

First, a 1951 Studebaker, then a 1952 Plymouth convertible (“candy-apple red with a split windshield. I think it was my favorite,” Biden recalled). He had a 1956 Chevy and, in college, a Mercedes-Benz 190SL.

He borrowed cars to drive to New York to see his future wife, Neilia. When they married, his father gave him a 1967 Corvette Stingray convertible — still one of Biden’s most cherished possessions and one that his two sons had the engine rebuilt for Christmas years ago.

But, more tragically, it was a station wagon that his wife and daughter were using when they were killed in a 1972 crash. Afterward — and before Biden became a regular Amtrak rider — his longtime aide Ted Kaufman would drive Biden in a car that had a large mobile phone in the trunk, so that Biden’s sons could always reach him.

Cars were the vehicle for bonding with his father, and for him bonding with his sons.

“He loved speed,” Biden recalled of his father in a 2016 interview with Popular Mechanics. “He used to joke that his one regret was he didn’t join the volunteer fire service so he could drive the ambulance. But we were never, you know, motorheads. We knew fast cars. We knew how to siphon gas — me — charge the battery when it was down. But never hot-wired a car.”

In the interview, jointly conducted with Biden and son Hunter, they recalled old family cars.

“Remember the first car we got was a 1972 Caprice Classic convertible,” Hunter said. “Fifteen hundred bucks at the Manheim Auto Auction.”

“Oh yeah, big, old, green — it was beautiful,” Biden added.

Cars for Biden have also been an unquestionable political benefit. It bolsters Biden’s everyman image, giving him the ability to connect with voters who respect that he’s a guy who says he changes his own oil.

When he was asked about the Onion article — which portrayed him shirtless and washing a Pontiac in front of the White House — he laughed.

“You think I’d drive a Trans Am?” he told Car and Driver. “I have been in my bathing suit in my driveway and not only washed my Goodwood-green 1967 Corvette but also Simonized it. At least The Onion should have had me washing a Trans Am convertible. I love convertibles.”

But as he has gained higher office, his access to vehicles has been limited because of safety concerns from the Secret Service.

“I’m not allowed to drive anything,” he told Car and Driver when he was vice president. “It’s the one thing I hate about this job. I’m serious.”

During his campaign last year, he released an ad called “Joe Biden gets Vetted.”

It first featured his Corvette — “Every time I get in it I think about my dad and [son] Beau. God, could my dad drive a car.” — before he turned toward policy.

“I believe that we can own the 21st-century market again by moving to electric vehicles,” he said. “They tell me — and I’m looking forward, if it’s true, to driving one — they’re making an electric Corvette that can go 200 miles per hour. You think I’m kidding. I’m not kidding. So, I’m excited about it.”

The trip came amid a flurry of challenges that the president is confronting. Biden is trying to push $4 trillion in new spending through Congress. Last week he tried to prevent a gas shortage across much of the country after the Colonial Pipeline was hit by a ransomware attack. There are growing concerns about inflation, criticism over his administration’s changes to mask-wearing guidance, and a spiraling conflict in the Middle East.

Biden on Tuesday wanted, if only for a moment, to leave that all behind for what he could pretend was an open road but really was an open lot of concrete.

As he pulled over to speak with reporters, he marveled about the vehicle’s speed. But when one inquired about whether he would entertain a question about Israel, Biden stopped.

“No, you can’t,” he said. “Not unless you get in front of the car as I step on it. I’m only teasing.”

With that, he stared ahead and speculated about how quickly he could hit 80 mph.

“Okay — here we go. You ready?” he said.

And then he zoomed off.