WASHINGTON — During a speech in Pittsburgh in March, President Joe Biden held up the index card he keeps in his right breast pocket to track the nation’s COVID deaths, inadvertently revealing a glimpse of his private schedule on the back side.
9:30 a.m. — “Joint Video Tapings with the First Lady.”
9:45 a.m. — “Proceed to Oval Office.”
9:50 a.m. — “Hold for Ron,” shorthand for a meeting with Chief of Staff Ron Klain.
As Biden proceeded through his day — from a 30-minute lunch to a prep session for a Cabinet meeting — he had ticked through each item with a slash from a black pen: Check. Check. Check.
It was a rare glimpse inside a president’s actual life — the extreme scripting and almost surreal regimentation that define Biden’s days, from his arrival in the Oval Office just after 9 a.m. to his brief walk back to the White House residence for dinner with his wife by 7 p.m.
More than most public figures, Biden has sought to keep one foot in the normal world as he has ascended the rungs of power, from commuting home to Delaware on Amtrak to phoning ordinary Americans to attending Mass. But the presidency is testing that impulse in an entirely new way.
Current and former advisers say Biden’s typical day reveals a creature of habit with well-worn routines and favorite treats, from orange Gatorade to chocolate chip cookies; a tactile politician eager to escape the Washington bubble who meets privately with people who write him letters; and the patriarch of a sprawling Irish-Catholic clan who abruptly interrupts high-level meetings to take calls from family members.
It marks a sharp contrast with former President Donald Trump, whose days often ran both early and late with tweets that were frequently angry or inflammatory, and whose time was often consumed by rambling rallies, spontaneous calls to TV hosts and random, unscripted activities. Depending on the viewpoint, Biden has restored routine and order to the White House — or removed the freewheeling passion.
This account of Biden’s daily schedule is based on interviews with seven people familiar with the president’s daily life, most speaking on the condition of anonymity to disclose private details.
Biden begins his mornings with a workout that often includes lifting weights, and he meets regularly in person with a trainer. During the 2020 campaign, he biked regularly on both a traditional bike and a Peloton. His current Peloton preferences are something of a state secret, however; West Wing aides would not even reveal if he had brought the interactive stationary bike with him to the White House.
Unlike Trump — an avid TV watcher, Fox News enthusiast and self-proclaimed master of TiVo — Biden is not a voracious consumer of TV, but he does watch the morning shows when he’s working out, usually CNN’s “New Day” or MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”
While still in the White House residence, he’s delivered a hard copy of “The Bulletin,” a compilation of the morning’s news clips. It includes local and national news, TV transcripts, editorials and headlines from that day’s front-page stories. In deference to Biden’s hometown affections, his press aides often provide an added emphasis on stories from Delaware and Pennsylvania; a recent edition, for instance, included stories from the News Journal, the main paper in Wilmington, Del.
The president then walks the short distance to the Oval Office, usually carrying his brown leather briefcase and a mix of binders and folders.
Along with Vice President Kamala Harris, Biden receives the President’s Daily Brief, a top secret intelligence update on global hot spots. At least once a week, he also meets with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin or Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and he regularly checks in with Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
On many days, Biden then summons his brain trust, including Klain and top advisers Mike Donilon, Anita Dunn, Bruce Reed, Steve Ricchetti and Cedric Richmond. These sessions rarely have a formal agenda; Biden simply declares, “Here’s what I want to talk about,” or the aides raise subjects they have discussed in advance for Biden’s consideration.
“There are very few issues that get to the level of the president,” Dunn said. “Those are the ones that only he can make a decision on.”
Donilon, who has been with Biden for decades, is seen by the others as his conscience, alter ego and shared brain. One longtime Biden adviser estimated that no fewer than 10,000 times in their working relationship has the president turned to Donilon and asked, “Mike, what do you think?”
To critics, Biden’s public schedule can seem notably light compared to his predecessors — often with just one or two brief public appearances a day, only sporadic travel (partly due to the pandemic) and weekends at his family home in Wilmington. A “lid,” meaning no further public activities, is often called early in the day.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., recently voiced the criticism of some Republicans that Biden lacks stamina. “At no time, having known Joe Biden for quite some time, does he have the energy of Donald Trump,” McCarthy said on Fox News this month. “Donald Trump didn’t need to sleep five hours a night, and he would be engaged.”
Biden’s supporters dismiss that comparison, saying Trump’s chaotic hyperactivity was hardly preferable to Biden’s steadiness. Sen. Christopher Coons, D-Del., a longtime Biden confidant, said Biden in meetings “just crosses his arms, puts his chin in his hand and then just listens.”
Still, the president can grow impatient, especially with acronyms and Washington jargon, sharply admonishing aides that he wants to be able to explain what a particular policy means for his former neighbors in Scranton, Pa., or Wilmington.
Once a week, Biden eats lunch with Harris, following a pattern he established when he was vice president to Barack Obama. The White House photo office pulls together a slide show of images from their recent travel and events that the two watch on a monitor as they eat, allowing them to reflect on their week.
Biden’s preferred lunch is a soup and a salad — usually a chopped salad with grilled chicken — and he is partial to orange Gatorade and Coke Zero. Offsetting the low-calorie diet, he has a well-known penchant for sweets, including chocolate chip ice cream.
The basket of apples that Obama kept in the Oval Office is long gone, as is the red button on the Resolute Desk that Trump pressed to summon a Diet Coke. Instead, Biden has stocked the outer Oval Office with saltwater taffy — from Dolle’s, a staple of the boardwalk in Rehoboth Beach, Del. — and his favorite chocolate chip cookies. In a nod to COVID, each cookie is individually enclosed in a wrapper with a gold White House seal, making them hot commodities among staff and visitors.
Biden sometimes takes his lunch on the go to various meetings, in what Coons described as “not quite a lunch pail, but it’s his little bag of stuff, so if he gets peckish in a meeting he can have something healthy”- often a protein bar, a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich and a travel-size orange Gatorade.
“He has the tastes of a 5-year-old,” a longtime Biden adviser quipped.
Coons recalled once waiting for a meeting with Biden in the White House Map Room — where Franklin D. Roosevelt followed the progress of World War II — when the president “just sort of appears, and he’s like, ‘Lets go!’ ” Coons added, “He’s got his little lunch and stuff, his books, and it’s like he’s commuting to work.”
Biden has also been known to sneak out to the South Lawn or Rose Garden for fresh air, often with his German shepherds, Champ and Major.
The White House inherently creates a bubble around its chief occupant, and that has been doubly true during the pandemic. Biden is the latest in a long list of presidents who have sought ways to escape.
Obama received a folder each night containing 10 letters that individual Americans had written him. Biden has continued the tradition, but where Obama would often pen return missives, Biden’s aides have arranged for him to meet some of the writers in person.
Preston Lee, a transgender man and Army veteran from Alpharetta, Ga., wrote Biden to thank him for lifting Trump’s ban on transgender individuals serving the military. “I served one tour in Afghanistan under the Obama administration from 2010 to 2011,” Lee, 36, wrote. “My family and I breathe so much easier with you and Vice President Kamala in office. Thank for lifting the ban on transgender soldiers. I felt like I was being ‘erased’ for the last four years.”
Lee, expecting a form letter in return, was surprised to receive instead a voice mail from a White House aide, who told him the team had read his letter, found it “very powerful” and wanted to arrange for him and his spouse, who is nonbinary, to meet Biden when the president traveled to Atlanta for an upcoming event.
Amanda Pattillo, 45, who edits court transcripts in Atlanta, sat down with her now 10-year-old son one night to write Biden that she appreciates his practice of carrying a card in his pocket with the number of Americans who have died of the coronavirus.
“I lost someone very close to me, my uncle Bobby. He was 73 and very much like my father,” she wrote. “All these lives mattered. And you caring about all these lives really means something.”
She, too, received a call from the White House inviting her to meet the president in Atlanta. The meeting, backstage at Emory University, was brief; Biden told her that “he was sorry for my loss and he knew what it was to lose someone, and he assured me that it would get better.”
When Lee introduced himself to the president, Biden told him, “I know who you are! You wrote a letter!” Lee and his spouse, and Pattillo and her son, took photos with Biden and Harris, which are now hanging in their homes.
That desire for human contact extends to Biden’s workday in the White House, where he sometimes surprises staffers by stopping unannounced at their workstation, especially if he has heard some news about their family and wants to check in.
Biden is also liable to stop in the middle of a story that reminds him of an old acquaintance to call that person and see how they’re doing, or to phone a staffer’s parent just to wish them a happy birthday.
If an aide mentions in a meeting that they had a conversation with a particular mayor, for instance, “his reaction is, ‘I want to call him or I want to call her. I want to hear for myself,’ ” Dunn said.
Another way Biden tries to pierce the bubble is absorbing nonpolitical news. One adviser recalled an episode from 2014, when the then-vice president was preparing for a speech at the Detroit Auto Show. The speech had a line comparing a Corvette and a Porsche, and Biden turned to his aides and asked, “There was an article in ‘Car and Driver’ last month comparing the torque. Does anybody have it?”
No one did, so they scrambled to track down a copy, finding that it did indeed contain the piece Biden cited — and that he had correctly remembered which vehicle had higher torque.
In 2018, in the middle of the Trump era, Biden — who favors biographies and volumes on comparative religion — became obsessed with two books: “How Democracies Die,” by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, and “White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America,” by Joan C. Williams. He carried both everywhere, scrawling notes on the pages and pulling out well-worn copies to share passages.
“He marks up books very profusely,” White House Communications Director Kate Bedingfield said. “He writes in the margins and highlights and underlines.”
During his 2020 presidential campaign, Biden would regale aides with human interest tidbits from Apple News, an app that came preloaded on his iPhone and that he apparently never replaced. One longtime adviser recalled that the headlines were often oddities like “World’s largest moth” and “Japanese woman is 119 years old.”
“And he’s like, ‘Oh, can you believe this Japanese woman is 119 years old? Can you imagine what she’s seen?’ ” the adviser said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to share details of a private conversation. “I think that was actually a conversation we had.”
When it comes to free time, Biden — whose first wife and infant daughter died in a car crash in 1972, and whose son Beau died of brain cancer in 2015 — spends it mostly with his family.
When he and first lady Jill Biden — whom he affectionately calls “Jilly” — are traveling, they call each other multiple times a day. Before or after most events, one longtime adviser said, the president calls his wife or one of his grandchildren and leaves long messages describing the crowd and the scene.
“I don’t know if she listens to them all or deletes them, but he processes out loud,” this person said.
And Biden is repeatedly drawn to the familiarity of Wilmington. He has already spent nine weekends there as president, according to Mark Knoller, a former CBS News White House correspondent who tracks such presidential activities. Biden also has attended church 11 times since taking office, not counting chapel visits at Camp David, Knoller said.
Biden always wears on his wrist the rosary beads, from Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico, that his late son Beau was wearing when he died.
When his grandchildren visit, the Bidens have a family dinner, and the president — or “Pop,” as his grandchildren call him — quizzes them on their lives and asks after their friends. (He also, one longtime adviser suggested, has sometimes used calls from his grandkids as a respite when he’s trying to avoid a task he doesn’t want to begin).
Biden almost never misses a call from a member of his family, interrupting whatever he’s doing to answer, Coons said. “He’s vice president, we’re in the middle of a conversation about my running for the Senate in 2010, we’re in midsentence” — when Biden’s phone rang with a call from his family. “In one fluid motion, he stands up, opens the phone and walks away,” the senator recounted.
Biden did the same thing when the two men were discussing Biden’s own presidential run in 2020, Coons added. “He will never say, ‘I’m in the middle of something important right now — can I call you back?’ ” Coons said. “He will never let it go to voice mail.”
Sometimes, Coons said, he will get a text from Annie Tomasini, Biden’s director of Oval Office operations, saying simply, “Free now?”
That’s a signal that Biden wants to talk, about anything from the momentous to the mundane. Once, Coons recalled, Biden phoned “and was like, ‘Hey, if you can be over in half an hour, I’m taking Marine One over to Wilmington. I can give you a ride home.’ ” (In the end, a snafu in Washington scuttled the plans, and Coons had to find his own way back to Delaware).
Biden usually returns to the residence portion of the White House around 6 or 7 p.m. After dinner, the president — whom aides describe as a “night owl” — often fields calls from advisers, with updates on the news. He also calls his son Hunter, who has struggled with addiction, every night before bedtime, texting him if he doesn’t pick up right away.
And he reviews his briefing book for the next day, so he is ready anew for when he makes the short walk back to the Oval Office the following morning.