President Joe Biden hugs a supporter after signing a proclamation designating a national monument on Aug. 8, 2023, in Tusayan, Arizona.
In 2020, Joe Biden’s campaign avoided crowds of voters to slow the spread of a deadly virus.
This year, Biden’s reelection campaign is putting the president in close contact with voters in hopes of going viral.
Last week a 32-year-old Detroit man got a ride in the president’s car. And last month, Biden paid a visit to a North Carolina family at their home, resulting in an awed TikTok from the perspective of their teenage son.
These authentic yet curated moments reflect an intentional effort by the Biden campaign to use the president’s charm and interest in regular people — long a staple of the very offline president’s personal, hands-on style of campaigning — to win over thousands of people on the internet rather than a single voter at a county fair.
Rob Flaherty, Biden’s deputy campaign manager, said that the goal is to bring people in through candid moments that are not inherently political, thereby opening the door to messaging on issues.
“In many ways, today’s social media environment is uniquely well suited for Joe Biden,” Flaherty said in an emailed statement.
“It allows people to see him talking with a family at their kitchen table in a way that would be very difficult to replicate in the days before iPhone cameras,” Flaherty said. “It’s very hard to get that same feeling of authenticity and connection when you have a huge TV camera in the room.”
The Biden campaign is not on TikTok, but did promote the president’s visit to the North Carolina home with identical posts on Facebook and X, formerly Twitter. (Separately, the campaign has sought to push out viral news clips on social media, and a super PAC backing the president has actually paid TikTok influencers to promote his campaign.)
The campaign hopes that social media can help improve Biden’s standing among younger voters skeptical of the president’s performance in office. Biden’s support for Israel’s war in the Gaza Strip has emerged as a particular sore spot — many TikTok users call him “Genocide Joe,” and negative videos about him on the platform seem to outnumber positive ones — potentially fracturing the coalition that helped him beat incumbent Donald Trump in 2020.
Biden hugs Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson at the U.S. Capitol on March 1, 2023, in Washington. Biden is known for embracing friends and allies.
The strategy may also reflect concerns about keeping the 81-year-old candidate on message amid voter fears about his age. Biden turned down an interview tied to the upcoming Super Bowl and hasn’t committed to debating Trump, the GOP’s likely presidential nominee. The voter interactions allow the president to bypass the media, giving him a sympathetic and captive audience with no reporters counting his gaffes.
Glad-handing has always been Biden’s strong suit. Even amid a #MeToo-era backlash over his tendency to grab, hug and kiss, voters in the early part of the 2020 Democratic primary would basically line up to touch the candidate at his campaign events.
Melinda Jones met Biden at an American Legion post in Ottumwa, Iowa, in 2020. Jones had been a supporter of Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), who had recently dropped out of the primary, leaving her undecided. Biden greeted Jones and her then-7-year-old daughter, asking the girl’s name and age before giving them both hugs.
“When you speak to him, he is really looking at you and engaged with your conversation,” Jones said at the time. She became a Biden voter on the spot.
Speaking this week by phone, Jones, 40, said that she still supports Biden, noting that he’s a better public speaker in person.
“There’s just another level that you don’t get on TV,” Jones said. “Those one-on-one encounters or the small group settings are where he really shines.”
Biden visits with relatives of a store owner as he arrives to shop for his grandchildren in Detroit on Sept. 9, 2020.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the in-person campaign events were scaled back for the sake of stopping virus’s spread. Tony Totty, the president of United Auto Workers Local 14 in Toledo, Ohio, met Biden during the 2020 campaign at a union rally, where, due to COVID-19, most people remained in their cars, honking in support of Biden from the parking lot.
“It was unfortunate because all of our members couldn’t be there,” Totty said. “But we met with him. I got a picture with Joe, standing 6 feet away. So it wasn’t a legitimate Joe Biden experience.”
The UAW endorsed Biden earlier this year, giving him an edge in the race against Trump for working-class votes. Biden met in person with Detroit-area autoworkers during the union’s historic six-week strike against the “Big Three” automakers, becoming the first sitting president to actually stand on the picket line alongside striking workers.
After Totty wrote him a letter with his concerns about electric vehicles, Biden assured him that the push to manufacture more EVs wouldn’t leave behind autoworkers. “He left me a message: ‘You won’t be left behind, I promise,’” Totty said.
A difference between then and now is that the Biden campaign doesn’t just want the candidate to connect with voters one-on-one — it wants those moments to receive wide publicity and to go viral.
When Biden traveled to North Carolina last month to tout federal investments in high-speed internet, he made an unscheduled stop at a burger joint and then at the home of Eric Fitts, an educator who benefited from the president’s student loan forgiveness policy. The traveling press and local reporters could only see Biden wave from the porch — what happened inside was later shared on TikTok by Fitts’ teen son.
The video showed Biden looking at pictures on the family’s fridge under a caption that said, “no way the president just chillin in my crib,” before they sat down to burgers and fries. The visit lasted almost two hours. The TikTok video got more than 4 million views.
“It is really cool to say the president had dinner with me and my sons,” Fitts told a local TV station afterward.
Darren Riley, the Detroit native who got to ride in Biden’s car, also seemed impressed by the president’s one-on-one conversation. He told CNN that Biden asked him a lot about his life.
“He grabbed my hand and looked at me in the eye,” Riley said.