Monday, April 22

Kia-what? Kia-where? President Biden returns to Kiawah Island, a favorite vacation spot that serves personal and political needs

US President Joe Biden and US First Lady Jill Biden disembark Air Force One at Charleston Air Force Base in North Charleston, South Carolina, on August 10, 2022. 

NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP via Getty Images

Kiawah Island, S.C. – Normally when President Biden is looking for a little R&R, he heads home to Delaware — having done so dozens of times already this year.  

But on Wednesday, he’s coming back to this quaint beach town, a spot less familiar to Americans who’ve tracked his movements but one which may one day rank in the memories of Americans alongside presidential vacation spots like Kennebunkport or Rancho del Cielo — despite the fact that Mr. Biden does not own a home in Kiawah.

After more than two weeks of COVID-19 isolation, the president’s formal summer getaway begins Wednesday evening in this sleepy beach town and continues through next Tuesday when he heads back to Delaware for stretches at his homes in Wilmington and Rehoboth Beach. In the meantime, White House grounds and facilities staff will continue a series of maintenance projects around 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the kind of construction and renovation that can only be completed when the president is out of town — something that didn’t happen last year amid the chaos of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan

Mr. Biden has visited South Carolina dozens of times over the course of his long career for a mix of political and personal reasons – journeys that friends believe helped him start to bank away decades of goodwill with critical operatives and voters ahead of his critical win in the state’s 2020 Democratic Party primary.  

“One of the reasons he trounced everyone in the South Carolina primary is not only his work with Jim Clyburn, but his relationship over the years with many, many people around this state, many, many Democrats,” said Dick Harpootlian, a South Carolina state senator, former chairman of the state Democratic Party and a longtime Biden political confidant. “I think he feels at home here. It’s a place he’s come for so many years to vacation. And he can enjoy a certain amount of insulation without being totally insulated.” 

The White House didn’t respond to a request for comment on the president’s vacation.

The Biden family has been coming to this dot on the map about 40 minutes south of Charleston long before that decisive 2020 victory. It began at the invitation of his good friend, the late Democratic Sen. Ernest “Fritz” Hollings, who lived in the area and formed an attachment to Biden in the 1970s, when the twenty-something senator was still new to Washington and grappling with the death of his wife and young daughter. 

In the years since, he’s returned to the Palmetto State for countless Democratic Party fundraising dinners, to headline his friend Rep. Jim Clyburn’s infamous fish fry dinner, to eulogize Hollings and the late Republican Sen. Strom Thurmond, and for vacation, including five over the course of his time as vice president. 

His last trip to Kiawah as vice president came in 2015, shortly after the death of his oldest son, Beau Biden. In his memoir, “Promise Me, Dad,” he recounted “that in the aftermath of our loss it was even more important that we continue to do the things that had always meant so much to the family. That we could not let our traditions drift away.” 

The trip coincided with widespread speculation in the press that he was on the verge of launching a 2016 presidential bid. Ultimately, despite extended conversations with family and friends and some public support expressed for him while on the vacation by South Carolina allies, he decided to stay out of the race, even though he believed he could win the nomination. 

Kiawah is a wealthy enclave, only about 13 square miles. It’s home to roughly 1,600 people and best known as a private beach and golfing destination. It was originally used for logging and cattle farming and was only developed into a vacation destination in earnest beginning in the 1980s. 

It’s a place the Bidens are set to visit far less often than Delaware. A recent Wall Street Journal analysis, conducted by former CBS News Radio White House Correspondent Mark Knoller, found that in his first 18 months in office, Mr. Biden traveled to Delaware 46 times and to Camp David 18 times. So this summer spot is less likely to be frequented by the president, his aides, security and the press corps that follows him, than places like George H.W. Bush’s Kennebunkport, Maine retreat, George W. Bush’s Crawford, Texas ranch, or Barack Obama’s preferred Martha’s Vineyard and Christmas breaks in Hawaii.  

But Harpootlian says one reason the president likes Kiawah is because it’s so “serene” and “not very commercial.”  

“I remember when he was VP and I came down to play golf with him, he could move around without drawing a crowd if he wanted to,” he said. 

That will be more difficult now, and Harpootlian urged his old friend to lie low. 

As Democrats prepare for final passage on Friday of major health care and climate change bill the president spent more than a year negotiating with lawmakers, and after signing three significant pieces of bipartisan legislation this week, “This is a time for him to take a victory lap in his mind, if you will, and enjoy the success and relax,” Harpootlian said. “I don’t think you’ll see him doing any sort of political outreach on this trip. I would advise him not to.” 

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