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White House eyes more public events under new Covid calculus

The possibility of Biden’s hosting the first state dinner of his presidency is under preliminary discussion, officials said.
Image: President Biden Seeks Immediate Help For Millions As Big Stimulus At Risk
A U.S. flag flies outside the White House on Jan. 22, 2021.Al Drago / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden is gearing up for a summer of socializing as the White House looks to restore traditional events put on hold by the pandemic — including more working meals with elected officials and the possibility of hosting his first state dinner, several Biden administration officials said.

The discussions are preliminary, and no decisions have been made, the officials said. An official said July has been discussed as the likely timing for the first state dinner should Biden decide to move forward with one.

The shift from the White House to hosting more social gatherings and the discussions of a state dinner, which usually draws at least several hundred guests, comes as Covid continues to spread, with Vice President Kamala Harris testing positive this week, and questions persist about the risk of large events. Dr. Anthony Fauci, Biden’s chief medical adviser, recently backed out of attending the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner, which typically draws about 3,000 people. Biden, however, does plan to attend, although White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday that he would limit his time at the event.

Even so, the president has begun to host more events at the White House and have more social meetings. On Monday he hosted Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan for lunch in the dining room off the Oval Office and was so eager to keep the conversation going that he held a call congratulating French President Emmanuel Macron on his re-election in the middle of their discussion over turkey club sandwiches.

"He talked about Ukraine and NATO and then jumped back into what's happening in Detroit," Duggan said in an interview.

Biden also invited Duggan to a couple of meetings he had after lunch, one with a Harvard professor and then one with some college students, as well as his event honoring the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Stanley Cup champions, Duggan said.

“It’s good to have it back to normal,” Duggan said. “We talked about the fact that he’s at his best when he’s with people. He is very, very anxious to just be out meeting people.”

A White House official declined to comment on discussions about a state dinner but said Biden intends to do more hosting than he and the first lady have done in the past 15 months. One likelihood is that some staid conference-room-style meetings will turn into less formal working lunches, the official said.

“The Bidens are excited to share more of the people’s house with the American people — from public tours to dinners to holiday celebrations to historic commemorations,” a White House official said.

Last month, the official pointed out, Biden outlined publicly how the country was in a position with Covid where it’s safe for people to largely resume their usual routines — including at the White House.

“That doesn’t mean there’s zero Covid risk, and we continue to take steps to keep the president safe, but it means we are in a different place than we were before,” the official said.

White House state dinners are among the most anticipated events a president and a first lady host. They have been held in honor of visiting heads of state — from presidents and prime ministers to kings and queens — since the 19th century. The glamorous dinners are a show of friendship between the U.S. and its close partners and allies, as well as an elaborate display of American global influence, and they typically feature A-list guest lists of prominent lawmakers, ambassadors, business moguls and celebrities.

Biden, as a former vice president and senator, is more familiar with the significance of state dinners in the arsenal of U.S. diplomacy. He has been attending state dinners for at least two decades, including President George W. Bush’s first one, in 2001. At that gala, honoring Vicente Fox, then the president of Mexico, Biden hobnobbed with the likes of actor Clint Eastwood and singer Placido Domingo. After a dinner featuring Southwest cuisine, guests retreated to the Blue Room’s balcony to watch as fireworks were set off on the Ellipse.

In the first year of the administration, Biden and the first lady held few major public in-person events because of the still-raging pandemic. In recent months, as mask mandates have been lifted and the White House’s social calendar has picked up, the White House has acknowledged that with the increased engagement comes the possibility that the president will contract the virus.

"It is possible the president could test positive. We will be very transparent with you if that were to happen," White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Tuesday. "He has access to the best health care in the — in the world. And we believe, because of all of the precautions and steps we have taken, that he would be able to continue his duties."

The discussions about Biden’s bringing more social flair to official engagements, including holding his first state dinner, come during a period of intense global engagement for the administration, which has been working feverishly to coordinate an international response to Russia’s war in Ukraine and to keep Western allies united.

Over the next few months, the administration also plans to host a Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles and a meeting in Washington of the leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Biden and the first lady are also filling their schedules with international travel.

The White House on Wednesday announced a presidential trip to South Korea and Japan for late May, and several officials said trips to Israel and Europe are expected this summer, along with at least one solo overseas trip by the first lady.

Pulling off a state dinner requires months of preparation and careful diplomatic choreography, including designing custom menus to show off the cuisine of both the U.S. and the country being honored. They traditionally include hundreds of guests, an arrival ceremony for the guests of honor, entertainment and dinner either in the State Dining Room or in a glitzy tent erected for the occasion on the White House South Lawn.

Since 1874, the White House has hosted hundreds of state dinners, with the most held in honor of the U.K. — at least two dozen, according to the White House Historical Association.

Bill Clinton spared few opportunities to hold a state dinner, hosting well over two dozen during his two terms as president. Barack Obama held 13 state dinners during his eight years in the White House, his first for India in 2009 and his last for Italy in 2016. In a departure from most presidents’ practices, Donald Trump held only two state dinners — for France and for Australia — although the end of his administration unfolded during the pandemic, when large gatherings were frowned upon.

Officials didn’t know which head of state might be feted with the pinnacle of U.S. international outreach, which can be seen as a symbol of presidential stature.

“George Washington and James Madison both believed that presiding over official entertainments was important for a president as both chief of state and tough political leader who needs to make alliances,” presidential historian Michael Beschloss said. “This is just as true in the era of Joe Biden. Now that the pandemic is waning and a president can safely spend more time around people, this will be a symbol of more normal times and show a president at the center of our national political life.”