President Joe Biden this week returns to St. Croix, one of his and first lady Jill Biden’s beloved vacation spots, seeking a final opportunity for rest before what is expected to be a contentious 2023 and reelection run.
As Biden unwinds in a familiar spot – the first couple have visited the US Virgin Islands for more than a dozen years, vacationing there approximately ten times since the mid-2000s – the work on his path forward intensifies back in a frigid Washington, DC. Advisers are already preparing the president’s annual State of the Union address, typically delivered in late January or early February, viewing the speech as an opportunity to lay down the stakes and themes that Biden could adopt on the campaign trail.
The first couple arrived in St. Croix on Tuesday, along with family members, a gathering of the tight-knit clan who, according to several people with knowledge of recent conversations who have spoken to CNN, have now pledged support for another White House run by Biden. Senior administration officials once viewed this week’s tropical escape as a crucial juncture that would play a major part in deciding his political future, and – while the president does still plan to mull with his family the pros and cons of mounting a reelection bid – people who have discussed the matter with him lately say the decision is essentially made.
Clues that Biden was expected in St. Croix were everywhere in the run-up to his arrival: the jumbo C-17 transport planes sitting among the puddle jumpers at the airport; temporary security checkpoints among the bougainvillea along the quiet coastal road; unusually high numbers of visitors from Washington.
Even for a popular tourist destination accustomed to a wave of winter travelers, this week’s presidential visit has maxed out the island’s resources. Rental cars were all taken, and hotels were at capacity, according to residents.
After the Bidens skipped the US Virgin Islands tradition the last two years, this trip may have some of the same vibes as one of their more recent vacations. In the early hours of 2019, when Biden was last contemplating a presidential bid, the couple were photographed taking a selfie at Point Udall in St. Croix on New Year’s Day, catching the first sunrise of the new year at the easternmost point under the American Flag, as the popular tourist spot is known.
A decision had been made. Several months later, Biden would announce his candidacy for the presidency.
In 2014, Joe and Jill Biden enjoyed their time on the island so much, they visited St. Croix twice – once to ring in the new year and again for a weekend in March, a quick getaway trip not on the then-vice president’s official schedule.
In 2015, the couple again passed the week after Christmas there, after deciding he would not run for the White House.
In 2016, Bidens spent the waning days of his vice presidency relaxing on St. Croix, ahead of Donald Trump’s ascension to the White House.
Biden’s loyalty to the US territory has been the most high-profile of any American politician in recent history. A sitting American president has not visited St. Croix since Harry S. Truman in 1948. Truman arrived by yacht – the USS Williamsburg – and was hosted at an estate owned by the manufacturer of Jeeps.
In 1997, President Bill Clinton visited neighboring St. Thomas, another of the US Virgin Islands, for his winter vacation, chartering a catamaran with his family and snorkeling with daughter Chelsea.
In a 2020 statement, Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. said of Biden, “We consider him our hometown president.” Asked why the Bidens have picked St. Croix as their island getaway, Vanessa Valdivia, the first lady’s press secretary, told CNN, “Over the years, the president and first lady have frequently traveled to a warmer location the week after Christmas, going to the US Virgin Island several times.”
For the entirety of his presidency, Biden has skipped out when he can on weekends in Washington, DC, in favor of his longtime family home in Wilmington, Delaware, where residence staff and storied rooms aren’t a thing.
St. Croix, for the first couple, has provided that sort of intense privacy, plus the warmth and beach that the Bidens favor.
During their visits in the years after Biden served as vice president, when his security apparatus dwindled and normalcy found a return to their daily routine, the first couple could be spotted around the island on occasion with virtually no entourage, driving themselves along the flower-lined roads in a rental Toyota sedan.
The home they leased was modest – only a few bedrooms – and was available at other times of the year for other tourists on vacation rental websites.
Yet on Tuesday, law enforcement was busy in the same area making preparations for Biden’s visit, including setting up flood lights and popping up white tents to act as checkpoints along the roadside.
The Bidens are staying at the home of his friends Bill and Connie Neville in St. Croix, the White House says. The president and first lady have stayed at the home of the tech executive on previous visits to the island.
The first couple are “beach people,” said a family friend familiar with their vacation preferences. Others who know them well said there is little more they enjoy when relaxing than pitching an umbrella on the beach, tossing a towel onto the sand and closing their eyes under a warm sun.
Their Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, neighbors are now used to being screened by Secret Service agents during beach walks, the telltale signal the president and/or first lady have walked down from their oceanside vacation residence to the beach for a respite closer to the waves.
The first lady, in particular, finds peace in her books and soaking up the sun. This spring, staff for Jill Biden – on a solo, whirlwind, three-country visit to Ecuador, Panama and Costa Rica – made sure to schedule private time for the first lady beside the pool at a resort out of Panama City, so she could lay out like dozens of other vacationers, steps from the waterside.
“They both prefer hot and sunny and humid to wet and snowy and cold,” said another close acquaintance of the Bidens.
For the first couple, a true respite involves privacy as well, not just sun and warmth. St. Croix has fit the checklist. Locals have spotted the couple in years past at the grocery store, going mostly unnoticed as they shopped for vacation provisions at Seaside Market and Deli. Joe Biden has played rounds of golf at the Buccaneer Resort, a par-70 course described as “challenging, yet very playable” on the property’s website.
They have attended mass at the white-steepled Holy Cross Catholic Church in the island’s main town Christiansted.
Reelection discussions on the island
The break from Washington comes on the heels of a busy holiday season. Jill Biden – so tasked with dozens of White House celebrations, photo lines, family visits and general hosting duties that she had laryngitis for several days – is on her second week off from her teaching duties at Northern Virginia Community College.
For Joe Biden, the stakes of getting away are not just about rest and recuperation.
Barring unforeseen events or a sudden change of heart, Biden’s team is laying the groundwork for a reelection announcement in the coming months, putting to rest persistent speculation about whether the 80-year-old president would seek another term.
CNN has reported that Jill Biden is “all in” on the 2024 campaign despite previous concerns about the deep implications of what a second run might mean for her family and her husband. She has, as one White House official told CNN, “zero concerns” about Joe Biden’s schedule and stamina.
“This is, ultimately, a family decision,” Joe Biden said at a news conference last month. “I think everybody wants me to run, but we’re going to have discussions about it.”
Aside from the rigors of launching the final political campaign of his career, Biden will face a new Republican majority in the House of Representatives, intent on stymieing many of his legislative ambitions. Republican leaders have also vowed to mount investigations into Biden’s administration and his family.
With his legislative prospects dampened, Biden plans to travel extensively in the new year promoting the accomplishments from his first two years in office. It will be an intense period that could ultimately include a rematch with his 2020 opponent, Trump – and one that will require the full backing of his wife of 45 years, along with the support of his extended family.
If there is a time to speak up on hesitations, either his own or from his offspring, it would be during this vacation.
Wayne Nichols, who leads Alexander Hamilton tours of St. Croix in the character of the founding father, recalled a 2019 encounter he had with Biden, with whom he engaged while the then-not-quite-presidential candidate was walking alone on the east end of the island.
At the time, Biden was also mulling a daunting campaign. After passing on a bid in 2016 following the death of his son, he was being encouraged by his family to mount a challenge to Trump.
Nichols said he stopped Biden to ask if he would run.
“My question to him was, ‘Well, you’re going to run?’ He goes, ‘Well, I’m running now.’ And I thought, well, technically you’re walking,” Nichols recalled this week, wondering whether he might again cross paths with Biden.
Nichols came across Joe Biden a second time that week in 2019, while out for a walk on the island – Joe Biden up front, Jill Biden walking a few paces behind – when someone in the group told Jill Biden that her husband ought to run for president.
“‘When you get up there, let him know that,’” Nichols said she responded.
As the Bidens make similar deliberations this year, they won’t be getting around in a rented Toyota and their stops on the island will go less unnoticed.
“I have a feeling this is the place,” Nichols said of Biden often choosing St. Croix as his spot to find stillness for a consequential decision about the future. “Chilling there by the water with the nice weather. They get to talk about it. And I believe he’ll run again, only because I don’t know that he thinks there’s any alternative.”