On Wednesday, President Joe Biden met Olivia Rodrigo, an 18-year-old pop star and actor who has skyrocketed to household name status in the last couple of months. Together, they aimed to promote youth covid-19 vaccinations, and made sure to take some Instagram photos for good measure. They threw on aviator sunglasses—Biden’s signature look—and mugged for the camera, gleefully looking as if they were doing promo for a screwball White House comedy.
It was just as I suspected: Biden and his team pushing this image of effortless cool in a goofy grandpa package. Even the announcement itself was a clever ploy. The official @potus Instagram account posted a now-legendary photo of a young Biden, looking undeniably hunky amid a sea of palm trees.
“I know this young person would’ve gotten vaccinated, but we’ve got to get other young people protected as well,” the caption read. “Who’s willing to help?”
The responses were predictable: “Yes daddy”; “Joe’s rolling out thirst traps to get people vaxxed and I’m okay with that”; “u look hot af in this pic”; “Are your DMs open, Joe?”
Meet President Biden, the himbo. Whether he meets individual standards of himbodom is another question, but in the eyes of various media outlets and the general public, his himbo era has lasted a little over a decade now, owing to the popular parodies that popularized the internet during the Obama administration. The chill, ditzy grandpa persona that was developed by supporters and humorists quickly overshadowed Biden’s actual personality, so much so that even Biden himself has absorbed it.
Biden started off his long tenure in the United States Senate as a young widower from scrappy Scranton, Pennsylvania. He was regarded as a kindhearted moderate who was friendly across the ideological aisle, an every-man who knew how to talk to constituents and gain their trust. But he wasn’t soft: He pushed for tougher consequences for federal drug offenses in the ’80s and ’90s. While acting as architect for the Violence Against Women Act, he also played a big part in the making of the 1994 crime bill, which disproportionately impacted poor and Black and brown communities. And for a microgeneration of American women, Biden had been a dismaying figure since 1991, when Anita Hill testified that then-Supreme Court nominee and future Justice Clarence Thomas sexually harassed her while he was her supervisor at the Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Biden was the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee; not only did he oversee Hill being belittled by Republican Senators, but he also had a hand in assuring that other women who corroborated Hill’s accusations never had a chance to testify. Biden didn’t apologize to Hill until 2019, when he was running for president.
But this didn’t define Biden during my own political coming of age. He became President Obama’s vice president when I was 18 years old, and amidst the glow of hope and change post-Bush, Biden was little more than Obama’s affable sidekick who wore sunglasses, loves ice cream, and sometimes says shit that is out of pocket but mostly harmless. He was a golden retriever of a man, smiley and always horsing around.
This perception was only validated by the Onionification of Biden. In the early days of the Obama administration, Biden was a subject of lighthearted mockery at the satire publication (which is owned by G/O Media, the company that owns Jezebel). On January 20, 2009, Obama’s inauguration, The Onion published
a story called “Joe Biden Shows Up to Inauguration with Ponytail.” By May 2009, he appeared photoshopped and shirtless in front of a car, hose in hand, under the title “Shirtless Biden Washes Trans Am in White House Driveway.”
“This baby just needs a little scrub down,” said Biden, addressing a tour group as he tucked the sweat-covered top into the belt loop of his cutoff jean shorts. “Gotta get her looking good so I can impress the chicks when I’m cruising down Pennsylvania [Avenue].”
White House aides said that Biden pulled into the driveway shortly before noon, the chorus of Night Ranger’s “(You Can Still) Rock In America” blaring from his car’s stereo. According to witnesses, Biden spent several minutes maneuvering the Trans Am into the perfect spot, and was observed drumming his fingers on the steering wheel until the song came to a close.
The shirtless 66-year-old then entered the executive residence and greeted employees with a round of high fives and a variety of nicknames.
Thus began dozens of articles about Biden over the years: “Biden Receives Lifetime Ban from Dave & Buster’s;” “Biden to Honor Fallen Soldiers by Jumping Motorcycle Over Vietnam Memorial;” “Biden Working His Way Through Scratch-Off Tickets During Obama’s Swearing-In;” “Biden Huddling With Closest Advisers On Whether To Spend 200 Bucks On Scorpions Tickets.” Biden’s Everyman™ persona that devolved from The Onion was so popular that they even turned it into a book in 2013 titled The President of Vice.
From the New Yorker:
By 2010, the “wacky uncle” meme was in full flower. “Joe Biden,” a reporter wrote for the Washington Times, “has acquired . . . immunity. He regularly says things ranging from goofy to merely silly to outrageous, but the passage of the years has made him a lovable old uncle that nobody any longer takes seriously.” In Marie Claire, Alexandra Jacobs described Biden as glad-handing “every politico, getting in close, squeezing their shoulders.” Of the candidate and his second wife, Jacobs wrote, “Joe and Jill Biden exude a marital heat uncommon in buttoned-up Beltway circles.” Jacobs also quoted the Obama aide Valerie Jarrett: “They’re very, very outwardly demonstrative.” (Even Jill Biden, in her forthcoming memoir, admits that, early in their relationship, Joe’s ebullient courtship left her feeling “strange and uncomfortable,” and that she “sometimes found all that affection draining.”) “Affectionate and freewheeling,” the Times called Uncle Joe, in 2013. The reporter Amy Chozick revealed that, when speaking to his colleague Hillary Clinton on the phone, during President Obama’s first term, Biden sometimes signed off with the words “I love you, darling.”
Biden played into it too, admitting in 2011 that he found the articles funny, telling Yahoo! News, “Most people refer to me who know me, and even in the press, of being a little bit square. And now, I’m the philanderer. I think it’s hilarious, the stuff they do on me.” During that same interview, he even offered some clarification: “I have a Corvette—a ‘67 Corvette—not a Trans-Am.”
This became so embedded in Biden’s personality that it was easy to ignore some of the more skeevy Onion headlines he generated, like, “Biden Invokes Freedom of Information Act to Find Out When Woman Gets off Work.” But his history and allegations of sexual misconduct certainly received increased scrutiny in spring 2019, when Biden officially entered the race for the White House and was subsequently met with a slew of new allegations from women accusing him of unwanted touching.
That May, Joe Garden, a former Onion editor during the height of Diamond Joe, wrote a piece for Vice expressing regret for having a hand in rendering Biden into this harmless man as opposed to a politician whose decisions have been consequential and, for those women who came forward with allegations against Biden, downright troubling. While Garden still finds those Uncle Joe pieces funny, he fears they didn’t shine enough light on his glaring flaws.
As I watch him campaign as an old (-fashioned, -school, -old) centrist, I realize how badly we screwed up. Instead of viciously skewering a public figure who deserved scrutiny, we let him off easy. The joke was funny, but it didn’t hit hard enough.
Satire isn’t dead, and it shouldn’t be cast aside. It will always have a place in the social order, and that is to tell the truth by constructing a fiction, to amplify society’s negative traits to a comical extent so you can see the ugliness that’s always been there.
On that score, the Onion’s Biden stories didn’t measure up. We knew through inside sources that at the time people in the White House loved those pieces, and that should have been a red flag. As a guideline, if the people you’re satirizing aren’t mad, then you should dig deeper.
But Biden’s reputation was rock solid. Even when he was mocked by right and left alike for his moments of senility and accused of sexual assault, above all else he was the loving husband, the ultimate wife guy, the grieving father who had undergone so much loss in his lifetime. This is a man who tweeted an image of a friendship bracelet donning his name and his ol’ pal Barack’s, and garnered a generally positive reaction despite the cringe.
When Biden was up against Trump in the 2020 presidential election, his empathy and kindness helped push the idea that he is everything Trump is not; Biden as the anti-Trump was particularly appealing for Americans suffering from serious Trump fatigue. Even when Biden had his moments of explosiveness (both on and off the campaign trail), it seemed foolhardy to compare his behavior to President Trump, whose blessedly short and odious tenure was almost incomparable in terms of controversy, scandal, and general boorishness.
The man even made a campaign video swooning about vintage corvettes, turning the lovable grandpa dial up about 300 notches.
I reached out to Chad Nackers, The Onion’s current editor-in-chief, for some insight on the evolution of Biden’s portrayal in the publication. He wrote and edited a majority of the Diamond Joe articles of yore and, like Garden, still looks back fondly on the character he helped wrought. “But that character would be skirting around and ignoring issues that should be addressed when covering the president,” Nackers said via Slack.
“Diamond Joe was a perfect character for a vice president,” Nackers explained. “He basically had a job where he wasn’t expected to do jack shit aside from showing up to the Senate for tie-breaking votes. V.P. almost feels like a job where they pay you to sit around and look busy, maybe help out a customer.”
But the presidency is an entirely different ballgame.
“We need to report the president’s policies and actions, not create fan fiction of a cool dude,” he said. “Part of what worked with the Diamond Joe character was that he’s also the opposite of Joe Biden, a well-known teetotaler, so that worked during the Obama administration, but when he’s calling the shots, it doesn’t really make sense that he’s pulling bongs all day and passing out on the lawn when he stands against marijuana legalization. You need to have some sort of truth when covering an important role like the President.”
The Biden White House may not have the same late-aughts brand of “cool” that Obama’s did, but it’s clear that Biden and his team want to maintain the funloving reputation he developed during the Obama years, courtesy of The Onion and others. They want him to be the himbo of the Oval Office; he doesn’t have to be the smartest guy in the room, he just has to be approachable and warm, a reminder that things may look bleak post-Trump, but that there are brighter days ahead. After all, why conjure up a Biden with a history of poor choices when you can just think about a Biden who just wants to wash a Trans-Am, hang out with pop stars, and grab an ice cream cone.
But that can’t stop the newer and more accurate generation of Biden headlines making the rounds over at the Onion, where Diamond Joe was born: “Nervous Biden Rushes Past Intimidating Circle Of Senators Smoking Weed On Capitol Steps.”