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What Biden's been eating on the trail and what it says about his campaign

President Biden greets people at CJ's Cafe in Los Angeles, Calif., on Feb. 21, 2024.
Andrew Caballero-Reynolds
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AFP via Getty Images
President Biden greets people at CJ's Cafe in Los Angeles, Calif., on Feb. 21, 2024.

Everyone's got to eat — including the president of the United States. And lately, President Biden has been sampling it all: boba tea in Las Vegas, burgers and a milkshake in Raleigh and ice cream with late-night host Seth Meyers in New York City.

As Biden has ramped up his travel this election year, he's been making more frequent stops to grab a bite to eat or a drink. The smaller settings offer a chance for Biden to do the kind of retail politics he's known for, but the food and drink choices themselves hold significant symbolism.

"Food is identity and food is inherently political and food is cultural currency. It has the power to connect us and also the power to repulse us. So these are obviously very calculated choices about where to go," Hunter Lewis, the editor of Food & Wine, told NPR.

Biden's recent stops getting burgers and and a milkshake from Cook Out, a Southern fast food chain that Lewis described as having a "cult following." He ordered boba tea in Las Vegas' Chinatown. These stops show Biden, 81, is trying to connect with younger voters, and shake off concerns people have about his age.

President Biden speaks with reporters while visiting the No. 1 Boba Tea shop in Las Vegas on Feb. 5, 2024.
Saul Loeb / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
President Biden speaks with reporters while visiting the No. 1 Boba Tea shop in Las Vegas on Feb. 5, 2024.

"Age is the question right now and so I think going to a Cook Out, going to a boba tea shop, those are smart moves," Lewis said. "He is projecting that he connects with a younger audience and is in the know."

Boba tea, a Taiwanese drink that's become hugely popular in the United States, also shows an outreach to Asian American voters, who make up nearly 10% of the population in Nevada, a key state for Biden to win in November.

"Food is definitely a way to humanize a candidate," said Emily Contois, a professor of media studies at the University of Tulsa and the author of the book Diners, Dudes and Diets.

That's important because American voters tend to be swayed by personality, rather than only focusing on issues, Contois said. And the fact that Biden is choosing establishments that serve foods from different cultures sends a message about his politics, in addition to his personality, she said.

President Biden shakes hands through a take-out window after ordering food from Cook Out in Raleigh, N.C. on Jan. 18, 2024.
Saul Loeb / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
President Biden shakes hands through a take-out window after ordering food from Cook Out in Raleigh, N.C. on Jan. 18, 2024.

Biden's stops are another way to show a contrast with Trump

Biden's campaign has been working to draw a contrast with former President Donald Trump, the front-runner in the race to be the Republican candidate in November.

Trump is known for large-scale rallies and rarely stops at local joints when he is out campaigning. He is also known for his love of fast food. One of his most famous food moments as president was when he served McDonald's and Wendy's at the White House for college football champions from Clemson University.

"Diversity of different ethnic and immigrant traditions of different flavors, different preparations and techniques — the glorious diversity of the American food culture — that's not something that he trades in or represents," Contois said.

There's a chance for viral social media moments

Biden's stops also help his campaign counter a narrative that Biden is overprotected, past his prime, and hiding from the cameras.

"They're great photo ops, they're a great chance for him to do what he loves to do, which is retail politics," said Jim Messina, the campaign manager for President Obama's 2012 campaign.

The smaller venues allow Biden to engage with voters in a more natural way than from behind a lectern. As Biden enters the coffee shops and restaurants he swings by, he takes selfies and shakes hands with voters, and makes more off-the-cuff remarks.

At a recent stop in Los Angeles, Biden picked up a breakfast burrito to go from a Mexican and soul food diner, CJ's Cafe. As he was taking a photo with one of the patrons, she told him she was impressed that Biden knew how to switch the phone camera around to selfie mode.

"After the last guy, the bar's on the floor," Biden quipped, referring to former President Trump.

President Biden takes a selfie with a customer at CJ's Cafe in Los Angeles, Calif. on Feb. 21, 2024.
Andrew Caballero-Reynolds / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
President Biden takes a selfie with a customer at CJ's Cafe in Los Angeles, Calif. on Feb. 21, 2024.

"Getting really on the ground and doing things that normal voters will recognize as things as they do is really a touchpoint. It really says he understands us, he gets us, he's not just this guy that we see giving Oval Office addresses," Messina said.

And the Biden campaign is hoping that the interactions Biden has with voters and spread far and wide to voters online, too. During a trip to Raleigh, Biden brought Cook Out to eat with a father and his sons at their home. A TikTok videoone of the kids made went viral — which is the kind of content the campaign says could reach voters who aren't even interested in politics.

The daughters of the Republic of Texas saved President Gerald Ford from what would have been a growling gastric experience in San Antonio, Tex., April 9, 1976.
/ ASSOCIATED PRESS
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ASSOCIATED PRESS
The daughters of the Republic of Texas saved President Gerald Ford from what would have been a growling gastric experience in San Antonio, Tex., April 9, 1976.

But this strategy comes with risks

There are risks to trying to connect to voters through food, said Alex Prud'homme, who wrote Dinner with the President, a book on the intersection of food and politics.

"It can cut both ways. It can boomerang against you," Prud'homme said.

When Gerald Ford was running for president, he tried a tamale, but failed to remove the corn husk before taking a bite. George H.W. Bush once went to a grocery store and marveled at a check-out machine.

"He couldn't figure it out. He was amazed by it. It made him look out of touch," Prud'homme said.

So as Biden tries new things on the road, he risks unscripted moments that can turn into a negative story. For example, comedian Stephen Colbert poked fun at Biden's boba tea stop. And Biden was mocked on late night shows and criticized on social media for addressing Gaza cease-fire talks while eating an ice cream cone.

President Biden talks to reporters about Gaza while eating ice cream with late night host Seth Meyers in New York City on Feb. 26, 2024.
Jim Watson / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
President Biden talks to reporters about Gaza while eating ice cream with late night host Seth Meyers in New York City on Feb. 26, 2024.

But Prud'homme said staying cocooned in Washington is no alternative.

"It does show an open-mindedness and willingness to get out there... and with people worried about his age, it shows a willingness to take a risk," Prud'homme said.

"It does risk the George H.W. Bush moment, but it would be worse if he didn't get out there and try those things."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Deepa Shivaram
Deepa Shivaram is a multi-platform political reporter on NPR's Washington Desk.

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