In the Biden era, Rehoboth Beach joins the ranks of presidential retreats

·5 min read

The Kennedys had their sprawling Cape Cod compound. Ronald Reagan chopped wood, rode horses and entertained Queen Elizabeth at his California ranch. The Bushes spent their summers in Kennebunkport, Maine. And Donald Trump preferred Mar-a-Lago or Bedminster over Washington.

Now in the Biden era, Rehoboth Beach is getting a moment in the sun — joining the ranks of presidential retreats.

But the town on Delaware's coast isn't like its predecessors. 

"Rehoboth is a little different because it's not isolated, it's not secluded like an island or a ranch," said Colleen Shogan of the White House Historical Association. "It's part of a larger area where everyday Americans vacation."

Just a couple of hours east of Washington, Rehoboth Beach has been known by locals as the nation's summer capital. The most iconic feature is its one-mile boardwalk that dates back to the 1870s and features Thrasher's French Fries, Grotto Pizza and numerous ice cream shops. 

The Bidens had been visiting the town for years before buying a home there in 2017 for a reported $2.7 million. A plaque hanging from their front door reads, "A promise kept," a reminder of President Biden making good on a pledge to buy his wife a beach house after he wrote his book. 

The concept of a presidential retreat is as old as the presidency itself. 

"The early presidents would retreat back to their homes...George Washington and Mount Vernon, James Madison to Montpelier, to Thomas Jefferson's Monticello. We don't really see the notion, though, of what we would call a vacation emerge until after the Civil War," said Shogan. "Probably the first president that went on a legitimate presidential vacation was Ulysses S. Grant. And he liked to vacation at the Jersey Shore. And so from there forward, we see presidents actually going on vacation." 

Though, when you're the leader of the free world, there's really no such thing as time off. "Presidents never really enjoy that privilege to run off being president of the United States," Shogun said, noting the change of scenery "gives presidents the time to rejuvenate, gives them time to do things they couldn't do at the White House."

Presidents tend to select vacation spots that fit their personalities. 

"You can understand why President Reagan might want to spend time in California. President Bush, obviously time in Texas and also his father, George H.W. Bush, who had been going to Kennebunkport, Maine, his entire life," Shogan said. "And I think that President Biden, he's very comfortable at Rehoboth. That's the place that he's familiar with, where he has spent time. And he's also someone who wants to be, is down to Earth. He likes ice cream, and there's no shortage of ice cream at Rehoboth." 

That's welcome news to Chip Hearn, who owns The Ice Cream Store on the Rehoboth boardwalk. They have a new flavor this summer called the Biden Summer White House Cherry. "It's almost like a proud concept that the president actually lives here. It's a big deal," Hearn told CBS News. 

While it may be Mr. Biden's second home, former President Donald Trump won Sussex County, which encompasses Rehoboth, with 55% of the vote in 2020. Still, shop owners like Hearn say it's not necessarily a political town. "Politics here has nothing to do with Republican and Democrat. It has to do with who's doing some cool stuff and making the beach better," he said. 

"We're actually pleased that Joe Biden is putting Delaware and Rehoboth Beach on the map, not just locally, but worldwide," Mayor Stan Mills told CBS News. 

Like most towns across the country in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, Rehoboth has had a difficult year. But Mills hopes its new status as a presidential retreat can help with tourism. 

Mills recalled Mr. Biden's visits long before he won the presidency. "You might just walk around town and turn around, and poof, there he was — with Dr. Jill Biden behind him — patronizing some of our stores and bookstores and coffee shops, and ice cream shops," he said. "And of course the thing that's different today is now he's president. He was recently in town. And things have changed a little bit. We still expect what I call the 'famously friendly Joe Biden' to come into town and walk around. But he's got a different profile now. He's got a much greater entourage and security detail."

That change was apparent when the Bidens traveled to their Rehoboth home in June to celebrate Jill Biden's birthday — their first visit there as president and first lady. They arrived in Marine One on a newly converted helipad in Gordon Pond. But they still managed to fit in some of their regular activities there, like riding their bikes in Cape Henlopen State Park.

The park is full of U.S. history, and has special significance for Mr. Biden. It is home to Fort Miles, a WWII military base and Herring Point, which served as a Sound Surveillance System looking out for submarines in the Atlantic Ocean. As a senator, Mr. Biden helped return some of the land there from the U.S. military back to the state of Delaware. For those efforts, a former U.S. naval facility in the park was named the Biden Environmental Science Center. The Bidens also dedicated a bench at Herring Point, overlooking the ocean, to their late son Beau.

"This park sees over a million visitors a year, and they love it for the same reasons that the president's family loves it," Delaware State Parks Director Ray Bivens told CBS News about Cape Henlopen. 

Like many people in the area, Bivens has a Biden story. 

"I was in this exact spot with him about three years ago. And he was just another gentleman out bike riding. A couple came over to me and ... they asked, 'Who was that you were talking to?' I was like, 'Oh, that— at the time, the vice president.' And they were just amazed that he was just out and about, enjoying the park just like they were," Bivens said. 

That day, Bivens had spent some time riding around the park with the then-vice president. "At one point, he asked about my family and he ended up saying, 'Hey, let's call your mom,' and he talked to my mom on the phone."

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