It was a quiet day in Emmaus, Pa. The only sound on Main Street was the idling engine of the sleek black truck that some call a rolling doomsday communications control center, which was parked outside the bike shop. The men with guns dressed all in black were perched on the roof using binoculars to scan the area for terrorists or other bad guys.
The president had come to this picturesque town of 11,000 to chat with a few local business owners, order a smoothie, visit the local firehouse and, if it so happened that his visit produced a few pictures useful for his re-election campaign, all the better. Did he mention the new statistics on start-up businesses? No worries, he would be happy to repeat them.
An election year has arrived, and it is time for President Biden to get out of the White House and hit the road for votes. He is not the only one looking for Norman Rockwell images in small-town shops and diners these days — check out the traveling circus in Iowa over the weekend, heading to New Hampshire after that. But he is the only one who comes with a mile-long motorcade of police cars, Secret Service vehicles, ambulances and enough sophisticated military hardware to launch a nuclear war from the stool at the coffee shop.
Retail campaigning is not easy when you’re the commander in chief. The counterassault team does not really lend an air of authentic spontaneity to the whole venture. The venues he visits are chosen in advance, the route he takes is chosen in advance, the people he meets are chosen in advance. If it’s possible, a significant chunk of the town is roped off. Nothing says “hey, friend” like a metal-detecting wand and a bomb-sniffing dog.
But artificial and surreal as it may be, allies have been agitating for Mr. Biden to get on the hustings, away from the Beltway and the Situation Room. He has, after all, spent a lifetime working rooms, shaking hands, slapping arms, squeezing shoulders, kissing babies. His Uncle Joe connection with everyday people, allies argue, is perhaps his biggest political superpower.
“This is exactly the kind of area the president should be visiting,” said Representative Susan Wild, Democrat of Pennsylvania, who accompanied him to Emmaus on Friday and whose swing district is rated a tossup by The Cook Political Report. “This is quintessential Middle America — even though we’re not in the middle of America.”
The worry is that Mr. Biden has lost Middle America, or at least a critical chunk of it, thanks to inflation or his age or the problems at the border or whatever. If he wants to win those voters back in November, Democrats say, he needs to show that he still understands where they are coming from and has a better sense of their interests than his challengers.
And so the president began last week by dropping by Hannibal’s Kitchen in Charleston, S.C., a down-home soul-food restaurant known for its crab and shrimp rice and decidedly unfancy environs. (“What the restaurant lacks in ambience, they more than make up for in taste,” according to its own website.) He ended the week by dropping by a few shops in Emmaus, which boasts of being ranked the fifth-most “heart-warmingly beautiful small town in Pennsylvania.”
Mr. Biden sought to claim credit for an improving economy, highlighting that more new small businesses have opened in his three years in office than during the term of his predecessor and possible opponent, former President Donald J. Trump. He attributed low poll ratings for his economic record to challenges communicating with voters.
“If you notice, they’re feeling much better about how the economy is doing,” Mr. Biden told reporters at the Allentown Fire Training Academy north of Emmaus on Friday. “What we haven’t done is let them know exactly who got it changed.”
When hunting for votes, Mr. Biden has a well-worn shtick, honed during campaigns going back to his first bid for office in 1970, before many of the people he runs into were even born.
“Hey, bud, how you doing, man?” he asks.
“How you doing, man? My name’s Joe.”
“Good to see you, man.”
He has a collection of hokey jokes for every occasion. When he greeted L.J. Huger, the owner of Hannibal’s, he noted the two younger women standing next to him and joked, “Do you know these women?” Mr. Huger, of course, did. They were his daughters and they run the place now. “I’m the old patriarch,” he explained to the president, “like you.”
Mr. Biden employs another old standby when he meets a young child, as he did in the bike shop in Emmaus. “What are you? Seventeen?” the president asked playfully. No, the boy said. “Seven.”
When he enters a room, Mr. Biden sometimes does a faux double-take and says “oh!” pretending to be surprised to see the people his White House has arranged to be there.
In picking Emmaus, founded in 1759 and pronounced ee-MAY-us, the Biden White House found a town in a battleground state with, yes, a Main Street with small businesses that look universal.
Sean Linehan, one of the owners of Emmaus Run Inn, a shoe and athletic apparel store, said he got a call on Tuesday night telling him the president might come. He was allowed to invite three staff members, three good customers and his wife, Nicole. “It was really cool,” Mr. Linehan recalled later by telephone. “We talked about everything. He was very personable, very gracious with his time.”
Mr. Biden, wearing a green quarter-zip sweater under a blue blazer with elbow patches, knew that Mr. Linehan had bought a shoe store in Delaware; he even knew the previous owner. When the president asked if he ever got down to that store, Mr. Linehan said yes. Mr. Biden took out a pen and paper and asked for his number just in case he could drop by.
Still, in today’s polarized era, a visit by the president generates strong feelings. “I got a couple emails from people,” Mr. Linehan said. “One guy said he’ll never shop in our store. ‘You should never mix business and politics.’ I emailed back. I said we didn’t talk about politics. We talked about the benefits of small businesses.”
Maybe some of the emailers were watching because when Mr. Biden left the shoe store to walk next door to South Mountain Cycle store and the adjoining Nowhere Coffee Company, a few people on a nearby balcony hanging a “Let’s Go Brandon” banner started shouting, “Go home, Joe!” and “You’re a loser!”
He got it from the other side of the ideological spectrum about an hour later when he visited the fire station in nearby Allentown as several dozen demonstrators protesting Israel’s war against Hamas chanted, “Hey hey, ho ho, Genocide Joe has got to go” and held up signs like “No Vote for Genocide Joe” and “We Will Remember in November.”
Oddly enough, he did not stop at Grandpa Joe’s Candy Shop just a few doors down from the bike store. The serendipity seemed irresistible: Grandpa Joe visits Grandpa Joe’s! But he resisted, maybe not wanting to emphasize the whole grandfather thing in a contest where his age is an issue.
“We had our fingers crossed, but no, unfortunately,” Chris Beers, the owner, said the next day. “It would have been awesome.”
By early evening, it was time to head back to Washington and the White House. Just the night before, American forces at the president’s command had conducted airstrikes against Houthi militias in Yemen, and what Mr. Biden’s hosts did not know was that more were coming that night. That’s the presidency in an election year, schmoozing with a bike shop owner one minute, life-or-death decisions the next.