“I think that the Bidens know that the affection they show for each other is serving as a healing agent,” said Dr. Douglas Brinkley, the Rice University professor and presidential historian.
“New presidents and first ladies have to be empathetic,” he explained, and the Bidens’ PDA is just one part of the first couple’s effort to fulfill that institutional imperative.
“When we watch [first couples] together, we don’t want to feel a tension in their marriage,” Brinkley said. “We don’t want to feel that they enjoy being separated from each other. One wants to believe that there’s some harmony and deep respect there.”
Casual displays of affection weren’t always so commonplace for first couples. According to Dr. Barbara Perry, director of Presidential Studies at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, it was the sexual revolution of the 1960s that redefined standards for how all Americans — including commanders in chief — could interact with their spouses in public.
After Richard Nixon resigned the presidency in the wake of the Watergate scandal, Gerald and Betty Ford became the first of the first couples to fully embrace the concept of PDA following those societal changes, Perry said.
The Fords made their affection for one another known from day one on Aug. 9, 1974, when they escorted the outgoing Nixons at an elaborate White House farewell ceremony that threw the two relationships into stark relief.
As they strode down a red carpet unfurled on the South Lawn, Gerald and Betty Ford were locked arm-in-arm with first lady Pat Nixon. Meanwhile, Richard Nixon — slightly removed from the group — walked untethered toward the presidential helicopter that would carry him home to California.
The Fords “were natural together” and “just seemed so happy” during their brief two-and-a-half years in the White House, Perry said. Not only were they left less encumbered as a result of ‘60s-era cultural progress; they also benefited from following the Nixons, whom Perry dubbed “the winner of the cold couple award” among modern presidential pairings.
Perhaps more importantly, though, Gerald Ford had never aspired to such ambitious political heights. Ford, a former House minority leader, was unelected to the presidency — elevated first to the vice presidency after the resignation of Spiro Agnew and then to the Oval Office when Nixon stepped down.
“They were never in the national, white-hot spotlight,” Perry said of the Fords. “So they felt comfortable doing what they’d always done.”
Subsequent presidents and first ladies showed their fondness for one another in their own ways — including the love letters from Ronald to Nancy Reagan, whom Perry considers to be the most affectionate of the modern first couples.
Baby Boomers, a generation far less fazed by PDA than their forebears, gained entry to the White House in the form of Bill and Hillary Clinton. But their marriage, rocked in the mid-1990s by the Lewinsky affair, represented a major turning point in the history of presidential PDA, as millions of Americans started scrutinizing the first couple’s movements for signs of insincerity.
Whereas the public had only learned of prior presidents’ marital struggles well after they left office, Perry remarked that the Clintons “are the first couple, and he the first president, that we know in real-time, while he’s president, that he’s strayed from his marriage. And so for them, that’s why it’s so difficult to know what is genuine and what is artifice.”
Since Bill and Hillary Clinton, the presidency has seen a series of first couples — George W. and Laura Bush, Barack and Michelle Obama, and Joe and Jill Biden — who demonstrate that American culture is “past all the taboos” that were formerly associated with PDA, Perry said.
The glaring exception is the previous first couple, Donald and Melania Trump, whose frigid public encounters interrupted what had otherwise been a natural integration of PDA into everyday presidential behavior.
In that sense, the Bidens’ displays of affection appear somewhat foreign after the last four years, even though they represent yet another return to the norms of past administrations that the new president repeatedly pledged to rehabilitate on the campaign trail.
“It’s comforting. It’s warm. It’s genuine,” Perry said. “And so if you layer the Covid issue, our divided country [and] the violence in our country upon the contrast with the Trumps, it just symbolizes everything.”