I Would Fly 500 Miles, and I Would Fly 500 More

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
(Tyler Bishop / The Atlantic)

“I’ve traveled, as of today, 992,894 miles for the president. I’ve met with virtually every major leader in the world,” Vice President Biden said on Thursday. “I know these guys, I know them better than anybody in the administration because I’ve been hanging around so long.”

Biden was, in theory, selling the Iran deal to a group of Jewish business leaders in south Florida, but he sounded more like he was selling his foreign-policy credentials to voters.

His oddly specific boast might be a testament to his predilection for personal politics—grinning, flesh-pressing, back-pounding, bear-hugging diplomacy. Or a way of touting his blue-collar work ethic and commitment to the job. But it’s difficult not to notice that Biden’s carefully tallied flights have now eclipsed the record set by another globe-trotting member of the administration.

As Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton set up a special section of the department’s website to enable the public to track her travels. By the time she left office, the tally stood at 956,733 miles. In her memoir, Clinton wrote that neither her time as First Lady nor her tenure in the Senate could prepare her for:

what it would be like to spend more than two thousand hours in the air over four years, traveling nearly a million miles. That’s eighty-seven full days of recycled air and the steady vibration of twin-turbofan engines.

But there are risks to this approach. For one thing, voters may care more about what officials do on the ground than how far they’ve traveled to get there. Carly Fiorina has already mocked Clinton’s emphasis of her air miles: “Flying is not an accomplishment, it is an activity.” Biden may prove vulnerable to similar attacks.

And, although Clinton’s lament of the rigors of travel will be familiar to road-warriors the world over, it’s also possible that some voters will regard traveling to 112 countries more as a privilege than a burden. A YouGov survey last year found that 60 percent of respondents had never left North America. The other 40 percent, meanwhile, might have been willing to endure flying on their own customized Boeing 757.

As Biden inches closer to the million-mile mark, though, his most interesting travel may be domestic. From Florida, he’s scheduled to fly to Atlanta, to speak at a synagogue; Pittsburgh, where he’ll celebrate Labor Day with the head of the AFL-CIO; and then New York, to appear on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert.

And as his odometer ticks upwards, it’s getting harder not to read it as an effort to convince voters that, compared to Clinton, he’s prepared to go the extra mile.