President Biden has been unable to break himself of the habit of embellishing narratives to weave a political identity.
Standing in front of Floridians who had lost everything during Hurricane Ian, President Biden on Wednesday recalled his own house being nearly destroyed 15 years ago: “We didn’t lose our whole home, but lightning struck and we lost an awful lot of it,” he said.
Mr. Biden has mentioned the incident before, once saying that he knows what it’s like “having had a house burn down with my wife in it.”
In fact, news reports at the time called it little more than “a small fire that was contained to the kitchen” and quoted the local Delaware fire chief as saying “the fire was under control in 20 minutes.”
The story is not an isolated example of embellishment.
The exaggerated biography that Mr. Biden tells includes having been a fierce civil rights activist who was repeatedly arrested. He has claimed to have been an award-winning student who earned three degrees. And last week, speaking on the hurricane-devastated island of Puerto Rico, he said he had been “raised in the Puerto Rican community at home, politically.”
For more than four decades, Mr. Biden has embraced storytelling as a way of connecting with his audience, often emphasizing the truth of his account by adding, “Not a joke!” in the middle of a story. But Mr. Biden’s folksiness can veer into folklore, with dates that don’t quite add up and details that are exaggerated or wrong, the factual edges shaved off to make them more powerful for audiences.
Mr. Biden’s instances of exaggeration and falsehood fall far well short of those of his predecessor, who during four years in office delivered what the Washington Post fact checker called a “tsunami of untruths” and CNN described as a “staggering avalanche of daily wrongness.”
Former President Donald J. Trump lied constantly, not only about trivial details (like insisting it hadn’t rained during his inauguration when it clearly had) but also about consequential moments — misleading about the pandemic, perpetrating the “big lie” that Mr. Biden stole the 2020 election, and claiming falsely that the Capitol was not attacked by his supporters on Jan. 6, 2021.
Mr. Biden’s fictions are nowhere near that scale. But they are emblematic of how the president, over nearly five decades in public life, has been unable to break himself of the habit of spinning embellished narratives, sometimes only loosely based on the facts, to weave together his political identity. And they provide political ammunition for Republicans eager to tar him as too feeble to run for re-election in two years.
His stories have been repeatedly and publicly challenged, as far back as his 1987 campaign for president, when his attempts to adopt someone else’s life story as his own, and his false claims about his academic record, forced him to withdraw.
“He obviously has this tendency, where he’s a good and decent man who in politics has felt like he could stretch the truth up to a point just like virtually every president has done,” said Eric Alterman, the author of “Lying in State: Why Presidents Lie — and Why Trump Is Worse” and a professor at City University of New York.
“With Biden, people have decided these are not the kind of lies that matter,” Mr. Alterman added. “These are the kinds of lies that people’s grandfathers tell.”
White House officials disputed the characterization of Mr. Biden as a serial exaggerator and emphasized the contrast with his predecessor.
“President Biden has brought honesty and integrity back to the Oval Office,” said Andrew Bates, a White House spokesman. “Like he promised, he gives the American people the truth right from the shoulder and takes pride in being straight with the country about his agenda and his values; including by sharing life experiences that have shaped his outlook and that hardworking people relate to.”
But ethicists said that contrasting himself with Mr. Trump does not excuse Mr. Biden.
“I worry about the corrosive effects on democracy, of making ‘more honest than Donald Trump’ the standard for politicians,” said Michael Blake, a professor of philosophy, public policy and governance at the University of Washington.
Two days before his remarks in Fort Myers, Fla., Mr. Biden made his comments about the Puerto Rican community back home in Delaware as he toured the destruction on the island.
I’m one of you, he seemed to be saying.
But Mr. Biden made not a single mention of Puerto Rico in either of his biographies. Officials could not point to specific instances when Mr. Biden had worked on issues involving the island, though Ted Kaufman, Mr. Biden’s former chief of staff, defended his close friend’s description, saying that Mr. Biden had personally engaged with Puerto Ricans early in his career, in the same way that he had with other groups, like the Black or Jewish communities.
“You know, all that kind of case work that you do,” Mr. Kaufman said. “They were big on that. Plus, he went to their events.”
Many presidents, of course, have stretched the truth — in ways big and small.
Bill Clinton lied under oath when he said, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky.” Ronald Reagan insisted that he did not “trade weapons or anything else for hostages” during the Iran-contra investigation.
Like Mr. Biden, Mr. Reagan exaggerated his own actions, once saying that he had shot footage of Nazis concentration camps at the end of World War II. He never did.
Mr. Biden’s critics have seized on his falsehoods to depict him as either a purposeful liar or a forgetful old man.
“When you lie about big things, you lie about small things,” said Greg Kelly, a host on the conservative network Newsmax, this year, “and always in a political sense, always in a way to try to get people to like him, and exaggerating along the way.”
The president has been delivering exaggerations at least as far back as his first presidential campaign.
During his first presidential run in 1987, Mr. Biden said he “went to law school on a full academic scholarship,” bragged that he “ended up in the top half” of his law school class, and insisted that he “graduated with three degrees from undergraduate school.”
If fact, as he later admitted, he had only a partial scholarship, was 76th out of 85 law school student and graduated with one bachelor's degree (with a double major in history and political science).
“I exaggerate when I’m angry,’‘ Mr. Biden told The New York Times in September 1987, “but I’ve never gone around telling people things that aren’t true about me.”
The controversy came shortly after Mr. Biden admitted plagiarizing parts of a speech from Neil Kinnock, the leader of the Labour Party in Britain at the time. Mr. Biden dropped out of the presidential contest.
Thirty-two years later, as he campaigned for the presidency in 2019, Mr. Biden described how he had traveled to Afghanistan to pin a Silver Star on a Navy captain for retrieving the body of a fellow American from a 60-foot ravine.
“This is the God’s truth,” he said, repeating a story he had told many times, “my word as a Biden.”
But as The Washington Post pointed out, it was an Army specialist, not a Navy captain, who had rescued his comrade. Former President Barack Obama, not Mr. Biden, awarded that soldier the Presidential Medal of Honor, not the Silver Star. And the ceremony took place at the White House, not in Afghanistan.
Mr. Biden might have been recalling a time years later, when he went to Afghanistan to pin a Bronze Star on an Army soldier. But as The Post put it: “In the space of three minutes, Biden got the time period, the location, the heroic act, the type of medal, the military branch and the rank of the recipient wrong, as well as his own role in the ceremony.”
Since becoming president earlier this year, he has continued to shave the truth.
At least four times, Mr. Biden has described a ride on Amtrak to visit his sick mother in 2015 or 2016, recalling a conversation with a friendly train conductor. But Mr. Biden’s mother died in 2010. The conductor also had been dead for several years by 2015.
Last year, Mr. Biden said he remembered “spending time at” and “going to” the Tree of Life Synagogue, where 11 people were massacred in 2018. The White House later admitted he had never visited, but had talked to the rabbi on the phone.
The most curious stories that Mr. Biden continues to tell may be the ones about his interactions with the law.
Earlier this year, Mr. Biden suggested during a speech in Atlanta on voting rights that he had been arrested while protesting for civil rights.
“Because I’m so damn old, I was there as well,” he said. “You think I’m kidding, man. It seems like yesterday the first time I got arrested.”
There is no evidence he was ever arrested during a civil-rights protest.
During the 2020 campaign, he said he had been arrested while visiting with Nelson Mandela in South Africa. He later admitted he had been blocked from moving by police, but not arrested. In 2008, he said he had been arrested as a college student following a group of women into an all-female dorm. He hadn’t, as he conceded years later. In 2007, he recounted being arrested by a Capitol Police officer as a 21-year-old student in 1963. But in his memoir, he writes that the officer “didn’t arrest me or anything.”
The White House declined to say what Mr. Biden was referring to during the voter rights speech in January, though they pointed to other interviews where he said, “I wasn’t John Lewis. I don’t mean to imply that.”
“It’s an attempt to create a sort of picture of who he is as someone who has empathy and knowledge and connection with people who are unlike him,” Mr. Blake said.
“But the problem is,” he added, “when it’s verifiably a false story, at that point trust in that story, it fails.”