US President Joe Biden and US First Lady Jill Biden, look at their new dog Commander, after speaking virtually with military service members to thank them for their service and wish them a Merry Christmas, from the South Court Auditorium of the White House in Washington, DC, on December 25, 2021. (Saul Loeb/AFP)
WASHINGTON - A friendly new face joined President Joe Biden and the first lady Jill Biden’s Christmas Day calls to the troops — their new puppy, Commander.
The purebred German shepherd, who’s nearly four months old, was welcomed into the family earlier this week. Commander was born Sept. 1 and arrived at the White House on Monday afternoon, a gift from the president's brother, James Biden, and sister-in-law Sara Biden, according to Michael LaRosa, a spokesperson for first lady Jill Biden.
On Saturday, Commander sat between the president and first lady on a blue couch inside a studio set up at the White House, resting his head on a pillow as the Bidens spoke to service members representing the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force, Space Force and Coast Guard stationed at bases in Quatar, Romania, Bahrain and the U.S.
"As your commander in chief, I wanted to take this opportunity to say thank you, thank you, thank you," he told the service members. "We’re grateful for your courage, your sacrifice, not only your sacrifice but your family’s sacrifice."
Jill Biden expressed empathy for the difficulties their families experience spending the holidays away from their loved ones, noting that the Bidens experienced the same when their son Beau, who served as a major in the Delaware Army National Guard, was deployed to Iraq.
Commander also brought smiles to some hospitalized children who weren't well enough to go home for the holidays.
On Christmas Eve, President Biden and the first lady made a surprise visit to Children's National Hospital.
The president and first lady sat before the hospital's Christmas tree, where Jill Biden read "Olaf's Night Before Christmas" to the kids, which was broadcast to hundreds of children in their rooms at the hospital.
Biden also pulled out his phone to show the kids photos of the new puppy.
"His name is Commander!" Jill Biden told the kids. "And this morning he was eating my slippers!"
The Bidens had two other German shepherds — Champ and Major — with them at the White House before Commander. Champ died in June at age 13. Major had a series of biting incidents earlier this year and has been sent to live in a quieter environment with friends, the family said.
The first lady had said shortly after Biden won the November 2020 presidential election that they would be getting a cat. LaRosa said the feline will join the family in January.
Meanwhile, the Bidens planned a relatively quiet Christmas at the White House with family.
As the coronavirus pandemic surges anew, driven by the highly infectious omicron variant, the Bidens sought with their public appearances and statements to offer a sense of unity and normalcy in an otherwise challenging season for many.
In a Christmas statement, the Bidens praised the "enormous courage, character, resilience, and resolve" of the American people in the face of the pandemic, and offered prayers that the nation would find "light in the darkness" during a difficult season.
"During this season of joy, we are inspired by the countless Americans who are a reminder that the things we hold sacred unite us and transcend distance, time, and even the constraints of a pandemic," the Bidens said in their statement.
After their hospital visit on Christmas Eve, the two stopped by a Jill Biden-themed Christmas tree in the Dupont Circle neighborhood. The president hung the 2021 White House Christmas ornament amid branches decked out with photos of his wife's face, apples and small chalkboards, in homage to her teaching career.
Both then answered calls to the North American Aerospace Defense Command's Santa-tracking service, speaking to parents and children about their Christmas wishlists.
In pre-pandemic times, presidents and first ladies spent many December evenings in the run-up to Christmas hosting nearly two dozen holiday parties and receptions, sometimes two per day, where they stood in line for hours posing for photos with ecstatic guests.
All of that was scrapped this year.
Instead, the Bidens invited groups of up to 100 people to holiday open houses, giving them half an hour — instead of the usual two — to tour the decorations on the ground and state floors. There was no food and drink. Nor was there picture-taking with the Bidens, who didn't attend.
Guests had to attest to their vaccination status before showing up, wear a face mask at all times on the White House grounds and practice social distancing. Anyone not vaccinated had to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken within 48 hours of the event.
The final open houses were held this week.
In addition to fewer people passing through for the open houses, thousands of other people didn't get a close-up look at how Jill Biden decked out White House hallways and public rooms for the holidays because public tours of the mansion remain on indefinite hold.
"The White House is never as beautiful as it is at Christmas. It's just gorgeous," said Jeremy Bernard, who oversaw holiday decorating and event planning as President Barack Obama's social secretary. "It's a shame that more people can't go through, but it's the reality of being in a pandemic."
In part to make up for the lack of access, photos and an interactive tour of the decorations were uploaded to the White House website, and the first lady tweeted video of herself describing the decor and theme in each of the rooms and public spaces.
This story was reported from Detroit. The Associated Press contributed.