Administration

Jill Biden’s quiet but influential White House presence

First lady Jill Biden
Greg Nash
First lady Jill Biden walks toward Maine One on the South Lawn of the White House on Monday, October 3, 2022.

When President Biden took questions from reporters at a news conference last week, he had an unexpected adviser sitting off to the side: first lady Jill Biden. 

The first lady could be seen in camera view, and the president was clear to point her out, seated in the front row, in the middle of the question-and-answer session. 

“By the way, this is my wife, Jill,” the president said to laughter. “Who’s a hell of a lot more popular than I am in the Democratic Party too.”

The moment spoke to the power the first lady wields in her husband’s White House and in his future plans, particularly as he debates whether to run for reelection. 

During Wednesday’s press conference, President Biden referred to his wife of 45 years multiple times. He said that the decision to run again was “a family decision” and said that running was “our intention,” pointing to it being a dual decision with his wife.

“I hope Jill and I get a little time to actually sneak away for a week around, between Christmas and Thanksgiving. And my guess is it would be early next year we make that judgment,” the president said.

The references spoke volumes about Jill Biden’s quiet but powerful presence in her husband’s administration, Democrats said. 

“It was interesting to see her sitting there in full view,” said one Democratic strategist who called it “unusual” for a first lady to have such a prominent presence at an afternoon news conference. “It shows how involved she is, especially in these important moments.” 

Another Biden ally said it speaks to the role the first lady plays in nearly everything involving her husband, from messaging to key decisionmaking. 

“She’s always going to be his closest adviser,” the ally said. 

The president has conducted three White House press conferences during his time in office — the first in March 2021, the second in January 2022 and the third on Wednesday following Election Day. Last week, though, was the first time the first lady sat in the audience.

It came after she reportedly reprimanded staff following the president’s two-hour news conference in January for not putting a stop to it sooner. In that press conference, Biden was asked about his cognitive fitness and his son Hunter Biden’s business dealings.

The first lady has long taken on the ultimate defender and staunch protector role over her husband, which was on full display during the 2020 presidential run when she stood in between Biden and a protester twice.

“You can take the girl out of Philly…” she said on Twitter in February 2020 after one incident.

The first lady’s office noted that Jill Biden often joins her husband for special events “and is proud to support her husband,” press secretary Vanessa Valdivia told The Hill.

Jill Biden is typically present for big speeches from the president, whether to celebrate the passage of gun violence legislation or for more solemn moments such as the one following the deadly school shooting in Uvalde, Texas. 

But she typically isn’t present for foreign trips, where the president also conducts press conferences such as the one on Monday from Indonesia. While the president was in Asia, the first lady traveled to Chicago with Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, Labor Secretary Marty Walsh and Education Secretary Miguel Cardona to kick off National Apprenticeship Week.

The first lady was a popular surrogate for Democrats during this midterm cycle. She traversed the country in the weeks leading up to the midterms, visiting states such as Tennessee, Wisconsin, Georgia and Florida.

She attended a Democratic National Committee (DNC) event in Washington, D.C., on Thursday to thank the committee for its work during the midterms, where she appeared beside President Biden, Vice President Harris and second gentleman Doug Emhoff.

Sources close to the couple explained her attendance at the press conference was in part due to her wanting to bask in the feeling of vindication for defying expectations as she does in other big moments.

“It did not really strike me as odd or unusual. Unlike his predecessor, who blamed his wife for last Tuesday’s results, President Biden relies on the first lady for moral support and good counsel. It would have been weird if she wasn’t in the room,” said a source close to the president.

Another reason was the first lady’s busy schedule. She teaches full days at Northern Virginia Community College on Tuesdays and Thursdays, so a Wednesday press conference worked well for her to attend.

Also, the Bidens are known to have a close and emotionally supportive marriage, which has involved tragedy such as the death of their son Beau Biden in 2015. 

If the midterm results had gone poorly for the president, the first lady probably would have still attended the press conference to be supportive, noted Michael LaRosa, former press secretary to the first lady.

He said that while the first lady campaigned and had a stake in the Democrats’ performance this cycle, she also “has always been supportive of him throughout his career, in good times and bad times, as he has been of her in her career.” 

“It will go down as a significant moment in his presidency but she would have been there to support him had the red wave come as well,” said LaRosa, now a managing director at the Penta Group.

But Wednesday was a good day for the White House.

Ivan Zapien, a lobbyist and former DNC official, said that, because of that, he didn’t think much of the first lady’s presence at the press conference.

“It’s been a great couple days from them. It was probably random, and I chalk it up to two battle-tested lovebirds who have been through some big ups and downs together wanting to be around each other during a good day,” he said. “I know. Shocking, right?” 

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