Jill Biden picks up where she left off
First lady Jill Biden is picking up where she left off four years ago.
The former second lady has eased into her new role as first lady by reviving the Obama-era military families program Joining Forces, bringing baked goods to National Guard troops protecting the U.S. Capitol, appearing in a Super Bowl public service announcement with the family dogs encouraging people to wear masks and staging hearts on the White House North Lawn for Valentine’s Day.
She has held various virtual engagements to showcase her advocacy for military families, students and community colleges and will appear in her first one-on-one broadcast interview later this month.
Biden, 69, is also continuing with her teaching workload, making her the first to hold the role of first lady and maintain a paid position outside the White House, something that historians say demonstrates how the role has evolved to be more reflective of modern-day women.
The new first lady is no stranger to the public role given her husband’s long political career and her stint as second lady during the Obama administration. But she comes into the position at a perilous moment in U.S. history, as the country is almost a year into the twin crises of the coronavirus pandemic and an economic downturn.
“The country is facing a series of crises simultaneously,” said Jennifer Lawless, professor of politics at the University of Virginia. “In a lot of ways, she has to be the first lady times two just because the environment is so much more difficult than it has been for the last 100 years.”
Those who have spent time with Biden, known as “Dr. B” to her community college students, say she’s up to the task of playing a role in helping usher the nation through a brutal pandemic and the resulting economic hardship.
“Both [Joe and Jill Biden] became president and first lady at an inflection point in American history where we have a confluence of unprecedented circumstances,” said Moe Vela, former assistant to the vice president during the Obama administration. “I think that would be a challenge for anybody, but she’s up to the challenge.”
“She doesn’t need any training. She knows how to play the role. She knows how to do the job,” Vela added.
After her husband’s inauguration on Jan. 20, Biden quickly began work on the three areas of focus she had during the Obama administration: cancer, military families and education. She met with Education Secretary nominee Miguel Cardona on Jan. 21, and the following day she delivered cookies to National Guardsmen in a surprise visit to the Capitol after a tour of the local Whitman-Walker Health clinic in Washington, D.C.
But the pandemic has forced Biden to adjust what would normally be in-person events. She has held virtual listening sessions with military-connected students, paid a virtual visit to the National Cancer Institute to thank staff, and delivered pretaped remarks to a legislative summit hosted by the Association of Community College Trustees and the American Association of Community Colleges, where she pressed for free access to community college.
She’s also visited local businesses, something that can be difficult given the level of security required for the first family. She stopped by the Sweet Lobby, a bakery on Capitol Hill, to purchase treats on Valentine’s Day before the family headed to Camp David.
Experts say those kinds of steps — reaching out to local businesses and drawing awareness to social issues like education — reflect an effort to appeal to a broader group of Americans outside the Beltway.
“What it is actually doing is engaging people who might not have otherwise been listening, and may also try to explain things to a broader public in ways that are less in the weeds of politics and policy,” said Kelly Dittmar, assistant research professor at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.
“When you have Jill Biden do the mask-up commercial with Champ and Major, it’s a way for her to be a messenger that isn’t the Democratic president of the United States on an issue that’s hyperpartisan for no good health reason,” she added, referring to the public service announcement with the first family’s two dogs.
However, Biden is not without her critics. Essayist Joseph Epstein wrote an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal in December suggesting Biden “drop the ‘Dr.’” before her name. Epstein’s piece garnered widespread backlash, with many calling it “misogynistic.”
More recently, Fox News host Tucker Carlson criticized the first couple for having public displays of affection, calling the marriage a “slick PR campaign.”
“Both Bidens and everyone in their administration are trying to be the anti-Trumps,” said Katherine Jellison, a professor of history at Ohio University and U.S. first ladies expert. “If Melania Trump was a low-profile first lady, who wasn’t even there at the White House for the first several months of her husband’s presidency, Jill Biden is going to be omnipresent.”
Biden’s approach to the East Wing marks a major departure from that of her predecessor, Trump.
The former first lady did not move into the White House until six months after her husband took office, after which she took a low-profile approach to her role.
Trump rarely gave interviews and launched her “Be Best” campaign, an effort to combat bullying, nearly a year after she moved into the White House. Critics were quick to point out what they called the irony of the campaign, given her husband’s tendency to criticize political opponents and others on social media.
Teri Finneman, a professor at the University of Kansas who studies news coverage of first ladies and female politicians, likened Trump’s approach to that of earlier first ladies who kept lower profiles when compared with their modern counterparts.
“In the last 50 years, we have gotten more used to having an active first lady, but historically first ladies weren’t this active,” she said.
Some experts say President Biden’s image might be bolstered by both his wife and Vice President Harris, 56.
“Maybe he especially needs that, a couple of younger, energetic women, especially because he’s the oldest ever elected [president]. I think that helps make him a more energetic presence,” Jellison said.
The president turned 78 on Nov. 20.
As first lady, Biden has maintained her teaching position at Northern Virginia Community College, which convened for its spring semester remotely last month before Inauguration Day. Similar to her time as second lady, Biden is keeping her teaching work separate from her public role in the White House “out of respect for the privacy of her students and to preserve the integrity of her classroom,” said Michael LaRosa, a spokesman for the first lady.
Historians have already drawn comparisons between Biden and Eleanor Roosevelt, who wrote the newspaper column “My Day” during her tenure as first lady. Finneman also drew parallels between Biden and Grace Coolidge, noting that the two were both educators and second ladies before first ladies, stepping into their roles in times of crisis.
Biden’s schedule has shown no signs of slowing down, and the first lady is slated to give her first broadcast interview in her new role with talk show host Kelly Clarkson on Feb. 25.
Still, the biggest test for both Jill and Joe Biden will be how they’re viewed by the public during what’s considered the final stretch of the pandemic.
“The phrase comforter in chief has certainly been used before with first ladies … but I’m not sure how seriously the concept of that role has been taken by the public,” said Finneman. “I think we are going to see in the coming months how important it is to have someone personify that role.”