Doug Emhoff carves out path as first second gentleman

Doug Emhoff has spent the first six months of the Biden administration carving out his role as the first second gentleman of the United States, traversing across the country to promote coronavirus vaccines and extend support to small businesses. 

Emhoff has headlined regular events but still kept a low profile in the media, striking a balance between breaking barriers as the first male second spouse while also fulfilling the role in a way second ladies have done traditionally. Observers say the lack of media attention is a sign of success.

“He hasn’t made any mistakes that made him an issue, which in some ways is the one thing you want to avoid,” said Julian Zelizer, a political history professor at Princeton University. “Part of the trick is doing it and not overstepping in ways that make you the focus.” 

Emhoff, a lawyer, has been a trustworthy asset for the administration, say other observers. 

“Even though he is a wealthy entertainment lawyer, he’s playing that down and his persona now as second spouse is, ‘I’m more of a regular guy who goes out and supports his wife’s career and teaches at a nearby law school.’ This makes him a more relatable spouse than if he was playing up his Hollywood connections at this time,” said Katherine Jellison, professor of U.S. women’s and gender history at Ohio University.

Emhoff has been deployed across  the country for the administration’s vaccination tour, including a trip with first lady Jill Biden to Houston this week, where they attended an Astros game with military members and front-line workers.

On Friday, Emhoff traveled solo to Bryce Canyon, Utah, as part of the Biden administration’s effort to highlight the progress against the coronavirus ahead of the Fourth of July holiday. 

He visited a barber shop in Chicago last week with Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) and earlier this month visited a high school in Birmingham, Ala., with Veterans Affairs Secretary Dennis McDonough. His other visits in June included Memphis, Tenn., and Tallahassee, Fla.

“I think it’s unleashing the power of that position,” said Katherine Sibley, director of the American studies program at St. Joseph’s University. “What a waste if he did sort of hang back like previous spouses had. I think he’s using his personality; that will be very helpful for his wife and, I think, for the administration.”

President Biden on Friday looked for Emhoff in the crowd when he welcomed the Los Angeles Dodgers to the White House. Emhoff, a California native and lifelong Dodgers fan, visited the team’s clubhouse before a game on Friday.

In his first television interview as second gentleman in June, Emhoff displayed a stalwart defense of his wife amid criticism from Republicans over her handling of immigration amid a surge of migrants at the border.

Emhoff told NBC’s Peter Alexander that his wife is a “groundbreaker” and focused on the work of the vice presidency behind the scenes. He also said that he believes she is probably treated differently because she is a woman of color but added, “so what.” 

“When you’re breaking barriers, there’s breaking involved, and breaking means you might get cut sometimes, but that’s OK,” Emhoff said.

Emhoff was previously a partner at the law firm, DLA Piper, in the Los Angeles office and took a leave of absence in August 2020. He wrote in a January op-ed in GQ that the decision to step back from his career was one that he made with Harris and that was driven both by his love for his wife and “love for this country.”

He announced in January he would join the faculty at Georgetown University Law Center as a distinguished visitor. Emhoff will begin teaching at Georgetown this fall, which will be kept separate from his White House work.

“Men have to step up and step up for the people that they love, and actually show it,” Emhoff said during the NBC interview when asked about his message to men. “It’s manly to love and care about others.” 

Observers compare Emhoff’s role to how Jill Biden navigated the role of second spouse during the Obama administration.

Similar to Emhoff, Jill Biden was an English professor at Northern Virginia Community College as she served as second lady. Biden continues to hold the teaching role today.

“In many ways, I see him fulfilling the same type of role that Jill Biden fulfilled when she was second lady, in that the second gentleman is being deployed in these public service projects much as Jill Biden was sort of playing a supporting role with Michelle Obama when they went out and did projects for military families,” Jellison said.

Emhoff’s first solo event as second gentleman was a visit to an urban farm in Northeast D.C. at the end of January. In February, he reflected on his marriage to celebrate the impact of the Supreme Court landmark ruling in Loving v. Virginia legalizing interracial marriage.

“I think we have a person who has that legal background, and that can certainly lend itself to a lot of activism,” Sibley said.

Emhoff had been with DLA Piper since October 2017 and his specialties include media, sports and entertainment, as well as intellectual property and technology, litigation, arbitration and investigations.

In his most publicized case, Emhoff represented an advertising agency in a dispute over the origin of the Taco Bell Chihuahua ads and successfully argued that relevant penalties should be paid by Taco Bell. 

Since the start of the Biden administration, he has emerged as a fascinating figure and a more public and active second spouse than others in recent memory. Compared to his predecessor, former second lady Karen Pence, Emhoff is arguably her opposite.

“He’s Jewish, she was conservative Christian. His world was Hollywood, hers was Christian education,” Jellison said. “She was very much in the traditional female mode, I would say, and he in his current version of himself is the atypical male role.”

He is also likely to be a surrogate for Democrats in 2022 in some capacity. In May, he went to New Mexico to campaign for Rep. Melanie Stansbury (D-N.M.) ahead of the special election.

“Douglas Emhoff, like all of the principals, has been a huge asset to the DNC. He has been highly requested for both in-person and virtual events,” a Democratic National Committee (DNC) spokesperson said. “As states continue to reopen and more in-person events are scheduled, we expect SGOTUS to be one of the top surrogates for the DNC and state parties.” 

Emhoff held multiple events in support of Stansbury, the spokesperson said, and held a fundraiser with DNC Chairman Jaime Harrison that brought in more than $1 million for the Democrats. 

In the GQ op-ed, Emhoff described hitting the campaign trail when Harris joined the Democratic presidential ticket with Biden a “humbling experience,” noting that he hadn’t before participated in a rope line or delivered a stump speech. But he described himself as eager to learn the new skills and wrote that he quickly “went from being a lawyer to being a member of a team fighting for justice and trying to turn the page on a dark chapter in our nation’s history.” 

Strategists say that it’s too early to know how effective Emhoff will be on the campaign trail for the 2022 midterms, which are more than a year away. 

“We don’t know what value he has in terms of mobilizing the party, but he has time to sharpen those skills,” Democratic strategist Basil Smikle said. 

Tags Bobby Rush Coronavirus COVID-19 Doug Emhoff Douglas Emhoff Jaime Harrison Jill Biden Joe Biden Karen Pence Michelle Obama second gentleman
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