At the Democratic National Convention in August, Jill Biden spoke to the delegation from the empty halls of a high school in Wilmington, Delaware, where she once worked as a teacher. “With Joe as president, these classrooms will laugh and possibly ring again,” she promised.
This week she was back in a classroom, albeit one with children in it. “It’s so good to be here,” the first lady told kindergarteners at Benjamin Franklin School in Connecticut this week. “I’m Jill.”
But as the pandemic enters its second year, many American public schools continue to rely on virtual classes; About half had no in-person classes at the beginning of the year. Republicans have accused the new government of reopening too slowly because it is under the spell of union leaders who don’t want to return to work.
The White House has responded by making Jill Biden the face of its campaign to get kids back into the classroom, as an early sign of the kind of role she’ll be playing as first lady.
She traveled with the newly confirmed education secretary on a two-state trip this week, adding to a rigorous schedule – including visits to local businesses and military hospitals – already making her far more visible than her predecessor Melania Trump.
In addition to education, Biden has begun to flesh out other areas of interest, including supporting military families and cancer research, testimony of the couple’s late son Beau who served in Iraq and later died of a brain tumor.
Meanwhile, Alejandro Mayorkas, the government’s new Secretary of Homeland Security, has attributed Biden’s ‘moral obligation’ to the government’s new focus on reuniting separated migrant families.
In addition to the carefully choreographed performances, people who know Jill Biden say her biggest behind-the-scenes role will be as a sounding board and unofficial advisor to her husband. It’s a job she’s been doing for decades, first when Joe Biden was in the Senate for 36 years and then as second lady during the Obama administration.
But there are risks in aligning Jill Biden with policies that could become contentious, such as immigration and school reopenings, as shown by Hillary Clinton’s scorching time as first lady. Led the White House’s doomed effort to reform health care, Clinton took the blame when it failed in 1994, making her a figurehead of the Republican hatred that continues to this day.
“Most first ladies are very, very careful about what they do within the policy domain,” said Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers who attended the Connecticut school visit with Biden.[They] have tremendous soft power, and Jill Biden is very careful and very skilled in how she uses it. “
The president often remembers seeing his wife, then 23, for the first time in a billboard at Wilmington airport. A widowed senator, he bought her number, and the couple dated for a few years before his two young sons proposed to their father.
After half a dozen failed proposal attempts, Jill Biden finally said yes, catapulting the late twentieth into the role of senator’s wife and mother of two young boys. She and Joe Biden had a daughter, Ashley, a few years later.
Jill Biden hasn’t always backed her husband’s long-held presidential ambitions. In 2003, she paraded past his advisers in a bikini with the word “No” scrawled on her stomach to demonstrate her opposition to a possible 2004 flight.
But she took an active part in her husband’s bid for the presidency in 2020, leaving her teaching job to participate in the campaign full-time, and advising on important decisions, including the selection of Kamala Harris as a running mate.
Tony Cárdenas, a Democratic congressman from California who is a member of the Hispanic Congressional Caucus, said his conference forged a relationship with Jill Biden during the campaign to ensure they had a direct line with her husband.
Cárdenas said there is “a big difference between talking to someone who is part of the team and staff and someone who talks to him every night.”
Kate Andersen Brower, a presidential historian and author of five books including First womenJill Biden said the role of first lady with far more experience than Melania Trump, and would give the president “the backup and support to get things done.”
“Jill has been in Washington and in this world for so many decades,” added Brower. “She knows what to do.”
Jill Biden will be the first resident of the position to retain a professional paid job outside the White House, where she teaches at Northern Virginia Community College, a position she held full-time while her husband was vice president.
In her role in the White House, Biden, who asks people to name her “Jill,” has cast herself as a healer, a role she thinks she can play in the debate over the reopening of the school.
The view of Jill Biden’s school attendance was important at a time of resentment at the speed of school reopening, said Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers, who said some Republicans were “trying to exploit this frustration” and “opposing people. to set up each other “. .
Laura Bush, also a former teacher, also helped promote her husband’s education policy. But Anita McBride, first lady chief of staff during the George W. Bush administration, differentiated their approaches.
While Bush has “ used her platform to advocate for the administration’s priorities ” in education, Jill Biden took a more active and empowered role in shaping policy, she said. McBride compared Jill Biden to Betty Ford who “talked about some pretty controversial things and was pretty comfortable with that.”
“Clearly [Biden] is an activist first lady and feels very comfortable there, ”said McBride.