At the Democratic National Convention in August, Jill Biden spoke with the delegation from the empty hallways of a high school in Wilmington, Delaware, where she previously worked as a teacher. “With Joe as president, these classrooms will once again ring with laughter and possibility,” she pledged.
This week she was back in a classroom, but with children. “It’s so nice to be here,” the first lady told Kindergarten children at Benjamin Franklin School in Connecticut this week. “I am Jill.”
But as the pandemic enters its second year, many US public schools continue to rely on virtual lessons; about half had no in-person learning at the start of the year. Republicans have accused the new administration of reopening too slowly as it grapples with unionized teachers unwilling to return to work.
The White House has responded by making Jill Biden the face of her campaign to bring children back to the classroom, an early sign of the kind of role she will play as first lady.
She traveled with the newly confirmed Education Secretary this week on a two-state tour, adding to a busy schedule – including visits to local businesses and military hospitals – which has already made her a much more visible presence than its predecessor Melania Trump.
In addition to education, Biden began to flesh out other areas of interest, including supporting military families and cancer research, a testimonial from the couple’s late son Beau, who served in Iraq and later died of a brain tumor.
Meanwhile, Alejandro Mayorkas, the administration’s new internal security secretary, credited Biden’s “moral imperative” for the administration’s new focus on reuniting the families of separated migrants.
Beyond the carefully choreographed appearances, people who know Jill Biden say her biggest role will be behind the scenes as her husband’s unofficial sounding board and adviser. It’s a task she performed for decades, first when Joe Biden was in the Senate for 36 years, and then as Second Lady under the Obama administration.
But there are risks in aligning Jill Biden with policy areas that could become contentious, such as immigration and the reopening of schools, as evidenced by Hillary Clinton’s scorching time as first lady. Clinton spearheaded the failed White House effort to reform health care and took the blame when it failed in 1994, turning her into a figurehead of Republican hatred who persists to this day.
“Most first ladies are very, very careful with what they do in politics,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers who attended the Connecticut school tour with Biden. . “[They] have tremendous soft power, and Jill Biden is very careful and very expert in the way she uses it.
The President often remembers how he first saw his wife, then 23, in a billboard advertisement at Wilmington Airport. A widowed senator, he got hold of his number and the couple dated for a few years before his two young sons suggested their father propose.
After half a dozen failed proposal attempts, Jill Biden finally said yes, catapulting her late twenties into the role of the Senator’s wife and mother to 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-standing presidential ambitions. In 2003, she paraded past her advisers in a bikini with the word “ No ” scrawled across her abdomen to demonstrate her opposition to a potential run in 2004.
But she played an active role in her husband’s candidacy for the 2020 presidency, stepping down as a teacher to join the campaign full-time and advising on important decisions, including the selection of Kamala Harris as 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 was “a big difference between talking to someone who is part of the team and staff and someone who can talk to him every night”.
Kate Andersen Brower, presidential historian and author of five books including First women, said Jill Biden entered the role of first lady with a lot more experience than Melania Trump and that she would give the president “the backing and backing needed to get things done.”
“Jill has been in Washington and in this world for so many decades,” Brower added. “She knows what to do.”
Jill Biden will be the first in the job to keep a professional paid job outside the White House, teaching writing at Northern Virginia Community College, a job she held full-time while her husband was vice president .
In her role in the White House, Biden, who asks people to call her “Jill,” has introduced herself as a healer, a role she believes she can play in the debate over reopening the school.
The optics of Jill Biden’s school visit were important at a time of resentment over the speed of school reopening, said Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers, who said some Republicans were “trying to exploit this frustration.” and “pitted people against each other”. .
Laura Bush, also a former teacher, also helped promote her husband’s educational policies. But Anita McBride, chief of staff to the first lady during the administration of George W. Bush, made a distinction between their approaches.
While Bush used “his platform to defend the administration’s priorities” in education, Jill Biden was playing a more active and vocal role when it came to shaping policy, he said. she declared. McBride compared Jill Biden to Betty Ford who “spoke about some pretty controversial stuff and was pretty comfortable doing it.”
“Clearly [Biden] is an activist first lady and is very comfortable in it, ”said McBride.