Jill Biden has no time for dawdling; she has work to do. At a vaccine clinic in Albuquerque, New Mexico, last week, sensing hesitancy from a woman waiting to get her first shot, the first lady spoke up: “It’s, like, so fast.” The woman said she was scared, so Biden went to stand next to her. With an arm around her shoulder and her index finger pointed to her own face, she said, “Look at me. It doesn’t hurt. Really. It’s mostly in your head.”
The woman got the shot.
For her first 100 days in office, Biden has been asking the country to do much the same: focus on what she has been saying – that we will recover, don’t get overwhelmed.
Several people who spoke to CNN about the first lady’s approach to her role these first few months said it’s similar advice she has taken herself – there is a mission, make it happen.
There is no showiness, no fancy way to dress (most of her outfits are repeats from seasons’ past), no spotlight to grab away or megaphone to yell into. Biden even hasn’t had the time, or the spare energy, to yet hire an interior decorator for the White House residence, said a person familiar. She has enjoyed some special attention, however. Famed photographer Annie Leibovitz was spotted on the White House campus Monday, a tip-of-the-hat to an upcoming Vogue magazine cover.
Biden is neither a figurehead of American politics, nor a ceremonial placeholder for when President Joe Biden can’t be there himself. “When you’re with the first lady, the feeling is go, go, go,” said a White House official who has worked with her.
She has so far traveled to 14 states and taken more than a dozen solo work-related trips since February – more than her husband has on his solo domestic travels – driven by an urgency to see the country and spread her message, be it about pandemic recovery, schools, vaccines, free community college or economic rehabilitation.
“It is virtually impossible to slow her down if there is something she wants to do,” said another White House official with experience working for Biden. A person familiar with the first lady’s travel said she is planning another trip out west very soon, likely concentrated on a mix of education, military, health and Latino outreach. For Biden, there is no such thing as doing one event on one topic if you can fit in four more, noted the official.
The ‘look at me’ phase
Biden’s East Wing moves in lockstep with its leader, and there is focus from the policy office on each of the aforementioned areas of interest. She is regularly briefed by policy staff, in particular Mala Adiga, deputy assistant to the President and the first lady’s policy adviser, who travels with Biden on most all of her trips. Adiga is at the ready to provide information and note areas that Biden has indicated need more substantive examination.
There is the juggling of media needs from her communications team – bookings on talk shows, social media plans, sit-down interviews with the President and glossy magazine spreads. Chief of staff Julissa Reynoso, whom Biden said she hired in part for her “passion for public service,” will also be more involved with the situation at the southern border affecting migrant families, said another White House official, adding it is a tangential project for Reynoso, an attorney, that Biden wholeheartedly supports. Ever-present by Biden’s side is senior adviser Anthony Bernal, who has worked in some capacity for the Bidens for more than a decade.
The topics and the listening and the visiting are plentiful, but the details on how to resolve the issues she is leaning into are still, at this 100-day marker, few. In Navajo Nation last week, Biden was told the cancer center she was on-hand to mark the opening of in 2019 – the first of its kind in Navajo Nation – was already experiencing dramatic crowding and more need. “I had hoped that maybe you were going to say the cancer center was just perfect, that it was enough. But now that you need to expand it, that’s … that’s going to break my heart,” said Biden, adding she will see what she can do to help. The empathetic tone was unfailingly sincere – Biden having lost her son and several friends to the disease – yet the plan for just how to expand it was not visualized.
In Illinois earlier this month, and on social media afterward, Biden emphasized her desire to see free community college for those who wish to attend, though how to implement that goal is undefined. The President in his Wednesday address to a joint session of Congress reinforced the promise of two years of free community college, noting that the first lady is a community college professor.
People who spoke with CNN say Jill Biden is at the “look at me” point of her tenure, to use the metaphor from her own words to the scared vaccine recipient. In other words, she does not yet have all the answers on how to take the fear and anxiety away, but her presence sends the message that she is at least on the case.
And her visibility communicates the administration’s message in a way the President cannot always. “Biden can talk about the unique challenges mothers, in particular working mothers, are facing during the pandemic,” said Kate Andersen Brower, CNN contributor and author of “First Women: The Grace and Power of America’s Modern First Ladies.”
Considering the frequency of her appearances and the familiarity most Biden supporters feel with the first lady, if she can keep up the pace and level of her engagement, the appearances and personal touch may be enough. Her level of commitment could, for now, make up for the lack of specifics on how her priorities get done.
She’s not Melania
Biden’s predecessor, Melania Trump, traveled approximately once a month for work and did little to no interviews with mainstream media, preferring instead to keep her privacy paramount. It made for a challenging messaging strategy and confusion about the purpose of Be Best, her three-pronged platform initiated to help children.
“I think it’s natural to compare the first lady with the woman who held the job before her. But I also think that it’s unfair,” said Brower. “This happened with Jackie Kennedy and Lady Bird Johnson, and Lady Bird Johnson and Pat Nixon, and it wasn’t fair then and it’s not fair now. I think that some people want to see a bias against Melania (Trump) in the media, and if that’s what they’re looking for then they’ll find it.”
The contrasting components of each first lady – Biden and Trump – are abundant, without even needing to touch on the differences in political parties.
One of them is the way Biden’s East Wing works in tandem with the West Wing, something Trump’s office did not do, with her former communications director vocalizing more than once to CNN they did not want nor need to communicate with then-President Donald Trump’s staff. A person with knowledge of the workflow in the Biden administration said there is “constant coordination” between “senior staff in both wings.”
For Biden, the job is not necessarily about filling a traditional role, nor is it about courting controversy by doing something wildly new. Being first lady is merely a vehicle for things Biden wants to do. Married more than four decades to Joe Biden, a career public servant, Biden has learned along the way to carve out her own missions and initiatives. She is a more politically exposed and experienced first lady than the last two of her predecessors.
Biden does maintain her independence as an educator, teaching English and writing at Northern Virginia Community College. During a visit to a school in Navajo Nation last week, Biden said she felt at home speaking in the school’s library because though she was traveling to hear the triumphs and woes of Americans, she was also in the throes of the end-of-semester workload. “I was on my phone this morning with, with a lot of my students because we’re going through final exams now,” she said to the gathered students and teachers. “They were doing their outlines for their final exam so I was texting with students this morning already.”
With most everything she has been focused on in these 100 days, Biden finds a connection to her particular audience, an ability she frequently employs whether she’s at a school or a hospital or speaking about women’s issues.
“I think she will play a larger and more symbolic role as a compassionate first lady,” said Brower.
Despite the interest Biden will have from Vogue and other magazines, the overt glamour of her predecessor is not something she seeks. People who spoke with CNN for this story noted several times Biden does not overthink her look, or her wardrobe, and that what or whom she is wearing will “rarely, if ever” be part of a press release from this East Wing, said one official. “I think the fact that Dr. Biden regularly walks off Marine One wearing jeans is a sign that she represents a return to normalcy. Melania made the South Lawn into her own high fashion catwalk,” Brower said.
In Arizona last week, during speeches outdoors at Window Rock, the government seat of Navajo Nation and a picturesque natural stone formation, Biden, as she sat and listened, was handed a Native American-style blanket, patterned with brown, green and orange designs. One of the Navajo councilwomen helped wrap her in it, tucking it up to her chin and down to her ankles. The sun set, the wind picked up, the program went long – a trifecta of events that left the audience and the traveling press of 10 or so members of the media shivering with cold.
The next day, a staff member told CNN the first lady had seen the audience, press included, and felt badly that they were exposed to the elements while she had the blanket. The first thing the first lady said when she saw the media that day was, “Did you thaw out from last night?” It was an acknowledgment, though brief, that she was aware of the discomfort in the far back row of her event, in the same way she is aware of the discomfort of everyone she has visited with during her first 100 days as first lady in a country trying to reemerge from one of its most devastating periods.
To the students she spoke to at the school that day, Biden’s advice was to keep a journal.
“Just look at this time, don’t forget it, and think about: what did you learn about yourselves? Were you stronger than you thought? Were you, maybe it was harder than you thought? Did you change in some way? Did you find that you were kinder, or did you find that you, you know, maybe felt sad so many days? So, write this. Write it down,” she said.
“If you can pull out your journal. And remember how you felt, I think it’s going to be so important, and it’s actually going to be history for your family about what this time means.”