First lady Jill Biden visited Kentucky last Friday, a state that her husband, President Joe Biden, did not win in the 2020 election. Not that she cared. She was there to check in on victims of last month’s deadly tornadoes, which ripped through Bowling Green, taking down houses, gutting businesses and killing nearly 80 people in the state.
Biden was there as compassionate sweeper, following up on the President’s December visit to the state, during which he said he was in it with Kentuckians “for the long haul,” as long as it took to rebuild. And so here was the first lady, putting that promise to pass. “You have never left our thoughts,” she said during remarks at a local disaster recovery center. “As we held our holiday dinner, as we said our Christmas prayers, the families of Kentucky were on our minds.”
Shortly thereafter, Biden capped another of more than two dozen 10-hour days of prep and travel, hustling back to her government jet via motorcade, for the flight out of the 35th state she has visited in the one year she has been first lady. On the plane ride, Biden rallied energy to surprise one of her main Secret Service agents, who after several years was moving from her security detail to another post, with vanilla cupcakes made in the White House pastry kitchen that were topped with the seal of the Secret Service. The first lady walked the length of the plane, like a flight attendant, offering the desserts to all the passengers who had been on the day’s trip but had since separated into different pockets of staff, security, advance, military aides and press.
“She has more stamina than people half her age,” a White House official who has worked closely for several years with Biden, told CNN, on the condition of anonymity to speak freely about their observations.
At 70, Biden is the oldest sitting first lady in modern American history. (She beats out Bess Truman, Nancy Reagan and Barbara Bush, who were each 67 when they exited the White House.) But follow her around on a trip like the one she took to Kentucky, and it is clear that perhaps unlike the President – whose physical and mental fitness is sometimes questioned, as it was in Wednesday’s press conference – being a septuagenarian does not raise similar questions about the first lady’s capabilities.
“Jill runs circles around everyone. Just ask her husband,” said the official.
As she closes her first year on the job, Biden is distinct for the fact that she has been, literally and figuratively, all over the map. Where other first ladies have drilled down on one initiative, Biden has scattered her attention on everything from vaccines and education to Joining Forces, which helps support military families, to cancer, the American Rescue Plan, free community college and disaster recovery. It is a frenetic roster, with at times frenetic energy.
“If she seems all over the place, it’s because she has to be all over the place,” said the official. “She is moving with the intensity of a first lady that doesn’t want to waste one day of her time in the White House, but that’s coupled with this massive assignment on top of that, ‘Oh by the way, heal the country from the devastation of a pandemic.’”
For Biden, even if she wanted to zero in on one or two top-line initiatives, she couldn’t. She’s too busy being the administration’s live and in-person messenger, holding the literal and figurative hand of Americans getting their vaccines, and now their boosters. “I think the pandemic has eclipsed anything a ‘normal’ first lady would do,” said Kate Andersen Brower, CNN contributor and author of “First Women: the Grace and Power of America’s Modern First Ladies.”
Brower added that the popularity factor enjoyed by former first ladies Michelle Obama and Laura Bush hasn’t caught on for Biden, because of the overshadowing of Covid-19, and the ongoing challenges of a country deeply politically divided. “I think she’s struggling to gain the same level of trust that (Michelle Obama and Laura Bush) had because people are really struggling right now and so much faith in government, and the presidency, has been lost.”
“The ability to brand and launch something like a ‘Let’s Move,’ or even ‘Ready to Read,’ would be an actual luxury at this point,” the official said, referring to the initiatives of Obama and Bush, respectively. “There’s just too much else to do, that she wants to do.”
Inside the White House, Biden hasn’t even had time – or the desire – to redecorate the official residence, which most first ladies begin to do within the first six months or so of living there, to make it more akin to their personal tastes. Instead, the Bidens get out of town almost every weekend, frequently hunkering down at their longtime Wilmington, Delaware, home, to recharge and relax. The surroundings there are already familiar, and not the formal opulence of the White House residence, which remains decorated with the pastel palette of former first lady Melania Trump, tinged with a good amount of gold vermeil accessories. Biden, said a person familiar with her feelings about the décor, is happy with how her predecessor chose to enhance the residence and right now is “quite content” living there.
One year in
In recent political history, there hasn’t been a first lady who has spread the words of her husband more frequently, actively or consistently than Jill Biden has for Joe Biden. The President has been to 28 states, according to longtime White House correspondent and informal presidential fact-checker Mark Knoller, who meticulously counts such things, versus the first lady’s 35.
And despite his vow in Wednesday’s press conference to get out into the country more during his second year in office, Joe Biden hasn’t had the on-the-ground, face-to-face experience Jill Biden has at vaccination clinics, for example, or at listening sessions with parents and teachers about going back into the classroom during the pandemic, as she did in September in Milwaukee, or in hospitals, thanking first responders and medical professionals, as she did in October at a cancer facility in Charleston, South Carolina. She walked into the building with ribbon-tied bags held high above her head, announcing, “I’ve brought cookies from the White House!”
She begins and ends most public remarks with “Joe and I,” going on to outline something he – and she – are passing along as message of the day, and often tells people in the crowds that come to see her that she will “bring this home and tell Joe.”
Despite the fact that she is an accomplished academic professional with a doctorate in education, who served eight years in training as wife of the vice president and second lady of the United States, Biden’s spin on the job seems to be more personal than policy-focused, casting herself more as a Joe Biden proxy than as an emissary for some remote charitable cause. She is, as people around her often put it, “Just Jill,” out there trying to spread her husband’s platform, collecting feedback he might find useful.
First ladies tend to be the softer and more approachable part of a presidential administration. And whether that’s a fair or realistic – or just highly antiquated – description of the job, it cushions them against some of the sharper criticism their husbands often receive. Biden is no exception.
“I think she’s faring better than her husband is, but that’s not hard to do and that’s usually the case,” said Brower, who noted that when then-President George W. Bush’s approval rating was over 50% after the September 11 attacks, Laura Bush’s was even higher.
While most Americans might struggle if put on the spot to answer what Jill Biden’s top-line initiatives are, they would likely immediately identify her as a visible, caring and compassionate first lady. “You can’t always say this about every first lady, or every politician for that matter, but every time Jill hugs someone, or holds their hand – that’s authentic,” said the White House official who has worked with Biden both as second lady and now first lady.
Michael LaRosa, who served as Biden’s press secretary during the 2020 presidential campaign and now holds the same title in the East Wing, recalled several times he witnessed “complete strangers seeking her out and embracing her and telling her their stories.”
There was the wife of a farmer who told Biden about her husband’s mental breakdown after their family farm flooded twice. And the young man in Iowa she hugged after seeing in his face he was struggling with something; she guessed it was because he was dealing in some way with cancer. “He was upset because both his mother and his best friend were suffering,” said LaRosa. In the car on the snowy drive to the next campaign event, Biden called the man’s friend, who did have cancer, to lift his spirits.
“I think she’s much easier for most Americans to relate to than her predecessor, which is a key part of the job: First ladies need to act as consolers-in-chief,” Brower said. “I think people see her as a more relatable person than her predecessor simply because she smiles and lets down her guard in a way that Melania Trump never did.”
Biden has her sights on more, not less
With all she has taken on, and the focus she has allotted to each cause, event and platform, those who know Biden and work with her say she wants to scale up, not back.
In the coming weeks, there will be an announcement about a heightened campaign to fight cancer, said a person with knowledge of her agenda – yet another issue close to Biden’s heart. Biden’s son, Beau Biden, died of brain cancer in 2015.
She will likely also be deployed to some degree to help with the 2022 midterms. Most first ladies are effective and frequent surrogates for their husband and party, and Democrats are facing an uphill battle to keep control of Congress. LaRosa said at this time there are no specific plans for Biden to campaign.
There is also a first solo extended foreign trip for the first lady, anticipated for the spring. (Biden traveled to Tokyo in July for a brief appearance to help kick off the Summer Olympics.) There is nothing to officially announce regarding destination or dates at this time, LaRosa said, but travel is expected in March, when Biden is on spring break from her other job – teaching English at Northern Virginia Community College.
Members of the first lady’s office traveled to several countries in Africa on a pre-advance trip in September, but no decisions have been made, said a person familiar with White House travel.
However, as for a first lady’s branded initiative – Obama launched “Let’s Move” in February 2010 and Trump announced “Be Best” in May 2018 – Biden is not drilling down on a catchy phrase or logo to combine her myriad interests. “It just isn’t on her radar right now to wrap it all up into one thing like other first ladies have done,” said the official.
That is not to say there isn’t plenty more coming from Biden, who has never signaled she wants to slow down.
A harbinger of more trips, events, appearances and ideas ahead: Biden has just hired a new member of her communications team, two people with knowledge of the hire told CNN. Kelsey Donohue has experience amplifying a first lady’s public profile; she was assistant press secretary and digital strategist for Michelle Obama, and she will do the same for Biden, leading her digital media efforts.
“We’ve operated for most of the past year as a three-person communications shop,” LaRosa told CNN, adding he’s looking forward to Donohue’s addition to what he called a “nimble team.”