The first thing to know about America’s next first lady is that Jill Biden – a college English professor with four degrees, including a doctorate – is going to be a very busy FLOTUS, since she plans to keep her day job after moving into the White House.
After all, she continued teaching at Northern Virginia Community College during the eight years she served as second lady, working closely with the historic then-first lady Michelle Obama.
The latter considers Biden a “dear friend,” who brings “kindness, empathy, and humor to even the most difficult of situations.”
“She is going to be a terrific First Lady,” Obama said in a statement to USA TODAY.
But Biden will be historic in her own way, or at least that’s her plan: She intends to be the first FLOTUS in the role’s 231-year history to pursue her career and keep a paying job while living in the White House and serving as first lady.
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“She will really be bringing the role of first lady into the 21st century,” says first-lady historian Katherine Jellison, a professor at Ohio University, noting no previous FLOTUS has been “allowed” to be like most modern American women, with both a work life and a family life.
“Americans have historically wanted their first ladies to be in the White House and at the president’s side whenever possible,” Jellison says. “Maybe the time has come when Americans will be more accepting of the idea that a president’s wife can simultaneously be a first lady and a working professional.”
“The winds of change are blowing because the country keeps moving; this was bound to happen,” says Anita McBride, who was chief of staff to former first lady Laura Bush and assistant to President George W. Bush, and now runs the Legacies of America’s First Ladies Initiative at American University’s School of Public Affairs.
There’s another thing to know about Jill Biden, and about Joe Biden: They project serenity, which has turned out to be a vital quality in the 2020 election.
The Bidens come to the White House (this is his third attempt) under the most unusual of circumstances: A tight election result and a slow vote tally (due to the huge number of pandemic-inspired mail-in ballots) was made even more tense by the angry ranting in public by the incumbent president, who tried to stop the vote counting, filed lawsuits in multiple states, shouted unfounded allegations about fraud in a live press conference and hinted he might not accept the results.
Throughout, both Bidens remained calm and pressed for everyone else to do the same. It’s likely to be the same once Jill Biden takes up the role of first lady.
Because of her professional life, you can count on education being at the top of Biden’s first-lady agenda, along with advocating for military families and cancer awareness (son Beau Biden died of brain cancer in 2015), all of which she pursued as second lady.
“The beauty of (being FLOTUS) is that you can define it however you want,” she told Vogue in July 2019. “And that’s what I did as second lady – I defined that role the way I wanted it to be. I would still work on all the same issues. Education would be right up there, and military families. I’d travel all over this country trying to get free community college.”
Democratic Convention speaker: Jill Biden
Dr. Jill Biden delivers a speech from a school in Wilmington, Delaware about COVID and closed schools for the Democratic National Convention.
But first lady is a higher-level job in terms of attention and pressure – can she really do it all?
“I would love to. If we get to the White House, I’m going to continue to teach,” she said in an interview with “CBS Sunday Morning” in August. “I want people to value teachers and know their contributions and to lift up the profession.”
Still, she took a leave of absence from teaching this year as she campaigned for her husband.
“He’s always supported my career,” she told CNN in January. “And this is a critical time for me to support him because, you know, I want change,”
On the road, often accompanied by one of her granddaughters, she was an engaged, enthusiastic campaigner, often pictured with her arms raised in exuberance as she addressed audiences. Biden headlined about two dozen events in battleground states in October alone, in addition to the multiple virtual events that have become necessary due to the pandemic.
She has strongly defended her husband and family. When asked about President Donald Trump and his conservative media allies’ personal attacks on surviving son, Hunter Biden, 50, she told “The View” hosts that their tactics were mere “distractions.”
Trump and his allies of late have pushed a scandal story about Hunter Biden’s business dealings and the contents of a mysterious laptop supposed to have belonged to him. So far, it’s failed to get much traction in the mainstream media.
“I don’t like to see my son attacked, and certainly I don’t like to see my husband attacked, but to me, these are distractions,” she said. “This election is… about the American people….The American people don’t want to hear these smears against my family.”
She further underscored family in a tweet after her husband was named president-elect, writing: “He will be a President for all of our families.”
Biden, 69, has a bachelor’s degree and two master’s degrees, and a doctorate of education from the University of Delaware, which she earned in 2007 under her original name, Jill Jacobs.
As second lady, Biden was the first to have a paying non-political, non-legal, outside-the-Beltway job while serving. Former second lady Lynne Cheney worked, too, (and still works) as a senior fellow at a Washington think tank, the American Enterprise Institute, considered an inside-the-Beltway job.
Current second lady Karen Pence also teaches: She announced in 2019 that she would return to teaching art at a Christian elementary school in northern Virginia.
Biden signaled how much she values her career as an educator when she gave her national convention speech this summer while standing in the empty classroom where she taught English at Delaware’s Brandywine High School in the early 1990s.
“Teaching is not what I do. It’s who I am,” Biden said in a pre-speech tweet.
“She has said on the campaign trail she has every intention of doing it even if he loses,” says Kate Andersen Brower, author of books about the White House, including “First Women,” about modern first ladies.
At least initially, most of her students were unaware of the full identity of “Dr. Biden” as either a U.S. senator’s wife or as second lady, according to an interview with Vogue in March. She asked Secret Service agents to dress like college students and sit unobtrusively out in the hallway, on laptops, and it worked. As first lady, she’s likely to lose this relative anonymity.
One first-lady expert, Betty Boyd Caroli, author of multiple White House-related books, including “First Ladies,” has her doubts.
“Eleanor Roosevelt thought she could combine the two jobs but soon found out she could not, and the job of FLOTUS has grown a lot since she left the White House (in 1945),” Caroli says.
Biden has the experience to make a good try. She is not the first second lady to graduate to first lady (the most recent was the late Barbara Bush), but she has the advantage of bonding and working closely with “her” first lady, Michelle Obama.
“Jill Biden gives every indication she will be a very activist FLOTUS, following the example of Lady Bird Johnson and others; she’s been thinking about it for a long time,” Caroli says.
Indeed, she’s been thinking about it since 1987, when she spoke at a forum on first ladies in Iowa, according to a C-SPAN video. Biden said there’s no one specific “right role” for a first lady but there is one objective.
“That is to make Americans feel proud of their first lady as someone who is in some way a reflection of their lives and values,” she said then. “She should respond to the interests and concerns of today’s American women, who are mothers, spouses and wage earners and struggling to balance all three. I think they will identify with a first lady who also is trying to balance all three roles.”
“Biden has been around Washington longer than any FLOTUS in history, and she should have a full Rolodex of people to help her,” Caroli said. “I expect her to quickly appoint a large, competent staff to develop her projects and do whatever she thinks will add to her husband’s legacy.”
McBride and Andersen Brower say Biden is more prepared to be first lady than most of her recent predecessors with the exception of Barbara Bush and her daughter-in-law, Laura Bush.
“The amount of time of exposure to this world, eight years plus his (36) years in the U.S. Senate, makes her uniquely equipped to handle the job, and to balance teaching with the opportunity to change people’s lives with this major megaphone as FLOTUS,” Andersen Brower says.
“She is used to having a good team and staff, a good infrastructure around her so she can carve out a new chapter of this role (of first lady),” McBride says. “I think she will figure out a way to make it work – it’s not without its heavy demands. I think her experience will make it easier to transition to a working (FLOTUS).”
Biden, born in Hammonton, New Jersey, and raised in Willow Grove, Pennsylvania, was getting divorced when she met her husband (she married Bill Stevenson after graduation from high school but they had drifted apart by their junior year at the University of Delaware).
According to the story, the then-U.S. senator from Delaware, a widower with two young sons who had lost his wife and baby daughter in a car accident, saw her picture in an ad (she did a little local modeling), and sought her out; their first date was in spring 1975.
It took five proposals before she agreed to marry him (she wanted to be sure; she didn’t want Beau and Hunter to lose another mother). The couple married In 1977, and had daughter Ashley in 1981. Married to a plastic surgeon, Ashley campaigns against the death penalty and for criminal justice reform, and founded her own charity-based clothing brand.
Since their children are adults, it appears the Biden White House will be mostly without young children living there full time, as Barron Trump did and Malia and Sasha Obama did before him.
The Bidens now have five grandchildren (ages 25 to 14) old enough to appear occasionally on the campaign trail.
When she moved into the vice-presidential residence at the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington in 2009, Biden continued to teach while playing a low-key and supportive role to the Obamas.
She and Michelle Obama launched Joining Forces to help military families with educational, health and job resources, and made frequent joint appearances to promote their initiative. In 2010, Biden hosted the first-ever White House Summit on Community Colleges with President Obama.
Michelle Obama has long been a big fan of Jill Biden.
“I’m lucky enough to call Dr. Jill Biden a dear friend, and I’ve seen up close the kindness, empathy, and humor she brings to even the most difficult of situations,” Obama said in an emailed statement to USA TODAY. “Through our work together in the White House, I’ve seen Jill’s passion, hard work and dedication. As a military mom and an educator, Jill has always led by example, treating everybody she meets with the sort of genuine warmth and care that sticks with you. She is going to be a terrific First Lady.”
In their joint exit interview with People magazine in 2016, Obama commented admiringly that Biden often pulled out student papers to peruse on the plane as they traveled together.
“Jill is always grading papers,” Obama said. “Which is funny because I’d forget, ‘Oh yeah, you have a day job!’ And then she pulls out her papers and she’s so diligent and I’m like, ‘Look at you! You have a job! Tell me! Tell me what it’s like!’”
“Michelle Obama commanded attention because she was so historic as a first lady; Jill Biden was more low-key (as second lady) but still effective,” Andersen Brower says.
Both Bidens are devoted to the “Cancer Moonshot” program, launched by President Obama “to end cancer as we know it.” It wasn’t just due to Beau’s death at age 46; both of Jill Biden’s parents died of cancer.
“Cancer is a brutal disease; it shatters our hearts and steals our joy,” she wrote in a column for The Gazette in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in 2019. “But what Joe and I have learned is that even if we don’t have medical degrees or science backgrounds, we aren’t helpless in the face of cancer.”
“There are stories about her on the campaign trial connecting with people who lost loved ones, reaching out to people getting chemotherapy,” Andersen Brower says. “She is famous for her empathy, she keeps in touch with people she’s met who are dealing with cancer.”