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Jill Biden set to redefine role of first lady

The Hill logo The Hill 11/11/2020 Julia Manchester and Morgan Chalfant
Jill Biden standing in front of a laptop: Jill Biden set to redefine role of first lady © The Hill Jill Biden set to redefine role of first lady

Former second lady Jill Biden is expected to contribute to the historic nature of the Biden administration as incoming first lady, redefining the role of the president's spouse.

Biden, who has two master's degrees in English and a doctorate in education, has spent much of her career as a community college teacher. She even retained her educational position as second lady during the Obama administration.

Known to her students as "Dr. B," Biden is set to make history as the first person to hold the title of first lady while maintaining a paid position elsewhere, putting her own mark on a role that has evolved with each of its occupants.

"First ladies in the past haven't had an experience that is much like the majority of U.S. women, which is they have a family life and then they have a work life," said Katherine Jellison, an Ohio University professor who studies first ladies. "This is a great opportunity for Jill Biden to be a real role model to American women."

This means that Biden will need to balance her responsibilities at the White House and in the classroom, something that will be time-consuming and difficult but that she has experience doing.

"The particular challenge will be making sure to send a signal she can do two jobs," said Jennifer Lawless, a politics professor at the University of Virginia.

Those who have witnessed the role up close say Biden will have the advantage of having already spent time in the White House as second lady. Anita McBride, former chief of staff for Laura Bush, compared Biden's level of experience to that of Barbara Bush, who also served as second lady before becoming first lady, and her daughter, Laura, who witnessed her mother-in-law in the role of first lady.

"Jill Biden is right up there with a comfort level, a familiarity, and a real sense of her identity and how to use her time," McBride said.

However, Biden will likely face logistical obstacles, given her expanded public profile and heightened security as first lady.

Jellison noted that former President Carter and first lady Rosalynn Carter faced challenges when sending their daughter Amy to public schools in Washington, D.C., during Carter's four-year tenure as president, citing Secret Service concerns.

She noted that Biden could face similar issues eventually teaching in-person classes at Northern Virginia Community College.

"To continue as a community college professor will be a bit of a challenge security-wise as well as balancing her life there in the classroom with obligations she may have back in the White House," Jellison said.

Biden is expected to carry on some of the priorities that marked her time as second lady when she returns to the White House next year. She plans to focus her official work on advocating for education with a focus on community college, military families and veterans, and cancer research and advocacy.

"Dr. Biden is enormously grateful to the country for electing her husband and Senator Harris. Joe Biden will be a President for all Americans," said Michael LaRosa, Jill Biden's press secretary. "She is spending time with her children and grandchildren in Wilmington, Delaware. Dr. Biden is focused on building her team and developing her priorities focused on education, military families and veterans, and cancer."

LaRosa said that none of the details had been worked out on Biden's plans for teaching but said she plans to continue to teach at Northern Virginia Community College. LaRosa noted that Biden taught through all of her husband's campaigns and during her time as second lady and therefore has plenty of experience managing the workload.

"She was teaching most of the time that the primary campaign was going on," LaRosa said. "If anybody can do it, she can."

Biden became a professor at Northern Virginia Community College in 2009, the year Biden was sworn in as vice president. She focused on community college advocacy during her time as second lady, hosting a summit on community colleges at the White House in 2010.

She also made advocating for military families a centerpiece of her work as second lady. Biden and then-first lady Michelle Obama founded Joining Forces, an initiative focused on bolstering the employment, education and wellness of service members, in 2011. LaRosa said that Biden plans to relaunch Joining Forces when she returns to the White House.

However, historians say Biden will likely not make the East Wing a political apparatus like Hillary Clinton did during her husband's administration in an effort to push the administration's policy on health care.

"She has said she doesn't want any direct political role," Jellison said. "I do think she'll be a great ambassador for public education."

Biden has also made cancer advocacy a focus during her career. She founded the Biden Breast Health Initiative in Delaware in 1993 to educate young women on the importance of early detection. The incoming first couple have been significantly affected by the deadly disease; Beau Biden, their son, died of brain cancer at the age of 46 in 2015.

Jill Biden will take over for Melania Trump, who has been an unconventional and unique first lady in her own right. A former fashion model, Trump was the first foreign-born first lady since Louisa Adams, the wife of John Quincy Adams, who took office roughly two centuries ago.

Trump kept a relatively low profile, devoting much of her energy to her Be Best anti-bullying initiative that was at times in conflict with her husband's fiery rhetoric and attacks on opponents.

"Traditionally the first lady focuses on an issue that is important to the president's agenda and is sort of wrapped within the administration's agenda," said Lawless. "In the case of Melania Trump, her issue was basically cyberbullying and her husband was a cyberbully. That disconnect could also in part explain the lower profile. Her issue was not something the White House was prioritizing."

Lawless predicted that Biden would draw a contrast with her predecessor and approach the role similar to Obama, Clinton and Laura Bush.

Americans received a more intimate portrait of Biden during the Democratic National Convention in August, when her granddaughters described the Biden family matriarch in a pre-recorded video.

"I would say she's not your average grandmother," said Naomi Biden, the eldest child of Hunter Biden. "She's the grandmother that wakes you up at - what was it? - 5 a.m. on Christmas Eve to go to SoulCycle."

Natalie Biden, the elder child of Beau Biden, revealed her grandmother's "mischievous" side, saying she's been known to find a dead snake on runs and put it in a bag to scare someone.

"She's a prankster," said Natalie Biden.

Many describe Jill Biden as the glue that has held the Biden family together through a number of tragedies. She became stepmother to Beau and Hunter Biden in 1977 when she married Joe Biden, five years after Biden lost his first wife, Neilia, and their daughter Naomi in a car accident.

"Joe always told the boys, 'Mommy sent Jill to us' - and how could I argue with her?" Jill Biden said in a pre-recorded video at the Democratic convention.

Hunter Biden expressed his gratitude to his stepmother at Beau Biden's funeral decades later.

"Mom, it's your strength that holds this family together," he said. "And I know that you will make us whole again."

Updated at 8:19 a.m.

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