Before Jill Biden had so much as slipped out of her cerulean inauguration coat, the new first lady’s East Wing was operating at full tilt.
Between the swearing-in that morning and the televised celebration that night, Biden recorded a video message greeting the nation. She woke up the next morning and met with the education secretary nominee, hosted leaders of the nation’s two largest teachers unions at the White House and held an online conversation with 11,000 educators from around the country. It had all been carefully scheduled and scripted by Biden’s handpicked staff.
On her second full day as first lady, though, she decided to make a change. Biden was scheduled for her first official outing that afternoon, a tour of the District of Columbia’s Whitman-Walker Health clinic to see how cancer patients were being supported during the pandemic, but people were buzzing about photos that had come out the night before, showing the National Guard members who watched over her husband’s inauguration sleeping in garages after being asked to leave the Capitol building.
At the first lady’s behest, the White House kitchen whipped up dozens of cookies and wrapped them in red, white and blue ribbons. After the previously scheduled clinic tour, she made an unannounced stop to visit a group of National Guard members who were still out in the cold.
“I just wanted to come today to say thank you to all of you for keeping me and my family safe,” she told them. “I know that you’ve left your home states.”
“The Bidens are a National Guard family,” she added, invoking their late son, Beau, who served in the Delaware National Guard.
In 2 1/2 days on the job, first lady Jill Biden made it clear that she intends to make a mark. And quickly.
Biden has long acted as her husband’s conscience and confidante – she was instrumental in his selection of Kamala Harris as vice president. With a visit to the National Guard members, she indicated that she will also be proactive in her role as an avatar of the administration. However, Jill Biden’s portfolio will probably not be limited to informal counsel to her husband and impromptu acts of goodwill toward the troops. By filling her schedule and East Wing staff, the first lady has indicated that she intends to forcefully pursue her own priorities. (Biden started the next week with back-to-back online meetings with the spouses of state governors and a group of young Latino leaders.)
“What this says to me is that this is someone who is so comfortable in this role,” says Anita McBride, who served as chief of staff to former first lady Laura Bush. “It says, ‘I am thrilled and honored to have this position. These are the things I care about. I intend to be active. I intend to be visible and I intend to be a partner in the work of this administration.'”
Biden is still doing her other job, too: teaching English Composition at Northern Virginia Community College, which came back into session for remote learning on Jan. 11. According to historians, Biden is the only first lady to hold a paying job outside the White House during her tenure. (Eleanor Roosevelt lectured, wrote a newspaper column and did a radio series, but she donated her earnings to charity.)
“I know how hard it is,” Biden said in her second-day appearance at the online gathering of teachers, citing her own teaching duties this semester. “Tuesday morning before we got on the plane to come to Washington, I was actually teaching my class.”
When Jill married Joe at age 26, she says she was ready to be a mom and a teacher, but “The role of senator’s spouse? That wasn’t as natural a fit,” she recalled in her conversation with the governors’ spouses. “The first speech I gave was terrifying. My hands trembled. My voice caught in my throat and I tripped over my words.”
Now, at 69, she has shown no hesitation stepping into role of first lady. She had her staff squared away before inauguration. Her main issues – military families, education and cancer resources – were clearly defined before her arrival, and in the early weeks of the administration, she’s reinforced her interest in those issues with visible gestures such as the Whitman-Walker visit, the virtual conference with teachers and the cookie delivery for the soldiers.
It was a change in pace from her predecessor, Melania Trump, who spent the first three months of her husband’s administration living in Trump Tower in New York City, at a cost to taxpayers of at least $125,000 a day in protection from the New York Police Department and the Secret Service. (Trump had said she wanted to let her son, Barron, finish out his school year, but, as The Washington Post’s Mary Jordan reported in her book “The Art of Her Deal: The Untold Story of Melania Trump,” Melania Trump also used that time as leverage to renegotiate her prenuptial agreement with former president Donald Trump.) Even when she came to Washington, Melania spent long stretches out of the public eye.
“Dr. Biden walks into this having just been second lady four years ago and knowing exactly what she wants to do and, to a certain extent, what’s expected in the role,” McBride says.
The office of the first lady has always held a peculiar place in American culture. It is an unelected, unpaid role with no standard job description, leaving every new occupant to define the role for herself. Like Michelle Obama, with whom she worked closely, Biden seems eager to use the position to advocate for her idea of social good – free community college, for example. She also seems keen to re-create the kind of close partnership she had with Obama in her connection with second gentleman Doug Emhoff, her constant companion in the final stretches of the presidential campaign.
Biden has seven full-time commissioned staffers – more, her aides say, than any previous first lady. For her chief of staff, Biden chose Julissa Reynoso, a native of the Dominican Republic who previously worked in the State Department during the Obama administration and with whom Biden traveled to see migrant camps along the border. Michael LaRosa, a former “Hardball” producer who served as Biden’s spokesman on the campaign trail, will take on the same role in the White House. Anthony Bernal, now Jill Biden’s senior adviser, was a deputy campaign manager and chief of staff during the campaign. Gina Lee, a policy associate at the Biden Foundation, is the first lady’s director of scheduling and advance. For social secretary, Biden called on Carlos Elizondo, who held that title at the Naval Observatory when Biden was second lady.
White House observers say her familiarity with all seven commissioned staffers allowed Biden’s team to jump out of the gates during their first week in the White House. “Other first ladies have had some early engagements. But in my memory, none as early as Dr. Biden,” says Myra Gutin, author of “The President’s Partner: The First Lady in the Twentieth Century.”
One of Biden’s earliest priorities, even before her husband was sworn in as president, was to restart the Joining Forces Initiative, a program Biden launched with Michelle Obama in 2011 to support service members, military families and veterans. Rory Brosius, who served on the Biden transition team and was previously the Joining Forces deputy director, was picked to lead the initiative.
Kim Thiboldeaux got a call from Biden’s team two days before the inauguration. The team wanted an event that would demonstrate the new first lady’s commitment to cancer patients – and wanted it done that week.
Thiboldeaux, head of the Cancer Support Community, has collaborated with the Bidens repeatedly and served on the board of the Biden Cancer Initiative. Biden had called Thiboldeaux privately last summer, to find out how cancer patients were being affected by the pandemic. “She said, ‘Tell me more, tell me what’s happening,’ ” Thiboldeaux says. “She wants to be educated, she wants to understand. She really goes deep on issues.” After the call, according to Thiboldeaux, Biden wrote notes to more than a dozen cancer patients and caregivers, offering encouragement and support.
“You can feel she cares,” says Thiboldeaux.
McBride says that for any first spouse there is the not-insignificant matter of getting accustomed to the new accommodations. Members of the White House staff do all the unpacking and arranging, but there is always rearranging to be done after that. At some point Biden may make a trip to suburban Maryland where the White House collection of art and furniture is housed, choosing pieces to make the Biden family feel more at home. For now, her aides say, that is not a priority.
The pups, though, were a priority: The Bidens’ German shepherds, Champ and Major, arrived at the White House early last week. Biden laced up her sneakers to show them around their new digs and then entrusted the dogs to chief groundskeeper Dale Haney, who has been caring for presidential pets since the Nixon administration.
As she settles into the East Wing, Jill Biden’s mandate is similar to the president’s: try to restore a sense of normal order to Washington in the disoriented aftermath of the Trump years.
“I think first ladies can make a huge impact,” says McBride. “They have an enormous impact on the soul and conscience of the nation. Because they often can rise above politics in the heat of the moment and just connect on a very human level.”
Gutin thinks it might be the nation’s conscience Jill Biden is after. On the campaign trail Joe Biden talked a lot about restoring decency and civility to America. His wife, in her first week as first lady, seemed to want to show how it’s done.
The cookies for the National Guard troops were a start.
“The message is one of caring,” Gutin says. “And I think that goes a long way.”