Her husband campaigned to help unite the country, but Jill Biden says “healing” a nation wounded by a deadly pandemic, natural and other disasters and deep political polarization is among her chief roles as first lady, too.
Wrapping up a year in which she saw herself as a key member of President Joe Biden's team, the first lady told The Associated Press that she found herself taking on a role that "I didn't kind of expect, which was like a healing role, because we’ve faced so much as a nation.”
Jill Biden spoke sitting in the sunshine near a swimming pool at a Las Vegas hotel a day after she and the president comforted families in Louisville, Colorado, where a huge swath of homes burned to the ground in a late December wildfire. She hugged people as they stood in front of the charred ruins of their lives and later offered public condolences for dogs and other pets killed in the blaze.
Such trips offer increasingly rare opportunities for the White House to step out of the partisan gridlock that defines Washington. For the most part, Jill Biden isn't caught up in the capital's frenzy, giving her the chance instead to serve as something of an ambassador between her husband's administration and communities across the country, regardless of their political leanings.
Her visits to Colorado and to see victims of a deadly Christmas parade crash in Waukesha, Wisconsin, and a trip last Friday to tornado-ravaged areas of Kentucky are a “prime example” of the responsibility she feels, she said. It's what she would want as a regular person who survived a natural disaster or other tragedy.
“I would want to know that my president and first lady cared about me,” Biden said. "I think that’s an important part of what I do. I mean, just helping people through the tough times.”
Biden, 70, has experienced her share of tough times.
She and Joe Biden wed less than five years after his first wife and infant daughter were killed in a 1972 automobile crash, and at age 26 she became a mother to his two surviving young sons. In 2015, the couple buried one of those boys, Beau, after he died of brain cancer at age 46.
The first lady has lost several close friends to breast cancer and empathized with the people in Colorado because her own home in Delaware once caught fire after a lightning strike.
“I know the tough things that we’ve been through in our life and I know the — how much the acts of kindness have meant to me and to Joe,” Biden said. “So I just know what a difference it makes when you show up. I think showing up is really important.”
She showed up in a lot of places in the year past, traveling in the middle of a pandemic at a pace that far exceeded the president's — all while continuing her other full-time job: as an English and writing professor at Northern Virginia Community College. She has taught there since 2009.
Biden is the first first lady to continue her career — she's a lifelong teacher — and hold a paying job outside the White House.
The New Jersey-born, Pennsylvania-raised first lady spent the past year dropping in at schools, COVID-19 vaccination sites, military bases, Native American reservations and other locations in 35 states. That includes a dozen mostly Southern states that did not vote for her husband for president. By contrast, he touched down in 24 states, excluding trips home to Delaware.
“The pandemic really did not constrain her a great deal and she was able to move forward and do all of these things: teach and advocate for people to get vaccinated and make some visits to military installations and cancer centers,” said Myra Gutin, a professor at Rider University who writes about first ladies. “That's pretty major.”
At vaccination sites, Jill Biden encouraged people to get protected and held hands with both grown-ups and kids getting their jabs. At schools, she toured classrooms and spoke with students about writing in journals to help them cope during the pandemic. At military bases, she thanked military spouses and other family members for sacrificing alongside their loved ones in uniform.
On the policy front, Joining Forces, the first lady's White House initiative to support military families, and the National Security Council last year announced a first round of administration commitments to help military spouses with employment, child care and other matters.
But she suffered a policy defeat when the president dropped a proposal for tuition-free community college — something she has spent years advocating for — from a sweeping social welfare and climate change bill after some key Democratic senators objected to the size of the package.
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Other presidents' wives also have played the role of national healer. Katherine Jellison, a history professor at Ohio University who studies first ladies, recalled the actions of Lucy Webb Hayes after the Civil War and during Reconstruction.
Hayes, wife of President Rutherford B. Hayes, showcased American plants and wildlife, “something that Americans from all regions could get behind,” by having them depicted on White House china, Jellison said. Hayes also invited representatives from states that were on opposite sides of the Civil War to social events.
“She worked hard to unify the country in a variety of interesting ways,” Jellison said.
Besides her role as healer, Jill Biden also fulfilled the traditional first lady function of representing the United States abroad.
She flew off on one solo foreign trip, to Tokyo to root for U.S. athletes at the delayed 2020 Olympic Games. She also accompanied the president on overseas trips to England and Rome.
Her husband's inauguration, coming after his two earlier failed attempts at the presidency, “just took my breath away," Jill Biden recalled.
For her, the White House “is a magical place.” When she wakes up, she thinks, “Wow, look where I am.” But she also feels there's a lot of work to do in the country and, because of that, she can't “get my coffee and sit in bed and watch the news."
“I’ve always said that if I were ever given this platform I would never waste it. Not one day," the first lady said. “That’s why when I wake every day I think, ’What can I do today? ... What am I doing? Where am I going? What’s the strategy? What’s the plan?'”
Her plans for 2022 include keeping her focus on education, military families and doing more work promoting cancer research. She will continue to teach.
“But then I want to layer some other things on,” Jill Biden added, describing her desire to bring art and artists to the White House and her hope that the pandemic will recede enough to allow the White House to reopen to tourists and more socializing.
“It's going to be an exciting year. It’s got to be a better year with the pandemic," the first lady said. "I mean everybody, I think everybody across this country is saying, ‘C’mon, it’s got to be a better year.'”