There will be areas of focus for Biden, but a branded campaign, a la “Let’s Move!” or “Be Best,” isn’t on her radar for now, according to two White House officials. They said the first lady is not concerned about having a catchy handle, or, not having one.
She has indicated military families, cancer research, free community college and education in general are where she wants to continue her work as first lady, but which noses ahead of the pack isn’t of as much concern. Biden, several people who know her well tell CNN, has for decades often juggled several important initiatives and jobs and tasks — the question now is, with the added responsibilities that come with the White House, can she succeed?
“I can’t remember a time when she didn’t have a full plate,” said Courtney O’Donnell, who served as Biden’s communications director when Biden was second lady, and most recently took leave from her executive position at AirBnB to be Doug Emhoff’s chief of staff on the Biden-Harris campaign. “For most people, it would be a lot. For her, this is natural.”
Making her mark
Last week, when giant hearts popped up on the White House North Lawn, promoting care and kindness and unity, the gesture appeared sweet in its simplicity, but the making of a Valentine’s Day message was for Biden as much a hands-on opportunity to build team morale at the White House — and surprise her husband, the President.
Like so many teachers, Biden has a way, say those who know her, of leading people to complete one assignment only to come out the other end having accomplished several other objectives. The surprise hearts were completed in two days, one official said, and relied on ushers to stealthily relay messages about what was needed and maintenance workers to build and paint the hearts.
Biden herself snuck out of the residence in the evening before they were placed on the lawn, to sign one and check on progress, not telling President Joe Biden where she was going or why, so that he would be surprised when he awoke the next morning.
The simple gesture, say friends, is demonstrative of Biden’s boundless energy and her personal mission to make people feel good.
“It’s not a busy-ness for the sake of being busy,” said O’Donnell. “She is driven by the knowledge she has in all of the areas and the idea she can make a difference.”
Success for first ladies who have had multiple areas of focus has been on occasion elusive.
“Generally, first ladies have had more success when they have one singular issue that they really drill down on. She might decide to triage if her efforts become scattered,” said Kate Andersen Brower, CNN contributor and author of “First Women: the Grace and Power of America’s Modern First Ladies.”
Being the spouse of the President of the United States invites at times microscopic attention to every single detail or morsel of public life.
For Hillary Clinton, critics were nonplussed by her desire to tread into West Wing territory and her role in developing health care policy. For Michelle Obama, winning over an American public meant, at times, suppressing her own opinions, she has since said. And for Melania Trump, weary of losing her mystique, being out of sight — or mostly silent when in public — was often her way of avoiding scrutiny.
“I think Biden is elegant, but she’s less of a clotheshorse and more of a workhorse,” said Brower of the differences between Biden and Trump. “This first lady is not all about appearances and photo-ops.”
Fans of Trump didn’t want her to be “relatable,” however, while fans of Biden like her for being just that. The MAGA base’s devotion was rooted in the aspirational unattainability Trump possessed, displayed with expensive designer ensembles and emotional stoicism. Praise often came via descriptors such as “graceful,” “poised” and “elegant,” not in the “she’s just like us!” manner of familiarity that resonated with supporters of Michelle Obama and now Jill Biden. Melania Trump, for example, never turned up at a local bakery with her hair in a scrunchie to buy cupcakes, as Biden did last week in Washington, DC.
For most first ladies throughout history, a persona is assigned by the American people; stepping outside of it is typically a lose-lose endeavor.
Biden has demonstrated over the last few weeks that she has hit the ground running, scattershot or not, spurred on with more urgency, say those who know her, by the effects of Covid-19 on the country.
Biden is particularly concerned about the pandemic’s effect on women, one White House official said.
“She knows women are feeling hopeless. There’s an urgency for her to make sure they know she sees them,” said one official when asked what Biden finds particularly concerning in her assessment of the pandemic-affected nation.
Biden is doing a lot of events during her first few weeks, Brower said, when compared to her predecessors.
“Part of that is because of who she is, and the experiences she’s had as second lady and the wife of a senator for almost four decades, and part of that is because she comes into the White House during a time of crisis the likes of which we haven’t faced since FDR and Lincoln,” Brower said.
In that vein, Brower likens Biden to Eleanor Roosevelt due to their shared sense of urgency in using their first-lady platform.
Just two days after Franklin Roosevelt’s inauguration, Eleanor held her own news conference, Brower said, and continued to do so weekly — a first lady first.
Biden is also forging her own legacy of “firsts,” starting with her refusal to quit her teaching job.
“It’s a non-starter,” said a friend who has known Biden for many years of any question she should set aside being an educator.
O’Donnell agreed, saying giving up her job was not an option.
“Being a teacher is who she is, more than everything she does,” she said of Biden.
The extra lift is notable. During the grueling months of last summer’s campaign season, Biden still had to do training online to learn how to teach her classes via Zoom.
“And she always has her stack of papers,” said O’Donnell, noting any downtime is not used for “downtime,” rather for grading work her students have turned in.
During her short time in the White House, Biden has so far maintained that routine, often staying up late to finish reading and reviewing the assignments she has given to her English classes. Filling every minute of every day is something Biden noted last month in a video-meeting with governors’ spouses. She relayed that she has no intention of taking being first lady for granted — and that she will always be in plain sight.
“I made a promise to myself, that even if this wasn’t a platform I had asked for, it was one I would never let go to waste,” said Biden.