Jill Biden spent eight years serving as the Second Lady during the Obama administration, but her highly personal nine-minute live address at the Democratic Convention last August, from an empty classroom at the high school where she used to teach, was her first formal introduction to most of the American public.
Now, as America welcomed the inauguration of her husband Joe Biden, Dr Biden looks set to redefine the role of First Lady, as she will be the first to have a full-time paid job outside the White House.
A self-professed introvert, Dr Biden has always been reticent about entering the political spotlight, although she is often described as Joe Biden’s biggest defender and one of his best assets. She is also said to be one of his most trusted political advisers, reportedly playing a pivotal role in helping Mr Biden narrow down his list of potential running mates.
She knows better than anyone the importance of a strong bond between the First and Second spouse: the fast friendship between herself and Michelle Obama was said to be as strong as their husbands’ famed “bromance”, leading them to team up on education initiatives and the Joining Forces programme to support military families.
“Jill is not just brilliant, but she is kind. She is very funny, and she is one of the strongest people I know,” Mrs Obama said during their final joint event in office. “And I love and admire her with all my heart.”
Before Dr Biden’s convention address, Mrs Obama paid tribute to her “partner-in-crime” in an Instagram post, saying: “There’s not a doubt in my mind that Jill will make a wonderful First Lady.”
Supportive, to a point
The role, as Mrs Obama knows, is an odd one: while an unelected position, it can prove crucial to reaching voting groups a candidate cannot themselves.
While the intensely private Mrs Trump has made only rare, enigmatic appearances on stage with her husband, and was caught up in plagiarism allegations after her 2016 campaign speech, Dr Biden has been happy to tackle difficult questions about her husband’s record during the rounds on morning TV interviews, offering the American public a glimpse of the kind of First Lady she would make.
The 69 year-old first caught the attention of voters during the election campaign when she rushed to protect her 78-year-old husband after vegan protesters rushed on stage towards him during a comeback speech in Los Angeles in March. But during their 43-year-marriage, she has not always been supportive of her husband’s presidential ambitions.
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She has previously recounted how in 2004, when Mr Biden was under pressure to run for the White House, she was dead set against the idea. So much so that when a group of supporters showed up at their home in Delaware to convince Mr Biden to put himself forward, she walked into the room in nothing but a bikini with “no” written on her stomach.
“That got his attention. I won’t tell you who was sitting in that room, but they got the message,” she told Vogue earlier this year.
Her opinion on the matter changed, however, when George W Bush won re-election in 2004. Such was her disappointment in the result that she wore black for a week. When she finally came out of mourning over the election outcome, she urged her husband to run in 2008.
Grading papers on Air Force Two
As well as championing Mr Biden’s political career, she has been protective over her own: breaking with tradition to continue teaching English full-time at a community college amid her eight years as Second Lady during Barack Obama’s administration, believed to make her the first to hold a paid job while in the role.
Even with the added responsibility her role as First Lady will bring, Dr Biden has made clear she has no plans to stop working.
“Being a teacher is not what I do but who I am,” she wrote in her 2019 memoir, Where the Light Enters, describing “scrambling into a cocktail dress and heels” in the school bathroom to make it to a White House reception, or grading papers on Air Force Two, with relish.
Dr Biden, who earned four degrees while raising her family, including a doctorate in education from the University of Delaware, said she intends to continue teaching alongside her duties as First Lady if her husband makes it to the White House.
It was from a Delaware high school where she taught in the Nineties that she offered the emotive address during the virtual Democratic National Convention, promising that classrooms across the country “will ring out with laughter and possibility once again” if her husband becomes president.
In his victory speech on November 7, her husband said: “For American educators this is a great day for y’all. You are going to have one of your own in the White House.”
The address also touched on the Biden family’s encounters with tragedy, with Dr Biden describing how she met the family after Mr Biden’s first wife and infant daughter were killed in a car crash in 1972, leaving him to raise his three- and four-year old sons, Beau and Hunter, alone.
There will be many Americans hoping that Joe Biden’s presidency brings about a political reset, and some much needed hope, after a tumultuous year for the country.
Dr Biden seemed to acknowledge this sentiment in her New Year’s Day message, tweeting: “Let this be a year of healing, as we come together stronger, a new understanding of what it means to be whole.”
The pair were introduced on a blind date in 1975, and married in 1977. Though Joe had to propose five times before she said yes: having married young and divorced by 24, she said she had to be “100 per cent sure this marriage would last until death do us part,” so his sons didn’t lose another mother.
She went on to raise the boys as her own, alongside Ashley, the daughter she had with Joe in 1981. But tragedy struck the Biden family again in 2015, when Beau died from brain cancer.
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In her speech, Jill drew parallels with her husband’s experience leading his family through personal adversity and what she described as his ability to lead the nation through its current crises, telling viewers that his “strength of will is unstoppable.”
The speech marked a considerable evolution for the initially-reluctant political wife.
In her memoir, she writes of having no desire to “give any speeches, anytime, anywhere – just the thought of doing so made me so nervous I felt sick.”
‘She has a unique role’
She became one of her husband’s most prominent surrogates on last years campaign trail, regularly appearing in virtual events, headlining town halls and holding calls with supporters.
However, her inner circle have pushed back on the suggestion she serves as a political adviser, insisting that their relationship is far more nuanced.
“He’s got plenty of political advisers. That’s not what she is,” said Cathy Russell, who was Dr Biden’s chief of staff during the Obama administration and a vice chair on the campaign. “She is his spouse, and she loves him, and she talks to him about all sorts of things, but she has a unique role, and it’s not being a political adviser. That’s not her thing.”
Dr Biden’s convention address also showcased her more personal side, detailing her love for running as well as her mischievous sense of fun, with her grandchildren recounting anecdotes involving her practical jokes.
Her speech even won plaudits from Republicans, including senator Lindsey Graham, a key ally of Donald Trump. “Jill Biden did a very good job representing herself and Joe in the causes they believe in. She’s an outstanding person who has led a consequential life,” he tweeted.
The 69-year-old’s biggest fan is undoubtedly Joe, who often proudly refers to himself as “Jill Biden’s husband” – and introduced himself as such when he bounded onto the screen to congratulate her at the end of her live address; his first official appearance since becoming the Democratic presidential nominee.
“Just think of your favourite educator who gave you the confidence to believe in yourself, that’s the kind of First Lady Jill will be,” he told the audience.
Her pitch to voters was a pledge to fix the “broken” American family. If the rave reviews of her address are any measure, she has already won many hearts.