This was the first lady’s second stop at a reopened school this week as part of the White House’s travel and public relations frenzy to promote President Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus package. She was there to talk about $1,400 direct payments, child-care tax credits and how the administration planned to deliver on President Biden’s promise to safely return students to classrooms within his first 100 days of office, or by the end of April.
More than that, she was demonstrating that she intends to be an active member of this administration’s A-team, deployed as a high-profile messenger who can help further his agenda whenever called upon.
This week, Jill Biden, the president, Vice President Harris and second gentleman Doug Emhoff were all on the road, scattered across the country as part of a “Help Is Here” tour to sell the American Rescue Plan that polling shows is popular with the majority of the population. As popular as the stimulus is, though, not a single Republican in Congress voted for it. Critics have pointed out its enormous price tag that President Biden is hoping to fund with a tax increase on Americans making over $400,000 a year.
Teachers unions, too, have been resistant to schools reopening without safety measures for educators in place. Biden is well-aware and empathetic of their stance, even as she pushes her husband’s plans. The day after the inauguration, she met with the heads of the two biggest teachers’ unions in America. She also happens to be a member of one.
“It sends a really big message” to have Jill Biden on this tour, says Anita McBride, director of the First Ladies Initiative at American University and former chief of staff to Laura Bush. “Listen, she is the closest person to the president. She is a champion of his efforts and his initiative. He relies on her.”
On the biggest legislative win of his nascent administration, she is right out front. It is a sharp contrast from her predecessor as first lady, Melania Trump, who rarely did political speeches and often directly contradicted her husband’s rhetoric, such as when she filmed a public service announcement about masks while President Donald Trump was proudly refusing to wear one.
Trump made sure the first round of checks had his name on them, while the Bidens’ tour is a more traditional way of reminding Americans who’s responsible for the stimulus win. Tour stops seem to be strategically concentrated in either hard-hit states, or ones that might need a little political shoring up before the 2022 midterm elections. The president, Harris and Emhoff visited places like Nevada, Pennsylvania and New Mexico, where Democrats won by small margins in November.
While Harris took some jabs at naysayers in her speeches in Las Vegas and Denver this week, the first lady kept her message in New Hampshire positive. “We are going to safely reopen our schools,” the first lady told a socially distanced crowd in the school cafeteria. “We are going to get people back to work. We are going to lift up the families who are struggling just to get by. And we are going to be stronger than ever, because that’s what the American Rescue Plan is all about — help today so we can build back better tomorrow.”
When Biden shows up at an elementary school, the message is simple and clear. “This is very important,” says Lauren A. Wright, a political scientist at Princeton University who studies the impact of first ladies. The entire tour is helping the stimulus stay in the news, says Wright, plus it allows the public and media to attach credit to the Biden administration. It’s also part of a strategy to block the kind of Republican countermessaging that took the wind out of President Barack Obama’s stimulus sails.
“But it’s also smart politics to attach the first lady to an issue area that she’s very comfortable in, very experienced,” says Wright about Biden’s teaching background. “It’s an authentic message that she knows it’s important for schools to reopen.”
Among the senior members of the administration, the first lady is uniquely placed to speak to teachers, parents and students about the difficulties of this year.
“As a teacher who taught for, gosh, over 30 years, I feel most at home in the classroom,” she said in her speech. She’d actually spent the whole previous day teaching at her community college job.
Her ease seemed apparent as she took command of the fifth-grade writing class, sometimes standing at the front of the room, sometimes walking around and kneeling to talk to individual students. It was not unlike the many visits Melania Trump, and many first ladies before her, made to schools and children’s hospitals. (The former first lady did not hide her aversion to speaking with the press but always seemed to enjoy her time interacting with children.)
In the classroom, Biden praised the students’ “neither/nor” sentences, such as the one a boy named Owen read out loud: “The spider was neither as creepy nor as scary or as huge as I thought.”
“Great job!” said Biden, applauding.
She asked the students what they’d learned about themselves during the pandemic.
When one said he’d learned that things weren’t as hard as he thought they’d be, Biden replied: “You learned to persevere, right? So you learn that really you have that inner strength inside of you. That’s great. That’s great. I can see that you have a lot of confidence in yourself.”
Then it was time for the students to ask questions of her, the best of which was when a boy in the back raised his hand shouted out, “How’s Joe?”
Biden laughed and told him Joe was doing great. “I can tell that you’re a kind person because you think of others,” she said. “So thank you for that. I’ll tell Joe that you asked.”
A girl calling in remotely how Biden balanced her teaching with the rigors of the White House. “Because I’m an English teacher . . . ” Biden began.
“You’re an English teacher?!” a boy in the front row who’d apparently just started paying attention asked.
She was indeed, she said, laughing.
Unlike Melania Trump or even Michelle Obama, Biden comes into the role of first lady with not only decades of experience as a political spouse, but also eight years as second lady. She understands the demands of her unpaid, unelected role, and also its power. Her comfort with being in the spotlight, Wright believes, allows for her to be more spontaneous than a less experienced first lady might be. “Most spouses learn a lesson about extemporaneous remarks on the campaign trail when something controversial happens and then they become very managed and very scripted,” says Wright. “But she’s been through all of that a long time ago.”
McBride, the director of the First Ladies Initiative, sees Biden’s part in this tour as similar to Eleanor Roosevelt traveling the country to visit places that had been hard-hit by the Great Depression and tout New Deal programs. That, too, was a critical time when the president was trying to rescue American families and a drowning economy, and the function Eleanor Roosevelt played was not just promoting his agenda, but being his eyes and ears.
“What’s interesting about the first lady doing something like that, as opposed to any other adviser, is that they can really bring unfiltered information back home to the president, what he needs to hear,” says McBride. Roosevelt, says McBride, was the bane of cabinet secretaries, “because she would bring backstories of things that weren’t working. Because that’s important to know, too.”
It’s this type of messaging that might ultimately be her most notable.