Still, whether or not she publicises it, Biden, 69, will be the first to try such a balancing act and will inherit the scrutiny associated with her newest role. As her modern predecessors have found, although being first lady of the United States is technically a job without any official responsibilities, the expectations of the President, the White House, American voters and a few thousand journalists must be managed.
In December, Biden’s career credentials were challenged weeks before she even set foot in the East Wing, when The Wall Street Journal published an op-ed by writer Joseph Epstein that called for her to drop the honorific from her name.
“Forget the small thrill of being Dr Jill, and settle for the larger thrill of living for the next four years in the best public housing in the world as First Lady Jill Biden,” he wrote.
Politely, she declined.
“Together, we will build a world where the accomplishments of our daughters will be celebrated, rather than diminished,” Biden wrote on Twitter.
While building her career, teaching at Delaware Technical Community College and later earning her doctorate from the University of Delaware in 2007, Biden supported her husband’s ambition but sometimes did not enjoy life in the spotlight.
She did not always back the idea of her husband pursuing higher office. In 2004, she protested the idea of his running for the White House by writing “No” in Sharpie on her bikini-clad body and marching around their house. (“My temper got the best of me. I decided I needed to contribute to this conversation,” she wrote of the episode in her 2019 memoir.)
She eventually relented: Joe Biden was chosen as Obama’s vice-president in 2008 after an unsuccessful presidential run. As second lady, she relished the relative anonymity teaching provided, noting in interviews that her students often did not recognise her. Indeed, on the website Rate My Professors, former students have more to say about her teaching style (“tough grader” is common) than her connection to two presidential administrations.
But Wednesday, Jill Biden arrived at the White House with a higher profile and an East Wing stocked with aides she trusts. They include Anthony Bernal, a senior adviser who has been with the Bidens since the Obama campaign. Julissa Reynoso Pantaleon, an Obama State Department alumnus, is her chief of staff.
Last week, Biden appointed Rory Brosius, a former Joe Biden campaign adviser, as director for the Joining Forces initiative, a program supporting military families Jill Biden started with Michelle Obama when she was first lady. Jill Biden is also expected to push for free community college and raise awareness for breast cancer prevention, aides said.
“She’s not going to walk in the door and go, ‘What’s my identity as first lady?'” Shailagh Murray, a former senior adviser to Joe Biden and Barack Obama, said in an interview. “It’s just going to be the first lady version of what she’s been doing all along.”
She married Joe Biden in 1977, more than four years after his first wife, Neilia, and young daughter, Naomi, were killed in a car accident. Biden put her own career ambitions on hold to raise his two sons, Beau, a Delaware attorney general who died in 2015, and Hunter, as her own. The Bidens’ daughter, Ashley, was born in 1981.
Throughout most of Joe Biden’s six Senate terms, two terms as vice-president and three runs for the presidency, Jill Biden has been by her husband’s side.
A native of New Jersey, Jill Biden grew up in Willow Grove, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia. Plain-spoken with a Philly accent, Biden has approached her new role with the same folksy touch her husband tends to employ. But she is not without flashes of grit: during the presidential campaign, she put herself between her husband, 77 at the time, and a group of unruly vegan protesters.
“I remember every slight committed against the people that I love,” she wrote in her memoir, establishing herself as the family protector, if not its chief grudge holder.
The New York Times
US power and politics
Understand the election result and its aftermath with expert analysis from US correspondent Matthew Knott. Sign up here.