Opinion: The woman with US president's ear as he doubles down on staying in race

By Christopher Featherstone Posted : July 4, 2024, 09:00 Updated : July 4, 2024, 09:06
First lady Jill Biden makes a campaign stop in Middleville Michigan on July 3 2024 AP-Yonhap
First lady Jill Biden makes a campaign stop in Middleville, Michigan on July 3, 2024. AP-Yonhap
SEOUL, July 04 (AJU PRESS) - The overwhelming majority of people who watched the first U.S. presidential debate between incumbent Joe Biden and challengers Donald Trump concluded that it was a disastrous night for the 46th U.S. president. Biden's voice was weak, his language confused and he gave the impression of a very elderly man who was struggling to cope under pressure. Not very presidential, people concluded.

Within hours of the debate, Democrats were queuing up to call on Biden to drop out of the race in favor of a younger candidate. Even the solidly loyal pro-Democrat, anti-Trump New York Times ran an opinion "from the editorial board," calling on Biden to step down.

But the rules of the Democratic Party make it difficult to replace Biden as the nominee presumptive (he won’t formally be endorsed on the party's ticket until the party's convention in August). Having received pledges from 3,904 delegates, he is assured of the nomination, unless he decides to drop out of the race.

The question of whether Biden was too old to take on a second four-year term as president has often been raised during his first term and he has repeatedly restated his intention to run. After his disastrous performance in the June 27 debate, many commentators said it would be up to his family – particularly his wife, the first lady, Jill Biden, to persuade him to step aside.

So far, she has resisted these calls. After the debate, she led him off the stage and the two appeared together at a democrat "watch party" where she gave him extravagant praise: "Joe, you did such a good job. You answered every question, you knew all the facts."

Suddenly the role of "Flotus" – first lady of the United States – has taken on huge significance. So who is Jill Biden?

Born in June 1951, Jill Tracy Jacobs Biden is the president's second wife. The couple met three years after Biden's first wife died in a car crash with their daughter. The couple married in 1977 and have been together ever since. Jill Biden worked as a high school English teacher while her husband served as the U.S. senator for Delaware. Dr Biden worked in education for more than 30 years, earning Master's degrees in both education and English, as well as a doctorate in education in 2007.

She faced criticism before she had even entered the White House, being attacked for her use of the title of "Dr." and received criticism from the Wall Street Journal in an article that was roundly condemned as "outrageously sexist."

Political animal

The first lady has one of the least constitutionally defined roles in U.S. politics. There is no founding document that refers to the role. Instead, the job has been shaped by those women who have held the position over the centuries.

Abigail Adams, wife of the second U.S. president, John Adams, was active in a number of political debates, including the federalist versus non-federalist issue which remains a key debate in U.S. politics to this day as well as slavery and women's education.

Much more recently, Michelle Obama had four key initiatives as Flotus: advocating for healthy families, service members and their families, higher education and international adolescent girls education.

Unsurprisingly, given her decades of experience in education, Jill Biden has also chosen to work on education as first lady (alongside her other official causes: military families and cancer research. For some time, she also continued to work outside the White House, the first person in her role to have done so.

The current presidential race is the fourth time Jill has helped her husband campaign for the presidency, beginning with his first abortive bid in 1987, when he lost out to Michael Dukakis (who was in turn defeated in the general election by George H.W. Bush). He lost out to Barack Obama in 2008, but was asked to join his ticket as vice-presidential nominee, a role which brought Jill into the White House as "second lady."

She was highly visible on the campaign trail during the 2020 election, making a stark contrast with the then first lady, Melania Trump, whose absence from her husband's campaign was noted.

As one report noted, she even physically protected her husband when he was approached by hecklers during campaign appearances.

Circling the wagons

Now, she is under pressure from Biden's worried Democrat critics, including party donors, to wield her undoubted influence to persuade him to step down. One party donor told the New York Post that, "lots of people are blaming his wife..... for not telling him [to step aside]." One even hinted at selfish motives: "Jill Biden likes being First Lady..... she doesn't want to give that up."

In turn, Dr Biden has come out swinging. As the family assembled at the presidential retreat at Camp David, she told American Vogue that they "will not let those 90 minutes define the four years he's been president. We will continue to fight." With fortuitous timing, a lengthy interview with the first lady ran as the cover story in Vogue on July 1.

There was a mixed reaction. Vogue's cover quote: "We will decide our future" was savaged by some critics, despite – as the New York Times reported, the fact that it was a quote about women voters – not her husband and her.

It appears that for now Joe Biden will continue on the Democrat ticket. Calls on Jill Biden to encourage her husband to resign have not just fallen on deaf ears – they appear to have galvanized her to take the most prominent role she has ever taken in this election campaign.


Christopher Featherstone is an associate lecturer, department of politics at University of York.

This article was republished under a Creative Commons license with The Conversation. The views and opinions in this article are solely those of the author.

기사 이미지 확대 보기