Jill Biden: The Quiet Influence of Biden’s Closest Adviser

Image source, Getty Images

  • Author, Rachel Kijker
  • Role, BBC News, Washington

A day after US President Joe Biden struggled through a 90-minute debate that only fueled voters’ concerns about his age and fitness, Jill Biden stood before wealthy donors at a fundraising event in New York and tried to explain what they had seen.

“‘You know, Jill, I don’t know what happened. I wasn’t feeling great,'” the president confessed, telling them. “I said, ‘Look, Joe, we’re not going to let 90 minutes define your four years as president.'”

It offered a first glimpse into the president’s mindset and how he judged his performance during the debates, which was seen by many as a major blow to his campaign.

As doubts emerged about Mr. Biden’s candidacy, his closest adviser was unequivocal about whether he would drop out of the race. “If he gets knocked down, Joe gets back up, and that’s what we’re doing today,” Mrs. Biden said.

The first lady has stood by her husband throughout his decades-long career, from his time as a senator from Delaware to his time as commander in chief, and she has often been the deciding voice behind many of Biden’s policy choices.

While the president often relies on his close-knit family for big decisions, Mrs. Biden is among the president’s top advisers who have the most influence over him and could ultimately help him decide whether it’s time to drop out of the race.

“It’s fair to call her Biden’s closest advisor,” veteran Democratic political strategist Hank Sheinkop told the BBC. “Family is very important to him and that makes Jill Biden’s role even more important.”

The president’s younger sister, Valerie Biden Owens, who served as his campaign manager during his years in the Senate, and his son, Hunter Biden, are also among his most trusted confidants.

In the aftermath of the debate, Biden gathered with his family for a long-planned trip to Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland, where they discussed the fate of his campaign and urged him to keep fighting, the BBC’s U.S. affiliate CBS reported. Hunter Biden was among the most vocal family members urging his father to stay in the race, CBS reported.

But as Democrats’ concerns about the 81-year-old president’s physical and mental condition have become increasingly apparent in recent days, many within the party expect the first lady to have second thoughts about his candidacy.

Instead, she has continued her campaign, traveling to the swing states of Pennsylvania and Michigan this week for a series of political and official events.

“Because there’s a lot of talk about it, I want to reiterate what my husband has said very clearly: Joe is the Democratic nominee and he’s going to beat Donald Trump, just like he did in 2020,” Mrs. Biden told supporters at a campaign rally in Traverse City, Michigan, on Wednesday.

Image source, Getty Images

Image caption, The first lady has stood by her husband throughout his decades-long career

However, Mrs. Biden’s influence in the West Wing is not unusual.

Nancy Kegan Smith, president of the First Ladies Association for Research and Education, said there are historical parallels between Mrs. Biden and former first ladies.

“Most presidents rely on their wife’s unbiased advice because she’s the person who’s normally closest to them,” she said.

She pointed to Lady Bird Johnson, the wife of former President Lyndon B. Johnson, who advised her husband — and ultimately convinced him with a moving letter — to run for the White House in August 1964 after he became president following the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

Four years later, in 1968, she changed her mind and told him not to run for re-election. He listened, Mrs. Kegan Smith said.

Many within the Democratic Party are waiting to see if a similar scenario plays out in the coming month, putting more focus on Mrs. Biden.

The first lady has a busy schedule. She is the first person in the East Wing to have a day job teaching English at a community college in Northern Virginia. When she is not teaching, she is often on the road campaigning for her husband.

“Most modern first ladies have been in politics for a while and are political sounding boards for their husbands,” Katherine Jellison, an Ohio University professor who studies first ladies, told BBC News.

Image source, Getty Images

Image caption, Joe and Jill Biden pictured having breakfast with the Obamas during the 2008 presidential campaign

The president had proposed to her five times before Mrs. Biden said yes. The couple married in 1977, five years after Biden lost his first wife and daughter in a car crash that also injured his two sons.

When he decided not to run for president in 2016, he told 60 Minutes that “it was the right decision for the family,” adding that part of his reasoning was due to the loss of his son Beau, who died of brain cancer in 2015.

Mrs. Biden specifically played a role in her husband’s decision not to run for president in 2003, Ms. Kegan Smith said, pointing to a scene described in the first lady’s 2019 memoir, Where the Light Enters. In the book, she recalled lounging poolside as Democratic advisers encouraged her husband to launch a campaign. She wore a bikini, wrote “no” on her stomach in marker, and walked through the meeting. Biden did not run that year.

But the first lady has also come under pressure in recent days, drawing criticism after the presidential debate for praising her husband after he had performed poorly in the debate.

“Joe, you did such a great job. You answered every question. You had all the facts,” she told him onstage at a post-debate rally in Atlanta. A clip of the exchange was widely shared on social media.

Some Republicans have also seized on Democrats’ concerns and placed blame for Biden’s debate performance on the first lady. Representative Harriet Hageman, a Republican from Wyoming, even accused Biden of “elder abuse” in a post on X, saying she “threw him onstage unarmed to engage in a battle of wits.”

The conservative website The Drudge Report ran a front-page headline immediately after the debate that read: “Cruel Jill Clings to Power.”

“It’s really unfair to put the burden on her. She’s his wife. She’s not a politician,” Michael LaRosa, her former press secretary, told The Hill. “It’s not her job to save the Democratic Party.”

Mrs. Biden, meanwhile, has stressed that the president will continue his re-election campaign as the stakes are high in November.

“Every campaign is important and every campaign is difficult,” the first lady told Vogue for its August cover story. “Every campaign is unique. But this one, the urgency is different. We know what’s at stake. Joe is asking the American people to come together to draw a line against all of this vitriol.”

That’s the urgency the campaign hopes to convey to voters. In a statement to the BBC, the Biden campaign called Mrs. Biden an “effective messenger” on the campaign trail.

“As a teacher, mother and grandmother, she is uniquely positioned to connect with key constituencies across the country and articulate the President’s vision for America,” the statement said.

Still, her steadfast support, combined with the White House’s dismissal of media reports that the president is considering leaving office, has failed to dampen the growing uncertainty surrounding the Democratic ticket. The fallout has prompted a backlash from Democrats, donors and some lawmakers who are openly calling for the president to withdraw from the race.

“Joe’s been beaten down and knocked out his whole life… When he’s knocked out, he works harder. And that’s what he does, but he needs your help,” she told Michigan supporters on Wednesday.

“We don’t choose our chapter in history, but we can choose who guides us through it,” she added.

For Mrs. Biden, that choice remains her husband.

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