PHOENIX — During the 2020 presidential campaign, Jill Biden earned a reputation as the “closer” at her husband’s events. As the campaign raced across Iowa and South Carolina, Joe Biden would get up to speak, introducing himself as “Jill’s husband,” and Jill would often go on last to bring the crowd home.
Now, just a week after President Biden’s first State of the Union address, the first lady is again her husband’s chief campaigner in a three-state swing through Arizona, Nevada and Kentucky to highlight the “unity agenda” and Build Back Better plan laid out in his speech. It’s a trip that has included her second in-person fundraiser for the Democratic National Committee since her husband took office — which is also her second in-person fundraiser in the past three days. (She participated in fundraisers in 2021, but those were held virtually due to the pandemic.)
Speaking to community college students in Arizona learning to build microchips at Intel’s Ocotillo campus on Monday, the first lady brought a personal touch, mentioning she was on spring break from her job as an English professor at a community college in Virginia. But she also wasted no time advocating for her husband’s presidency and arguing the country would be much worse-off if Donald Trump had stayed in office.
“It felt like Americans across the country were holding their breath in the aftermath of four years of chaos,” she said, describing the “cold winter morning a little over a year ago” when she held their family Bible and watched her husband take the oath of office at his inauguration.
She had started her speech with a silent prayer for Ukraine, highlighting a difficult moment in her husband’s presidency. The United States has joined other Western nations in forcefully repudiating Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“In the face of uncertainty, he is unshakable,” she said of her husband. “Despite deep divides — at home and abroad — he knows how to bring people together and get things done. He never loses sight of what this is all about: the people he serves.”
Later on Monday, at a second stop in Phoenix, the first lady challenged predictions that Democrats will lose ground in the House and the Senate during the midterm elections in November. “They’re trying to paint this gloomy picture, but that’s not who we are,” she told around 40 members of the Gila River Indian Community at a fundraiser for the Democratic National Committee. “So we are going to win the midterm elections. But we can only do it with your support and your help. And we appreciate that you are standing behind us.”
That Biden would kick off her return to the campaign trail in Arizona and Nevada is notable. Both are swing states that her husband narrowly won in 2020, results that Trump bitterly contested. Latino and Native American voters’ support was seen as crucial in those victories, and they will be crucial for Democrats this year to secure in the midterms.
Fort Campbell, Ky., the final stop of her trip, went for Trump in the presidential race. She will be there Wednesday to meet with the families of members of the 101st Airborne Division deployed to Europe to assist NATO efforts as Russia continues its attacks in Ukraine.
First ladies who hit the campaign trail often play the role of humanizing their spouses, of telling the story of the politician as a person at home. Jill Biden is skilled at this, but Joe Biden is the rare, heart-on-his-sleeve politician whose personal story is already well-known. That leaves Jill with the tricky task of veering into more political territory than her many of her predecessors, by trying to humanize her husband’s political agenda.
As typically apolitical, unelected members of the administration, “first ladies have always been among the most effective fundraisers in both parties,” says Lauren A. Wright, a political scientist at Princeton University who studies first ladies and the effectiveness of their messaging. They also “tend to step up to shoulder the messaging responsibility when their husbands are unpopular, and that is certainly the case with the president now,” Wright says.
The president making a tour of swing states in the Southwest to tout his State of the Union proposals might be met with protests, Wright says. “Nobody wants hear the president talk about his plan for building a better future when inflation is at a 40-year high and there is a crisis overseas,” she says, “so the first lady can step in and send those messages in swing states like Arizona and Nevada where it’s not as easy for the president to go right now.”
Unlike her predecessors, Michelle Obama and Melania Trump, Jill Biden had been a seasoned politician’s wife for decades by the time she became first lady. Those years spent on the trail as a senator’s spouse, and the eight years Joe was vice president, have made her a confident campaigner who is able to go off-script in ways that her husband, a self-described “gaffe machine,” cannot.
“I’m on my spring break,” she said, speaking off-the-cuff at the Intel event and referring to her job as an English professor at Northern Virginia Community College. (She is the only first lady to have kept her professional career while at the White House.) She’s a teacher, so of course she wanted to spend her time off with community college students. She just couldn’t tear herself away, she joked.
“My students said to me, ‘Dr. B, what are you doing during your vacation?’ ” she said at Intel. “And I said, ‘I’m going to be working my other job.’ And the students said, ‘You have another job?!’ and then it dawned on them, like, ‘Yes, I have another job.’ ”
Over the weekend, speaking at her first in-person fundraiser of the administration, she immediately strayed from her prepared remarks. Holding a piece of paper covered with handwritten notes written in ink, she said she wanted to talk about the war in Ukraine, or, as she put it, “what’s on everybody’s mind.”
On Monday afternoon, after the Intel event, speaking to members of the Gila River Indian Community for her second in-person DNC fundraiser of the administration, she led another silent prayer for Ukraine and then walked to the front of the room, as if she were speaking to a classroom.
“So I have a formal speech, but I kind of feel like — I don’t know. We’re among friends, right? So I’m not going to stand behind that podium,” she said walking closer to the 40 people gathered in front of her, some in suits or T-shirts with tribal necklaces, some in colorful tribal formalwear. “I want to speak to you as friends.”
She also launched into fierce criticisms of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“I talk to Joe every day about what’s going on in Ukraine,” she said, “and I want you to know that he is working tirelessly to bring people together, to bring the NATO countries together, so that they can stand up against Putin.”
She praised Ukrainians for fighting for their freedom and spoke of how her heart had broken seeing Ukrainian mothers fleeing with their children in their arms. America needs to “hold [Putin] accountable for this horrible, horrible war that he’s really trying to drag the rest of the world into,” she said.
And she said her husband is uniquely qualified to handle the crisis, noting that he had gone to the Soviet Union as a senator in his 30s and has built relationships with leaders of NATO countries. “I think Joe is the right person for this moment in history,” she said, to loud applause.
Last week, the first lady showed her support for Ukraine by wearing a mask decorated with a sunflower, the Ukrainian national flower. She had also invited Ukraine’s ambassador to the United States, Oksana Markarova, to sit in her box at the State of the Union address, and worn a dress with an embroidered sunflower on the sleeve.
Listening closely to her speeches, “you can see that the way she broaches Ukraine is not explicitly political,” Wright, the Princeton political scientist, says in an email. Biden instead talks about the bravery of Ukrainian women, Wright says. “That’s also a strategy first ladies use to wade into policy. They start from a personal perspective and that helps put people at ease. Presidents can’t do that quite in the same way, because the public (understandably) wants to hear the answers to the tough questions.”
It’s a strategy Biden employed on Saturday at her campaign-trail kickoff at the private DNC fundraiser in San Francisco, where she spoke to a crowd of 25 the day after attending two memorial services — one in Boston for the father of White House Deputy Chief of Staff Jen O’Malley Dillon, and the other in San Francisco for Richard Blum, a good friend of the Bidens and the husband of Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.).
In that room with red floral walls, gold chandeliers and a marble fireplace, she evoked the unease many Americans are feeling in the wake of the war. “We don’t know where it’s going to go. We just don’t know,” she said. “And we’re all just holding our breath, aren’t we? That something, some answer will come so that we don’t get into this world war.”
“It’s unbelievable, right? To think that that could happen in our lifetime,” she said, as people in the room shook their heads.
“I just have to turn on the TV every morning and pray that Zelensky is still alive,” she said, referring to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. “The phone just never stops ringing, all through the night,” she said. “And Joe is up, trying to help solve this crisis.”