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Jill Biden has never wanted to be first lady, but Joe can’t win the White House without her

Jill Biden was recently the keynote speaker at NewsBash 2019, an annual event where female journalists raise money for breast cancer prevention and care. As the former vice president decides whether to enter and already crowded field, the focus on his wife and the rest of the family has intensified. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

Jill Biden emerged from a cloud of pink, surrounded by women dressed in baby pink, blush pink and hot pink at last week’s NewsBash 10th anniversary party to support breast cancer prevention and care in Washington, D.C.

The former second lady — introduced as “our favorite member of the vice club” — was there to do what she’s been quietly doing for the past two years as a private citizen: Speak about cancer, health care, education and military families.

“Like so many of you — and I bet everybody in this room — my family has been touched by this disease way too often,” she told the crowd. “Struggling through those illnesses were some of the hardest times of our lives.”

Phones shot into the air to record her every word. She’s a beloved figure at this event, a tireless and loyal advocate for the causes she holds dear. Her brief remarks were unsurprising but genuine, not unlike the speaker herself.

There was no mention of her husband, no hint about whether Joe Biden will jump into the 2020 presidential race. His name is everywhere else, with pundits proclaiming him the front-runner in an ever-growing field of Democratic contenders. Some say he’s the best-qualified candidate to challenge Donald Trump; others contend his four decades in Washington make him old news when his party desperately needs a fresh face.

He intended to run in 2016, but the death of their eldest son, Beau, derailed those plans. Citing the grief that devastated his family, Joe announced he would not be a candidate, a decision he came to regret, since political observers argue he would have defeated Trump. “Biden would have won in a landslide,” Republican Sen. Ben Sasse told the New York Times.

But that was then. Now the 76-year-old is deliberating one last campaign. His wife of 42 years, one of his most trusted advisers, would be the most visible and best-known candidate’s spouse on the trail.

“She’s as close as you can get to a political professional in a spouse — the wife of a senator, a second lady, and she worked pretty closely with Michelle Obama,” says Myra Gutin, an expert on the role of first ladies. “She a pretty formidable woman in her own right. If anyone can make the case for him, she’s going to be the one who can do it.”

Out of the spotlight

After Trump was elected, it looked like the Bidens might finally retire from public life. They bought a $2 million house in Rehoboth. They established foundations on global diplomacy and cancer research. Joe settled into the role of elder statesman; Jill, 67, continued teaching at Northern Virginia Community College, something she does to this day. (The Bidens spend most of their time in Delaware but are renting a residence in Northern Virginia.) Her class reviews range from "nice teacher" to "very tough grader."

In early 2017, the couple signed a three-book deal for a reported $8 million, making them rich for the first time in their lives. Joe’s book about Beau, “Promise Me, Dad: A Year of Hope, Hardship, and Purpose,” came out that November. Jill’s memoir, “Where the Light Enters” will be published in May. Citing the book, her spokesman said she declined to comment for this story.

Jill’s social media accounts are filled with the do-gooding she’s famous for, and there’s a sweet vacation photo with her husband. It’s looks like a perfect, if low-profile, life.

But the siren song of the White House, that ultimate and elusive prize, still calls to Joe. According to those closest to the Bidens, he really wants to run. Jill never aspired to be first lady (“I say that I’m apolitical — if that’s at all possible being married to Joe for 30 years,” she told NPR in 2008.)

But she supports his dream and respects him as a leader. “She loves him and she believes he would make a great president,” says Cathy Russell, Jill’s former chief of staff.

But there are plenty of Democrats — even those who admire and personally like Joe enormously — who privately say that they do not want him to join the race. The then-senator ran twice before, in 1988 and 2008, before losing in primaries to Michael Dukakis and Barack Obama. The 1988 bid ended shortly after embarrassing charges of plagiarism; in 2008, he dropped out after a fifth-place finish in the Iowa caucuses.

And then, a stunning reversal of fortune: Obama picked him as his running mate, and Joe spent eight years as a respected and popular vice president. Jill was an even more popular second lady.

But does any of that matter today? Democrats are desperate to pick the right nominee for 2020, even if no one can agree on who that nominee should be. Joe would compete against the largest and most diverse primary field in history.

Supporters list his four decades of experience and his deep understanding of how Washington works, his common touch, and his ability to speak to blue-collar voters. Detractors say the flip side of all that experience is baggage: the crime bill that hurt so many African Americans, the many gaffes, two failed runs at the White House.

If Joe becomes the nominee and wins the general election in 2020, he would be 77 years old — the oldest person ever elected to the presidency. Some believe he could mitigate concerns about his age by promising to serve only one term and picking a young vice president. That’s a hard sell for those in the Democratic Party who believe that Joe (and Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders) need to step aside and hand the reins to the next generation.

Joe Biden faces the existential question: Is there a market for his 2020 campaign?

And there’s the issue of women. The Kavanaugh hearings last fall brought back the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings — not a good look for Joe or any of the male senators who grilled Hill in 1991. Add to that what some see as Joe’s old-fashioned, touchy-feely way of interacting with women (“Biden being Biden”), and he may have some explaining to do.

Which is where Jill comes in.

“Clearly, he adores her and she adores him — and she really believes in him,” says Anita McBride, former chief of staff to first lady Laura Bush. A candidate’s wife, she says, “has this unique ability to present the personal, human side of a politician — as a family man, husband, father, friend and neighbor. As a working mother and wife of a politician, Jill checks off a fair number of boxes.”

Any political spouse, says Donna Brazile, former head of the Democratic National Committee, is the “number one amplifier for the candidate’s message and their chief surrogate. They help reach audiences the candidate cannot reach.” She’s a big fan of both Bidens and believes Jill would play a vital role if Joe runs.

The question, she says, “is whether Democratic voters look back or look forward.”

Joe Biden still wants to be president. Can his family endure one last campaign?

'She's so good at this'

While on the campaign trail in 2008, Jill shared this story with Vogue magazine: "A bunch of Democratic Party bigwigs had planted themselves in her living room to try to convince Joe Biden that 2004 was his year to unseat George Bush. Jill was sitting out by the pool in a bikini — fuming. Unable to stand it any longer, she got up, found a Magic Marker, and wrote the word 'no' across her stomach and then paraded through the meeting. 'They got the message,' she says with a laugh."

Jill knew what she was getting into when she married a senator in 1977, but saw herself as wife, mother and teacher — not a political figure.

“She just didn’t see herself in that role,” says Russell. “Now she’s so good at this. She feels like it’s her job to help people she’s met along the way. She takes this very seriously.”

Ron Klain, former chief of staff to Joe when he was vice president, says Jill would be “a critical asset in the campaign. This is true both internally and externally. Internally she is — next to his sister — his most trusted adviser. She has a good feel for what works and does not work for him, and does a great job of keeping spirits up.” Externally, Klain says she connects with people “in an authentic way” as an advocate for education and especially military families.

But this campaign would be unlike any the Bidens have faced before. The other candidates are younger, female or just new faces. Social media has changed the game, and every member of the family would be dragged into the fray, willing or not.

Which means Hunter Biden would become part of the story, yet again. Hunter’s struggles with substance abuse were part of his bitter divorce from Kathleen Biden in 2017. In addition to public court filings that claimed he had spent a fortune on drugs, women and strip clubs, tabloids then revealed he was in a romantic relationship with his former sister-in-law, Hallie Biden — Beau’s widow. It is unclear whether the two are still dating or what their role would be should Joe decide to run.

Jill’s spokesman declined to comment, but Hunter told Vanity Fair last month: “You ask me whether my father might not run for President because of reports about me in the news,” he said in a statement. “What you fail to realize, in asking such a question, is that my father has always been proud of me . . . and he loves the American people far too much to let any form of adversity stand in the way of service.”

None of this would be easy. “It’s always tough for a family to hear negative things said about someone they love,” Gutin says. “I’m sure every candidate says, ‘It’s just the campaign. It doesn’t mean anything.’ But that stuff hurts, and it can certainly sour you on the process. You have to decide if you really want to run, because every negative thing about you is going to be dredged up and you’re going to hear about it.”

And none of that is news to the Bidens. “They know that this comes with the territory,” McBride says. “They certainly have been through tougher things.”

But there is, when all is said and done, the crushing possibility of giving their all — and finding out the voters aren’t interested. “It’s tough to accept it’s not enough,” says McBride. “All those years of devotion to the country, to the party, to politics — would not be enough.”

The Bidens, as a family, will have to make a decision soon. Until that day, Jill isn’t talking.