As president teeters, Jill Biden faces a critical juncture

She’s served more than three years as first lady, but after President Biden’s stunningly shaky debate performance and subsequent calls for him to step down, Jill Biden — and her potential power — are suddenly being thrust into the spotlight like never before.

“It seems to be a make-or-break moment for the president, and I would say that Jill Biden will be there at every turn,” said Katherine Jellison, an expert on first ladies and professor of U.S. women’s and gender history at Ohio University.

Biden’s role in her husband’s campaign and decisionmaking process came into sharper focus last week, following what even allies described as his “disastrous” debate against former President Trump in Atlanta.

The showing at the CNN debate, with the 81-year-old Biden stumbling over some answers and staring blankly at times, ignited a firestorm of renewed questions about his age and fitness for office. Prominent figures on both sides of the aisle and multiple newspaper editorial boards called for Biden to drop out of the race rather than face Trump, his 78-year-old opponent.

<em>ATLANTA — JUNE 27: President Biden and first lady Jill Biden speak to supporters at a watch party for the presidential debate in Atlanta. President Biden and former President Trump faced off in the first presidential debate of the 2024 campaign. (Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Tasos Katopodis)</em>
ATLANTA — JUNE 27: President Biden and first lady Jill Biden speak to supporters at a watch party for the presidential debate in Atlanta. President Biden and former President Trump faced off in the first presidential debate of the 2024 campaign. (Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Tasos Katopodis)

But Jill Biden, a Northern Virginia Community College professor who also sometimes doubles as her husband’s defender in chief, made her support clear at an event held two days after the debate debacle.

“Joe isn’t just the right person for the job. He’s the only person for the job,” she said at a New York campaign fundraiser.

She doubled down the next day in a phone interview with Vogue from Camp David, where the president’s family had reportedly gathered for a photo shoot and discussion.

“We will continue to fight,” Jill Biden said of the commander in chief’s political future in a cover story this week for the fashion magazine’s August issue.

President Biden, she said, “will not let those 90 minutes define the four years he’s been president” and “will always do what’s best for the country.”

GOP critics seized on the glossy spread — typically planned months in advance — which featured the first lady posing in a $5,000 Ralph Lauren Collection dress. The New York Post parodied the Vogue piece with its own cover that featured an unflattering photo of the president and the headline “Vague.”

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Since the debate, a chorus of conservative voices have targeted Jill Biden, saying the burden lies with her for the president staying in the race.

“I no longer blame @POTUS Biden for not stepping aside. He no longer has the mental acuity to make important judgments about himself,” billionaire investor Bill Ackman wrote on the social platform X.

“It is becoming increasingly clear however that the fault lies with @FLOTUS Jill Biden,” Ackman said.

The first lady, he argued, “becomes irrelevant the moment her husband is no longer president,” accusing Jill Biden of prioritizing “what is best for herself over her husband’s health and the safety and security of the country at large.”

The Drudge Report splashed an all-caps headline across its front page in the aftermath of the debate, declaring “Cruel Jill clings to power.”

But Michael LaRosa, her former press secretary, pushed back at the first lady’s critics, saying “It’s really unfair to put the burden on her. She’s his spouse. She’s not a politician.”

“It’s not up to her to save the Democratic Party,” said LaRosa, who is now with the lobbying firm Ballard Partners.

“If the party is nervous about their prospects, they need to talk to the president and his political advisers, but not his spouse,” LaRosa said.

Jellison, the Ohio University historian, said most of the criticism against presidential spouses “is still based in a lot of sexist notions about women being ‘the power behind the throne.'”

“If political opponents don’t like a situation, they can portray a first lady as sort of a Lady Macbeth character,” the author said.

“On the other hand, if people like what a first lady is doing, they can always say, ‘Oh, look, she’s standing by her man — the dutiful spouse.’ So I think a lot of commentary regarding first ladies, pro and con, is based in a lot of old-fashioned thinking about the role of a female spouse,” Jellison said.

Elizabeth Alexander, the first lady’s communications director, told ITK that “there’s an inherent tension for all first ladies — one that might be familiar to many women in their lives — you are supportive, but can’t be so supportive that your motives are questioned.”

“Women constantly deal with the delicate balance of speaking up, but not too loudly; do your job well, but do it silently, otherwise you’re too ambitious or power-hungry. Society has put all first ladies, including Dr. Biden, in an impossible situation — with Twitter/X magnifying this on steroids in today’s world,” Alexander said.

Asked this week if the first lady is the only person who could convince President Biden to drop out, one Democratic lobbyist and donor told ITK, “It’s my view, yes. Maybe his sister [Valerie Biden].”

“I don’t think it gets beyond that,” added the source, who asked to remain anonymous. “Somebody in the next circle out. The inner circle is fully the family. The next circle out of Ron Klain, Steve Ricchetti, Bruce Reed, Mike Donilon — those people would be influential in organizing whatever the next step is.”

“The president has plenty of political and policy advisers — that’s never been her role,” Alexander, who also works as the deputy assistant to the president, said of Jill Biden.

At “her core,” said Alexander, “she sees being first lady as an act of service. She wants to be the best first lady she can be, for the American people.”

Navigating the political world is hardly uncharted territory for Jill Biden, who tied the knot with her husband, then a Delaware senator, in 1977. Over the years, she’s crisscrossed the country as a surrogate for her other half, supporting his agenda, campaigns and career while continuing her work as an educator.

Jill Biden has noted she’s sometimes taken matters — and Sharpies — into her own hands when trying to get her message across to her husband.

In her 2019 memoir, “Where the Light Enters,” she recalled how a group of Democratic Party leaders arrived at her doorstep in 2003 to try to persuade her spouse to launch a White House bid.

“They sat themselves down in our living room and spoke to Joe for hours about how he was the only one who could take on President [George W.] Bush. Meanwhile, I was sitting at the pool in my swimsuit, fuming,” she wrote.

“We had already decided that we weren’t running, but people kept insisting on having these meetings with him. So, as party advisors gamed out their strategy for a theoretical run for president, my temper got the best of me,” Biden said.

“I decided I needed to contribute to this conversation. As I walked through the kitchen, a Sharpie caught my eye. I drew NO on my stomach in big letters, and marched through the room in my bikini. Needless to say, they got the message,” she wrote.

Going back to Dolley Madison in the 1810s, first ladies have traditionally played the role of close presidential adviser, Jellison said.

“What’s unique is to have a president this old, and his age being a major issue, and having the first lady advise a president perhaps beyond the political, but advise on health concerns and concerns about historical reputation,” she said.

Yet the position Jill Biden may find herself in isn’t unprecedented. Eleanor Roosevelt “had to have known how ill her husband [President Franklin D. Roosevelt] was, and still apparently advised him to go on for that fourth campaign,” according to Jellison.

When Woodrow Wilson was in his second term and suffered a “debilitating” stroke in 1919, Jellison said, wife, Edith Wilson, “worked to advise him to keep going in office, not to, for instance, resign and let the vice president take over.”

After more than four decades together, the Bidens operate as a unit in championing each other, say those who’ve worked closely with them.

“First and foremost, she’s his wife — of 47 years. She’s been with him through rebuilding a family, two aneurysms, three presidential campaigns, six Senate campaigns, the loss of their son, the heartbreak and grief of family addiction, the brutal 2019 campaign, and running against Donald Trump during COVID in 2020,” Alexander said. “To say they’ve been in foxholes together doesn’t even begin to explain their bond.”

“As much as any husband and wife team make decisions together that impact their lives, they absolutely do, but as she’s said more times than I can count — politics is his lane. She supports his career, and he supports hers,” Alexander said.

“She’s supportive when he makes decisions or when they make decisions together that impact her and the family,” LaRosa said. “Once they make the decisions, they support each other through them.”

“They’re clearly deciding to continue [in the race], and she’s going to be a relentless supporter and backer of his,” LaRosa said.

When President Biden was weighing whether to run for reelection in February 2023, Jill Biden — who made history as the first president’s spouse to hold a full-time job outside the White House — described taking her cues from him and endorsing whichever path he took.

“It’s Joe’s decision,” she said in an interview with CNN. “And we support whatever he wants to do. If he’s in, we’re there. If he wants to do something else, we’re there too.”

That same month, President Biden was asked if he’d be seeking another term.

“Let me ask you the question everyone is asking: Are you running?” ABC News’s David Muir asked the president.

“Well apparently someone interviewed my wife today,” he replied.

“I gotta call her and find out,” he quipped.

Alex Gangitano contributed.

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