WASHINGTON – Jill Biden barnstormed the country during her debut year as first lady as if on a one-woman mission to help her husband’s administration tackle the problem of the moment: getting people vaccinated and boosted against the deadly COVID-19 pandemic.
New headwinds blowing in year two — President Joe Biden’s low standing with the public and November elections that could put Republicans back in control of Congress — have set her on a fresh mission: working to help elect Democrats who can help her husband.
She’s making no secret of her frustration with Washington.
“Joe truly believes in working with Congress and getting things done, but obviously the Republicans are pulling together and they’re not budging. They are not budging,” the first lady said at one of four fundraisers she headlined in the past month.
“Who would think that AR-15s make any sense for anything? Who doesn’t believe in the need to deal with climate change?” she said at a July fundraiser in Nantucket, Massachusetts, referencing Republican opposition to the president’s call for an assault weapons ban and more spending on climate change.
With school out for the summer, the teacher-first lady was free to travel again in her role as the president’s chief surrogate, highlighting administration accomplishments and showing a more political side while testing possible fall campaign messages before audiences big and small.
She put a voice to the urgency she and the president feel over unfinished aspects of his agenda.
After accompanying him to the scene of deadly mass shootings at a grocery store in Buffalo, New York, and an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, the first lady — a community college professor — urged audiences to demand tougher gun laws from Congress.
“We need to fight, now, for the lives of our children and for the safety of our schools,” she told the National PTA Convention in June, shortly after they visited Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, where 19 pupils and two teachers were killed by a man firing an AR-15.
Congress represents “the will of the people,” she said, “and that’s why we need the people to speak up. Parents and teachers. All of us.”
She raised the gun issue later at the American Federation of Teachers convention in Boston in July, saying that “we believe that AR-15s, the weapon that tore apart 19 children and two teachers in their classroom, have no place on our streets.”
And she turned the Supreme Court’s decision overturning the constitutional right to an abortion into an argument for sending more Democrats to Congress come November. President Biden has promised to sign a bill enshrining the right to an abortion in federal law, but there isn’t enough support for it in Congress, where Democrats have slim majorities.
“All of us have a teacher voice for when things go off the rails and now is the time to use it,” she said in Boston.
In Nantucket, the first lady defended her spouse of 45 years, saying “he’s just had so many things thrown his way” that weren’t expected, including the abortion ruling and Russia’s war against Ukraine.
“He had so many hopes and plans for things he wanted to do, but every time you turned around, he had to address the problems of the moment,” she told a group of about two dozen donors.
She said she also had become “first lady of the moment,” reacting to problems and not pushing her separate agenda.
Tammy Vigil, a Boston University communications professor, said it is typical for a first lady to defend the president and, for that reason, complaints about Republican opposition sound better coming from her than from President Biden. He would risk undermining his authority and appear “whiny” if he were to sound off about GOP roadblocks more often than he has, she said.
“If it’s going to be said, she’s the better person to say it,” said Vigil, who wrote a book about former first ladies Michelle Obama and Melania Trump.
Jill Biden’s summer has been busy — and uncharacteristically bumpy at times.
She went on a pair of solo foreign trips in May, traveling to Romania and Slovakia in eastern Europe to meet Ukrainian refugees. The trip included an unannounced detour into western Ukraine to meet first lady Olena Zelenska. She also traveled through Ecuador, Panama and Costa Rica.
But by June, she had upset AIDS activists by hosting a White House event to unveil a postage stamp honoring first lady Nancy Reagan. Activists noted the Reagans’ indifference toward gays and lesbians at the start of the AIDS crisis, which exploded during Ronald Reagan’s presidency.
Last month, she was forced to apologize, through a spokesperson, for offending Latinos by describing their diversity as “distinct as the bodegas of the Bronx, as beautiful as the blossoms of Miami and as unique as the breakfast tacos here in San Antonio.”
The National Association of Hispanic Journalists tweeted in response: “We are not tacos.”
The first lady was also heckled last month on her way into a Connecticut ice cream parlor. A man in the sidewalk crowd shouted, “Your husband is the worst president we ever had” and “You owe us gas money.” A new CNN poll recorded her favorability rating at a low 34%, though only 29% have an unfavorable opinion of her. An additional 28% said they have no opinion of the first lady and 9% said they hadn’t heard enough of her.
The president’s positive COVID-19 tests have forced the couple to remain apart for about two weeks while he isolates at the White House and she stays at their home in Wilmington, Delaware.
She had welcomed Zelenska to the White House just before the president’s diagnosis.
Jill Biden, 71, is the first first lady to work outside of the White House. She is expected to resume teaching in September and juggle those demands with campaigning. She signed a new contract with Northern Virginia Community College on the morning of her speech to the AFT, she said.
So far this year, she’s done seven fundraisers for the Democratic National Committee, and the party is happy to have her.
“Jill Biden is one of the Democratic Party’s most important surrogates because she drives excitement from grassroots supporters across the country,” Democratic Party Chairman Jaime Harrison said in a statement to The Associated Press. “We’re grateful for the first lady’s commitment to electing Democrats up and down the ticket.”
Robert Watson, a history professor at Lynn University, said modern first ladies have become effective fundraisers in their own right, popular with the party faithful, especially women. He said it would be surprising not to see more of Jill Biden in the runup to the Nov. 8 elections.
“She is a strong defender,” said Watson, who studies the presidency. “Nobody’s interested in asking about her holiday cookie recipe.”
Whatever the outcome, the Bidens still have a happy occasion to look forward to after the election: the first White House wedding in nearly a decade.
Granddaughter Naomi Biden is set to marry Peter Neal on the South Lawn on Nov. 19.