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Jill Biden Is Chasing the President’s Most Elusive Campaign Promise: Unity

As the president tries to prove that bipartisanship is still possible, the first lady is not standing on the sidelines.

WASHINGTON — The summer was a rough one for President Biden.

Another pandemic surge prompted Mr. Biden, a veteran moderate, to attack Republican governors and embrace vaccine mandates. A bipartisan infrastructure deal hung in the balance. The American withdrawal from Afghanistan, during which 13 service members were killed in a terrorist attack, was criticized as violent and haphazard.

But the events left another Biden feeling bruised.

“I love him, and it’s hurtful,” Jill Biden said in an interview, the first she has granted to a newspaper since becoming first lady. “I do feel the sting of it. I wouldn’t be a good partner if I didn’t.”

Eight months into Mr. Biden’s presidency, both husband and wife are finding that winning the “battle for the soul of the nation” is perhaps his most elusive campaign promise. In Washington, an outrage-driven approach to politics has replaced Mr. Biden’s rose-colored belief that bipartisan deal making can be an art form. As he tries to prove that this is still possible, his wife is not a bystander.

Dr. Biden, an English and writing professor who made history as the only first lady to keep her career while in the White House, has traveled to 32 states, many of them conservative, to promote school reopenings, infrastructure funding, community colleges and support for military families. She has also traveled to states where low numbers of eligible people have received the coronavirus vaccine.

During a trip to Mississippi in June, she told an audience gathered at a community college in Jackson that the state’s 30 percent vaccination rate was “not enough,” and stressed that the vaccines were safe. Later that day, she told a supportive crowd gathered at a distillery in Nashville that only three in 10 Tennesseans were vaccinated. The attendees began booing.

“Well, you’re booing yourselves,” the first lady told them. They quieted down.

Dr. Biden entered the White House with several focus areas, including supporting free community college. The president said this spring that she would be “deeply involved” in the effort to make community college tuition free. So far, she is not deeply engaged in the legislative or policy arenas. After this article was published online on Sunday evening, Elizabeth Alexander, her communications director, said that Dr. Biden’s work to raise awareness on the issue “is a big reason why it’s in the legislative package today.”

“He trusts my intuition as a spouse,” Dr. Biden said in the interview, “not as a policy person or an adviser.”

On Wednesday, she visited Wisconsin and Iowa on a day trip meant to promote the infrastructure deal. She climbed six sets of airplane stairs and participated in photo lines, a bit wobbly on her left foot from an injury over the summer.

“We can’t know what the future holds, but we know what we owe our children,” she told a crowd of parents and teachers at an elementary school in Milwaukee. “We owe them unity, so we can fight the virus, not each other.”

Despite pleas from the Bidens for Americans to overcome their differences during a devastating pandemic, there is evidence everywhere that the country is no more united than it was when Mr. Biden took office: As Dr. Biden graded a stack of essays in her plane cabin on Wednesday, her TV was tuned to a CNN report that said more than half of Americans believe democracy is under attack.

They are sometimes confronted with the reality that Mr. Biden’s decisions have been politically costly. When the first couple met with Gold Star families after a terrorist attack in Kabul last month, some relatives made it a point to publicly embrace former President Donald J. Trump.

The Bidens have grown accustomed to seeing obscenity-laden signs along both of their motorcade routes. When the first lady visited a school in Erie County, Pa., early in the administration, a crowd had gathered outside with a large Biden sign that had been defaced with an expletive.

“They think it makes sense for us to be in this kind of thing, where you ride down the street and someone has a sign?” Mr. Biden complained last week during a visit to Shanksville, Pa. “It’s not who we are.”

It was also the sort of thing that could have drawn a saltier response from Dr. Biden, a veteran campaign spouse, as little as a year ago. More than once she has physically put herself between Mr. Biden and detractors. In February 2020, she rushed a heckler, backing him up and away from her husband. (“I’m a good Philly girl,” the Hammonton, N.J., native told reporters that night.) During a Biden rally a month later in Los Angeles, she physically put herself between a pair of protesters and Mr. Biden.

She is a self-described keeper of family grudges: According to several aides, she was at first reluctant about Mr. Biden choosing Kamala Harris, who attacked him during a primary debate, as a running mate. Dr. Biden has never denied a report that she used an expletive to describe Ms. Harris’s decision to criticize her husband that night, but has said that everyone involved had “moved on.”

Erin Schaff/The New York Times

Neither Biden takes an overly optimistic view that the country’s problems are easily solvable, their advisers say, but both are united in the idea that Mr. Biden is the best-positioned person to try.

“She very much believed he was the right person for the time,” Mike Donilon, one of the couple’s closest advisers, said in an interview. He said that when it came time to make “fundamental decisions about the campaign message and strategy, she was there, and she really brought it to a close.”

When she travels, Dr. Biden makes it a point, she said, to approach people who do not support her husband.

“And maybe after I talk to some of those people, maybe they might have gone home and said to themselves: ‘Hey, you know what? Maybe they aren’t as I perceived them to be,’” Dr. Biden said in the interview.

Sarah Silbiger for The New York Times
Erin Schaff/The New York Times

The classroom is her respite from politics. It was a “simple” decision, she said, to keep teaching, but the school has taken extra precautions to ensure her safety. Students must slip their backpacks through a metal detector before going to class, but beyond that, they have not shown much interest in her political life. She does not know if her students, who are required to wear masks, are vaccinated.

“It’s kind of funny,” she said of her return to the classroom. “My students are really nonplused.”

According to emails obtained by CBS News and, later, The New York Times, she adamantly resisted being promoted as first lady in campus materials for the school, Northern Virginia Community College. “I want students to see me as their English teacher,” she wrote to an employee who wanted to use her role in promotional materials. In communications with campus officials, she also did not want her married name listed on the class schedule. This semester, she is still listed under “J. Tracy.”

As they spent weeks last winter figuring out how to make it possible for Dr. Biden to keep teaching, campus officials, working with White House lawyers, arranged for her to be paid out of a nonprofit fund-raising account to avoid conflicts with the Constitution’s emoluments clause, according to an administration official.

“Jill has her own career separate from whatever duties may have fallen upon first ladies by tradition,” Jimmie McClellan, the dean of liberal arts and Dr. Biden’s supervisor, said in an email.

Unlike other first ladies who have put careers on hold to support their husbands in the White House, Dr. Biden has long juggled competing identities at once. Growing up Jill Jacobs in a suburb of Philadelphia, the future first lady came of age during feminism’s second wave, a time when women were told to put themselves before any potential husband. But she ended up marrying for the first time in 1970 when she was 18, to the owner of a popular Delaware bar. The couple divorced in 1975.

When she married for the second time, to Mr. Biden in 1977, her identity was overshadowed by marrying a public figure whose tragic back story — a car crash that killed his wife and young daughter — required her to put her own life on hold. She stopped her career as a teacher to raise his sons, Beau and Hunter. They later had a daughter, Ashley. Eventually, Dr. Biden found her way back to teaching, and earned a doctorate in educational leadership.

Doug Mills/The New York Times

“I relished the tension of my life,” she said in her 2019 memoir, later writing, “I couldn’t just be his wife.”

Mr. Biden, who calls her “Jilly” and “babe” in public, is exceedingly affectionate with his wife. (In a Rorschach test for the current state of politics, when he picked a dandelion for her on the South Lawn in April, it was greeted with equal parts derision and delight.) Mr. Biden keeps close watch over her travel, to the point where he has been known to call her if he has not heard from her in several hours.

“He has a rule where if she calls or he feels he hasn’t talked to her much that day he will make a point to stop and do it,” Mr. Donilon said, “and there’s nothing to get in the way of it.”

Erin Schaff/The New York Times

In the residence, she rises early to work out, often watching morning news shows, and she is a fan of a boutique barre studio in downtown Washington. The Bidens often meet for dinner — he will often eat pasta, and she prefers grilled fish and a glass of wine — and discuss their days. She often stays up late in the residence grading papers or reading, according to officials familiar with her schedule.

The Bidens returned to the tradition of bringing pets into the White House, including Major, a German shepherd. They have discussed bringing on a cat, but Dr. Biden said Major’s past episodes biting Secret Service officials created a continuing “issue” that has contributed to the feline’s delayed arrival.

“The cat is still being fostered with somebody who loves the cat,” Dr. Biden said. “I don’t even know whether I can get the cat back at this point.”

Erin Schaff/The New York Times

As they become more familiar with the White House, both Bidens find themselves missing the freedoms of life in Delaware, whether it is at their home base in Wilmington or their beach home in Rehoboth. In a Vogue profile published this summer, Dr. Biden described life in the Executive Mansion as “magical.” But after weathering a difficult Washington summer, she said she now sounds more like her husband, who has compared life there to living in a gilded cage.

“When I’m home in Wilmington I just open the door,” Dr. Biden said. “Now when I open a window to the Truman balcony, they have to clear the park for security.”

But there are perks not even the state of Delaware can provide. The White House could soon host first family wedding since the Nixon administration. Naomi Biden, the 27-year-old daughter of Hunter Biden and Kathleen Buhle Biden, recently announced her engagement. Dr. Biden says the White House is not yet the official venue.

“We haven’t been asked yet,” she said.

Steve Eder contributed reporting.

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