NEW YORK - Jill Biden will offer a personal glimpse into her family’s struggles and vouch for her husband’s ability to lead the nation through adversity during remarks at the Democratic National Convention on Tuesday night.
“There are times when I couldn’t imagine how he did it — how he put one foot in front of the other and kept going. But I’ve always understood why he did it. ... He does it for you,” she’ll say in her speech, according to advance remarks.
During their decades in public life, both Jill and Joe Biden have faced considerable personal loss. Shortly after getting elected as a senator, in 1972, Biden’s first wife and infant daughter were killed in a crash, leaving him to raise his two sons alone. He married Jill about four years later, but the two faced tragedy together when Biden’s son Beau died of brain cancer in 2015.
Both speak openly on the campaign trail about the challenges they’ve experienced, and Mrs. Biden will speak about what it takes to “make a broken family whole”: “The same way you make a nation whole. With love and understanding — and with small acts of compassion.”
Mrs. Biden will also speak about her work as a teacher, which she has characterized as foundational to her life. She’s delivering the speech from her former classroom at Brandywine High in Wilmington, Delaware, and will describe “the anxiety that echoes down empty hallways.”
The speech is Jill Biden’s biggest yet and marks a considerable evolution for a woman who is a self-described introvert and initially a reluctant political wife. In her memoir, she writes of giving her first political speech and having no desire to “give any speeches, anytime, anywhere — just the thought of doing so made me so nervous I felt sick.”
But after eight years as the vice president’s wife, and then giving speeches and appearing at events after her husband left office, Jill Biden has become one of her husband’s most prominent surrogates. She has appeared in virtual events in more than 17 cities since May and is one of the campaign’s primary surrogates to Latino voters, headlining town halls and holding frequent calls with members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
In one week this month, Jill Biden appeared at a science-focused fundraiser, an event with Joe Biden’s faith coalition and a gathering focused on LGBTQ youth, speaking with emotion and fluency about her husband’s plans for each constituency.
She’s also one of his most protective surrogates, a quality she writes about in her memoir — and one that was on full display during a Super Tuesday speech Joe Biden gave in March when a handful of protesters rushed the stage. Jill moved between the protesters and her husband, pushing a protester away.
As Joe Biden commuted from Delaware to Washington while serving as a senator, Jill Biden built a career as a teacher, ultimately earning two master’s degrees and then a doctorate in education from the University of Delaware in 2007.
Along the way, former coworkers say, Jill Biden, 69, became one of her husband’s most valuable political advisers, someone whose opinion was paramount in most of his biggest decisions, both political and personal. She was skeptical of his 1988 presidential campaign but pushed him to run again in 2008, according to her memoir.
After Joe Biden became the presumptive nominee this year, she played a prominent role in auditioning many of the vice presidential candidates, appearing with them at various events. During a recent interview on CBS, Jill Biden acknowledged that she and her husband “talked about the different woman candidates.”
“But it’s gotta be Joe’s decision,” she added.
But those who know Jill Biden best say she’s slightly perplexed at being called one of her husband’s most significant “advisers,” insisting that her relationship with her husband is far deeper and more nuanced than such a label would suggest.
“He’s got plenty of political advisers. That’s not what she is,” said Cathy Russell, who was Jill Biden’s chief of staff during the Obama administration and is now a vice chair on the campaign. “She is his spouse, and she loves him, and she talks to him about all sorts of things, but she has a unique role, and it’s not being a political adviser. That’s not her thing.”
Jill Biden does remain one of her husband’s closest confidants — particularly now, at a time when both Bidens are largely confined to their Wilmington home because of the coronavirus pandemic. Aides say the Bidens often pass each other in the halls during the day as they head from a briefing to a virtual event to a fundraiser.
“They see each other a lot, but there’s a lot of passing and crossing each other. In the evening they try to sit together and just kind of regroup and chat about things,” Russell said. “They’ve got grandkids and kids and two dogs. They’ve got family and lives that are sort of spinning around them, and I think they just try to always find time for each other.”
But the resistance to being called an “adviser” on Biden’s team reflects Jill Biden’s persistent and successful efforts to carve out her own career and identity independent of her husband’s political ambitions, something she prioritized even during his time in the Senate.
“They lived in Delaware always, through all those Senate campaigns, and she had her own life. She was raising her children, she was teaching, she was going to school at night at different times,” said Russell. “She was never a part of the Washington scene. That political life just wasn’t her life.”
Jill Biden continued to teach at a community college while her husband was vice president, against the advice of aides at the time.
“Being a teacher is not what I do but who I am,” she wrote in her memoir, describing “scrambling into a cocktail dress and heels” in the bathroom at her school to make it to a White House reception, or grading papers on Air Force Two, with relish.
Indeed, she has said she plans to continue teaching if she becomes first lady.
As longtime friend and teaching colleague Mary Doody described it, the classroom offers Jill Biden a bit of an escape.
“When you’re in a classroom, for an hour and a half or two hours or however long you’re with those students, it’s just you and them, and you build this rapport. It’s like you build a little family,” Doody said. “And I think that’s why it’s so important for her to teach.”
Aides say she’ll continue to advocate for many of the same issues she championed as the vice president’s wife if she returns to the White House as first lady. During her eight years in the Obama administration, she focused on military spouses and families, advocated for community colleges and sought to raise awareness around breast cancer prevention.