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The decider: Jill Biden's unparalleled influence and impact on the president

In an interview with NBC News, Jill Biden discusses the family’s future: whether Joe should run again, and if she’s concerned about the investigation swirling around Hunter.
Photo illustration of first lady Jill Biden, President Joe Biden, stars and stripes.
Chelsea Stahl / NBC News; Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Whenever his aides are pressed about President Joe Biden’s political future, they’ll often point to one person as the true decider: his wife of 45 years, Jill Biden.

She is, after all, her husband’s foremost defender. She guards his interests and dignity, and expects his staff to do no less. Her input is essential in some of the weightiest political and personnel decisions the 46th president confronts. Outside of the president himself, Jill Biden is the single most important voice in a decision that will reverberate through the Democratic Party, the Biden family and the country for years to come: whether her husband seeks a second term in 2024. If Jill doesn’t want him to run again, Joe won’t, the president’s longtime associates say.

Asked in an interview with NBC News on Wednesday about a second term, the first lady made an argument for keeping the president in the job.

“He understands government better than anybody else,” Jill Biden said.

She said she’s not deterred by another vitriolic campaign or the prospect of Republican-led investigations into her family should the GOP win control of Congress in November’s midterm elections. And she was adamant that her son Hunter Biden, who is under federal investigation and is a potential target of congressional probes, has broken no laws.

“Everybody and their brother has investigated Hunter,” she said in her East Wing office. “They keep at it, and at it, and at it. I know that Hunter is innocent. I love my son, and I will keep looking forward.”

Though she won’t explicitly say her husband is running in 2024, the once self-described reluctant political spouse appears an emphatic “yes” when it comes to seeking another four years in the White House.

A senior adviser to the first lady said a 2024 campaign “is something both Dr. Biden and the family fully support.” Jill Biden herself has signaled privately to Democrats, including at recent fundraisers, that her husband is indeed running and that she wants him to do just that, according to people familiar with her comments.

The first lady’s relentless promotion of her husband’s record in office and intense schedule also suggest she’s all-in.

She has traveled more often to more places carrying her husband’s message than has Joe Biden, an NBC News analysis of their respective schedules shows. Along the way, she is reimagining the role of first lady, wielding unparalleled influence across the White House in a manner that defies easy comparison with past presidential spouses, interviews with more than two dozen campaign advisers, White House officials, donors and Democratic operatives show.

She has a playful side, spontaneously hugging aides who cross paths with her and introducing herself as “Jill” when meeting someone new. Yet she’s also protective of her husband and family. That vigilance on her family’s behalf can make her an intimidating figure inside the White House: Aides are mindful that her approval — or disapproval — carries great weight with her husband.

A community college teacher known as a tough grader, she’ll challenge staff to tell the president  hard truths and voice blunt dismay when she feels they’ve failed him, according to aides. She sits in on high-level political meetings and also shapes policy priorities by conveying to her husband what she hears from Americans during her extensive travels.

“I come home with stories,” she said in the interview, noting “that’s the big difference” between her and the president’s aides in the White House.

“They don’t tell him stories,” she said of White House advisers. “They say, ‘We need this’ or ‘We need that.’ I don’t do that.”

One such story led to her husband’s choice for education secretary. Teachers told her during the 2020 campaign that it would be meaningful to have someone in that job who had taught in a classroom. Miguel Cardona had that experience — and was picked for the Cabinet post.

“That’s one of the things I took back to Joe,” she said.

As first lady, Jill Biden also told her husband about children she met who didn’t have food or internet for virtual schooling on Native American reservations.

“Those kinds of things did become policy,” she said. “But I didn’t say to Joe, ‘We need internet.’ It was just the stories of people whose kids couldn’t get their education.”

‘Let Joe be Joe’

The country hasn’t seen a first lady quite like the 71-year-old Jill Biden. She’s reinvented the role by holding down a day job at a community college in northern Virginia while also functioning as a traditional first lady whose portfolio includes military families, health care and education. Less visible is her behind-the-scenes role as a presidential adviser.

“I don’t think he makes any decision of consequence without speaking to her and having her view,” said Ted Kaufman, a former senator from Delaware and a longtime Joe Biden confidant.

The president isn’t expected to announce a final decision on 2024 until after the midterm elections. Until that time, Jill Biden seems to be taking every conceivable step to try to make his presidency a success and retain Democratic majorities in Congress.

“I’m trying to elect Democrats,” she said in Wednesday’s interview. “We’ve got to keep the majority. We’ve got to do it.”

Even the messages coming out of the Democratic National Committee reflect her thinking. 

At a meeting with staff the weekend of Oct. 8, the first lady made an impromptu suggestion. “The DNC should do a T-shirt with all the firsts,” she said, enthusiastically listing her husband’s accomplishments such as picking the first Black, female vice president and the first Black female Supreme Court justice, according to East Wing aides. With that, one of her aides sent an email to the DNC’s executive director passing along the first lady’s idea. Party officials liked it and plan to sell the shirts online, a spokesperson for the DNC said.

She doesn’t have a hand in every consequential decision the president makes. But she prods his staff members not to withhold their advice, asking at times who’s the “truth-teller” in the room bold enough to speak up and tell him something that might raise his ire, according to an aide.

She’s raised concerns with the West Wing when she thinks her husband is being overscheduled, or if she disagrees with how he is being deployed, according to aides — and he does the same, telling the first lady’s staff he worries that she’s overworked. 

She is also adept at subtly steering her loquacious husband back on track or on schedule. She’ll gently grab his elbow when he’s lingering too long with reporters or guests and making them late. If he’s gone off on a tangent in a meeting, she’ll place her hand on his knee to bring him back to the point of the discussion, White House aides noted. 

She’s not a regular presence in the West Wing, though Anthony Bernal, a senior adviser to the first lady, attends the White House chief of staff’s small daily meeting, according to aides.

Still, she’s had an imprint on some of her husband’s most watched moments since his swearing-in.

The first lady was with the president and his advisers in the Oval Office after he’d returned to the White House from a trip to Asia, going over a speech he would deliver that night about a deadly school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, which he had learned about on the flight home.

She listened to the discussion before weighing in, according to multiple officials who were present. It shouldn’t sound like a policy speech, she said, adding that it needed more emotion and empathy, less numbers. The result was a seven-minute speech that led with empathy — something Joe Biden allies see as his biggest asset — and brimmed with emotion as he called for turning pain into action.

Jill Biden is seen as a warm presence in the building. Eager to introduce herself to Gina McCarthy, then the president’s chief climate adviser, she gathered some flowers from a White House garden and brought them to her office, according to White House aides.

Yet she’s also viewed with some trepidation, in part because of her sway with her husband.

She pointedly asked White House staff in January — with her husband in the room — why they hadn’t cut off earlier a nearly two-hour presidential news conference, in which reporters asked unwelcome questions about her husband’s cognitive fitness and Hunter Biden’s business dealings in China, according to three people familiar with the meeting. She quickly received an apology. While the president could have ended the question-and-answer session any time he wanted, that was the last time he held a solo news conference at the White House.

The first lady’s office declined to comment.

The first lady also has expressed frustration when the White House staff has walked back public comments her husband has made, and complained when she thinks White House advisers don’t “let Joe be Joe,” according to people familiar with her comments.

Vanessa Valdivia, a spokesperson for the first lady said, “It’s rare for the first lady to weigh in on staffing issues. She’s more known for lighthearted personal touches.”

‘You can’t take it personally’

The step from second lady to first lady was bigger than Jill Biden imagined, she has said publicly.

She could no longer go for a run on the National Mall, without a swirl of security that would so inconvenience other joggers she didn’t think it was worth it. Instead, she rides the Peloton at home, or attends SoulCycle or barre classes, aides said.

Her students at Northern Virginia Community College, where she’s taught since 2009 when she was second lady, now get a security briefing at the start of every semester, according to aides. And they go through metal detectors before each class. (A consensus opinion on is that the first lady is a tough grader. “She gives A LOT of homework, makes you work for the good grade,” one student wrote last year.)

When the realization of her new security restrictions sunk in, Jill Biden told her staff she didn’t want to become isolated. She asked for a schedule that got her out in the country — red states as well as blue — as much as possible.

“I’m really a first lady for everyone,” she said. “Not just Democrats.”

Since taking office through last weekend, she has held events in nine states her husband has yet to visit. Most on that list are red states like Alaska, Kansas, Mississippi, Tennessee, Utah and West Virginia, where she appeared with Sen. Joe Manchin at a time the centrist Democrat remained a key obstacle to advancing their Build Back Better agenda.

She’s also made four trips to Arizona, a crucial battleground state with a significant Latino population the president has yet to visit.

Journeys outside the protective cocoon of the White House expose her to the vitriol coursing through the nation’s politics. The first lady has been confronted by some fervent supporters of former President Donald Trump in her travels. Sometimes they’ll yell “elder abuse!” at her — a reference to her husband’s age — or protest outside an event she’s headlining, insisting Trump won the 2020 election.

“You’ve got to let it just slide off. You can’t take it personally,” the first lady said of political attacks on her family.

She acknowledges the country hasn’t seen a former president continue to command such a spotlight and said she ignores Trump’s disdainful commentary about her family.

“I don’t pay attention because I just don’t want to hear it,” Jill Biden said. “I don’t want to hear all the ugliness.”

At times the anger is hard to escape. Appearing at a Philadelphia Eagles game Sunday as part of an effort to raise awareness about cancer, she went onto the field. When the announcer said her name over the loudspeakers, the capacity crowd roundly booed. (Eagles fans are notoriously tough, however, having famously booed Santa Claus.)

She’s also taken friendly fire. During a roundtable in Boston in June with potential fundraisers for Building Back Together, an outside group promoting the White House’s agenda, one of the donors sitting next to her — Bain Capital co-chairman Joshua Bekenstein — spoke about how she and her husband had done a lot for the country, and that they could be proud of their service and could leave public life with a great legacy, two people familiar with the matter said. The implication was clear enough: Biden doesn’t need to run for a second term.

The first lady’s office declined to comment on “a closed press event.” Bekenstein did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

The first lady is learning as she goes. In April, she met privately for a couple of hours with a group of historians who’ve studied first ladies, soliciting their ideas on filling the role, aides said. Among the questions she asked was whether she should travel to Capitol Hill more to promote various legislative initiatives. Earlier this year, she started taking weekly Spanish classes via Zoom, aides said.

Among the new projects she’s exploring is a permanent memorial to the more than 1 million Americans who’ve died during the pandemic, aides said. After meeting a woman at a diner in Wisconsin who’d mentioned her father had died from the disease, she told aides that stories from the pandemic should be preserved in some way.

An active partner in her husband’s initiative to reduce cancer deaths, Jill Biden has away from the cameras shown how deeply personal the issue is to them since their son Beau died of brain cancer in 2015 at age 46. (A painting of Beau’s military combat boots hangs in her office.)

At a fundraiser hosted by Dick Harpootlian, former head of the South Carolina Democratic Party, during the 2020 campaign, she spoke to one of the guests who lived next door and learned that the man’s wife had brain cancer. When Harpootlian stood to introduce Jill Biden at the event, he was surprised to see she wasn’t around: She had left and gone to the neighbor’s house to meet the woman who was ill.

“She walked over to meet her and talked to her about what they went through and said that there’s hope,” Harpootlian said.

For all the trappings of the office, she has an informal style.

Raised in the Philadelphia suburbs, the first lady remains loyal to the home teams. As she flew to Orlando, Florida, last weekend for campaign events, her TV on the Boeing 757 was tuned to the Phillies-Braves playoff game. On one evening flight, she passed out glasses of red wine to her staff.

Macarons and fresh-baked cookies awaited reporters who arrived for this interview. Noticing at the end that the baked goods had gone untouched, she urged them to dive in. “Nobody ate their cookies! Everybody stuff their pockets!”

On Sunday night, the first lady sat in the stands at the Eagles-Cowboys football game in Philadelphia, eschewing the fancy indoor club lounges. Drinking a beer and eating a pretzel in the October chill, she cheered when the team made first downs, pausing to take selfies with fans sitting nearby.

Frank McCain, 57, whose son Mac plays cornerback for the Eagles, left his seat to walk over and say hello. He told a reporter afterward that her appearance at the game “shows that the president and the first lady are just like the rest of America. They love football.”

“She’s supporting my son, supporting my team, and supporting family.”