This article is part of the The DC Brief, TIME’s politics newsletter. Sign up here to get stories like this sent to your inbox every weekday.
Jill Biden knows her political value to her husband’s presidential bid. She is a former Second Lady of the United States and is second to none in her ability to introduce Joe Biden as a multi-dimensional human being, breaking away from the frequent caricature of him as a gaffe-prone grandfather. She had taken on some of the portfolio previously filled by the late Beau Biden, especially in letting the former Vice President talk through an issue he already had decided on. She is the gut check when her husband is getting sloppy, cocky or glum. The Jill Biden of 2020 is now fully integrated into the family business she married into back in 1977.
Dr. Biden’s speech tonight at the Democrats’ virtual convention will re-introduce her to the country. It may be a template as to how she would serve as First Lady of the United States, or FLOTUS as the acronym goes. Unlike many of those who came before her, Dr. Biden hasn’t required a reboot or a makeover. From Day One of her husband’s campaign, she has presented herself as she wants to be seen. It’s not quite like the two-fer we got with Bill and Hillary Clinton in 1992, but we’re getting darned close to having a package deal. Having spent eight years in the White House bubble, Dr. Biden knows the paces. That doesn’t mean she’s entirely happy with them.
It’s no accident that she’ll be delivering her remarks live from the very Wilmington, Del., classroom where she taught in the early ‘90s. Around this time last year, after some back and forth as her husband was mid-campaign, the longtime teacher decided that she would return to the classroom for the Fall 2019 semester and her students these days Northern Virginia Community College in suburban D.C. When Winter 2020 came around — with the Biden bid looking like it was in trouble and might turn into a third failure for Joe Biden — Dr. Biden decided to take a sabbatical of sorts and spend her hours in the front of town halls, not writing seminars. It was the first time in close to 40 years she wasn’t carrying around papers to grade.
Dr. Biden — never Mrs. Biden, a title reserved for Joe Biden’s first, late wife — started keeping a public schedule that was busier than her husband’s. She did solo fundraising calls and hired a few more hands to help manage what was increasingly becoming its own political campaign. Her travel schedule was packed and, unlike her husband, she wasn’t taking a private jet to the stops. All the while, she made clear that politics wasn’t for her. In Iowa last year, she told the story how, in 2003, she made a point of walking past a group of Democrats who were trying to get Joe Biden to seek the nomination over a meeting by their home pool. Her outfit: a bikini with the word “no” written on her belly. She’d be there when he ran, but don’t expect her to like it.
Over the last few months, as coronavirus has shifted what it means to campaign, Dr. Biden has kept up that series of public-facing events. Behind the scenes, aides say, she was instrumental in resolving differences in the party platform on education, negotiating a compromise between her husband’s education efforts and those of his former rivals who were further to the Left and pushing free-college-for-all.
The Biden campaign also made Dr. Biden the conduit for unconvinced members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus to vent their frustrations with the Obama-Biden Administration, especially on deportations. She has even started studying Spanish to show respect. She also has developed a deft touch in helping raise support among LGBT voters — a far cry from what I saw one evening following her around a gay bar in Des Moines, Iowa, where she declared it her first such visit. (The campaign later corrected that to note she and the former V.P. had visited the Stonewall Inn in New York City previously.)
Perhaps her biggest thumbprint on the campaign is her role in advising on Sen. Kamala Harris as the V.P. pick. A close friend of their late son, Beau, Harris knew she was interviewing with both of his parents. Harris did a joint cyber-event with Dr. Biden during the process and both women felt good about the outcome. Aides do nothing to downplay Dr. Biden’s role in the selection.
“She’s the first person to talk to him when they wake up and the last one to talk to him before they go to bed. It’s a marriage, so of course, they talk about these things,” says Michael LaRosa, a former MSNBC producer who these days is Dr. Biden’s press secretary.
Her speech tonight at the virtual convention is in her way a milestone on what might be understood as “Jilly 2020,” to borrow the V.P.’s nickname for her. In an introductory video reviewed by TIME, the former Vice President leans into his wife’s identity as an educator. “Teaching is not what Jill does. It is who she is,” Joe Biden says. “Jill just simply cares.”
If Biden does win, don’t expect Dr. Biden to trade the classroom for an office in the West Wing office, a la Hillary Clinton. Dr. Biden taught all eight years that her family lived at V.P.’s mansion at One Naval Observatory Circle. Her small motorcade delivered her to Northern Virginia Community College and her Secret Service detail dressed as students. When students recognized the name, she would simply say that Joe Biden is a relative. If students wouldn’t let up, she’d remind them that she was their teacher while she was on campus.
Even as she worked at the White House on issues facing military families, she often flew on government jets with piles of homework to review. In one case, President Barack Obama stopped to say hello to her while the pair flew to a community college in Michigan, only to find her with a red Sharpie in hand. Michelle Obama told an interviewer in 2016 that she often forgot that Dr. Biden still had a day job.
Dr. Biden has said she would return to campus even if her husband prevails. Professor FLOTUS would be a new one, but Dr. Biden has shown that while she respects norms and ceremony, she’s not one to be limited by them. On the eve of the New Hampshire primary, we were in a school gym in Manchester when a man started to heckle the former V.P. Dr. Biden rose from her seat 28 second later, walked around the stage and physically blocked the interruption. A month later, Dr. Biden grabbed the wrists of vegan protesters who had jumped onto stage in Los Angeles. Her explanation? “I’m a good Philly girl,” Dr. Biden told reporters.
Let’s see what that Philly girl brings to her biggest political night yet.
Make sense of what matters in Washington. Sign up for the daily D.C. Brief newsletter.
Get our Politics Newsletter. The headlines out of Washington never seem to slow. Subscribe to The D.C. Brief to make sense of what matters most.
For your security, we’ve sent a confirmation email to the address you entered. Click the link to confirm your subscription and begin receiving our newsletters. If you don’t get the confirmation within 10 minutes, please check your spam folder.
Write to Philip Elliott at email@example.com.