A first for a First Lady: Jill Biden will balance her career and East Wing duties

US First Lady Jill Biden will continue teaching writing at Northern Virginia Community College.
US First Lady Jill Biden will continue teaching writing at Northern Virginia Community College.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - After a tumultuous four years, Americans may expect the incoming first lady, Dr Jill Biden, to return the East Wing to a more traditional presence. But before she took office, Dr Biden signalled that she would be bringing her own approach to the job. 

Her second job, anyway.

Dr Biden, who has a doctorate in educational leadership, will continue teaching writing at Northern Virginia Community College, where she taught full time as second lady throughout Barack Obama's administration.

As First Lady, she will be the first to balance her career with public-facing duties, a development her team has downplayed to protect her privacy.

"Dr Biden will keep her teaching at Northern Virginia Community College separate from her public role," said her spokesman, Mr Michael LaRosa.

Dr Biden has also matter-of-factly shrugged off questions about her decision, noting that she did not really think of it in "historic terms" because she had already taught as second lady.

Still, whether or not she publicises it, Dr Biden, 69, will be the first to try such a balancing act and will inherit the scrutiny associated with her newest role. As her modern predecessors have found, although being First Lady of the United States is technically a job without any official responsibilities, the expectations of the president, the White House, American voters and a few thousand journalists must be managed.

In December, Dr Biden's career credentials were challenged weeks before she even set foot in the East Wing, when The Wall Street Journal published an op-ed by writer Joseph Epstein that called for her to drop the honorific from her name.

"Forget the small thrill of being Dr Jill, and settle for the larger thrill of living for the next four years in the best public housing in the world as First Lady Jill Biden," he wrote.

Politely, she declined.

"Together, we will build a world where the accomplishments of our daughters will be celebrated, rather than diminished," Dr Biden wrote on Twitter.

While building her career, teaching at Delaware Technical Community College and later earning her doctorate from the University of Delaware in 2007, Dr Biden supported her husband's ambition but sometimes did not enjoy life in the spotlight.

But Wednesday (Jan 20), Dr Biden arrived at the White House with a higher profile, a platform similar to the one she had as second lady, and an East Wing stocked with aides she trusts. They include Mr Anthony Bernal, a senior adviser who has been with the Bidens since the Obama campaign. Ms Julissa Reynoso Pantaleon, an Obama State Department alumnus, is her chief of staff.

Last week, Dr Biden appointed Ms Rory Brosius, a former Mr Joe Biden campaign adviser, as director for the Joining Forces initiative, a programme supporting military families Dr Biden started with Mrs Michelle Obama when she was First Lady.

Dr Biden is also expected to push for free community college and raise awareness for breast cancer prevention, aides said.

"She's not going to walk in the door and go, 'What's my identity as First Lady?' " Ms Shailagh Murray, a former senior adviser to Mr Joe Biden and Mr Barack Obama, said in an interview. "It's just going to be the first lady version of what she's been doing all along."

Throughout most of Mr Joe Biden's six Senate terms, two terms as vice-president and three runs for the presidency, Dr Biden has been by her husband's side. Aides expect her to take on responsibilities that will continue to be meant to support him, including joining Mr Joe Biden in an attempt to heal the political rift that tore at the fabric of the country during President Donald Trump's time in office.

Dr Biden also will be involved in helping communicate the administration's work on the coronavirus pandemic to the public, aides said.

On Inauguration Day, the pandemic upended the usual in-person celebrations that an incoming administration uses to introduce itself to Washington, including the coming out of sorts that is expected of each First Lady. Dr Biden did not have an inauguration gown, which is customarily donated to the Smithsonian Institution.

Instead, as her husband was sworn in, Dr Biden met the moment in a teal coat by designer Alexandra O'Neill, which came complete with a colour-coordinated face mask.