Before he performed “Amazing Grace” at President Joe Biden’s inauguration, country singer Garth Brooks joked he might “be the only Republican at the ceremony.”
A late addition to the lineup, Brooks was personally invited by First Lady Dr. Jill Biden. It was a calculated move by a woman with decades of experience in political life, said Professor MaryAnne Borrelli, who was interviewed by CBS News regarding the role of first ladies.
“It meant a lot to have a multi-platinum icon of country-and-western music—known for outreach to conservative whites—perform ‘Amazing Grace’ at the inauguration. It’s this deep story written by the captain of slave trade ship who realizes the horror he has perpetrated. It’s a white sea captain, and it was a white icon of country music up there in his blue jeans and his cowboy hat. There are layers of symbolism,” Borrelli said.
“And Brooks was there because of Jill Biden.”
Borrelli, the Susan Eckert Lynch ’62 Professor of Government, has spent her career studying presidential power and the inner workings of the White House. Early on, she discovered that most researchers had largely overlooked the political influence of the East Wing.
“Historically, first ladies were not understood as officers within the White House,” she said.
But they absolutely are, Borrelli argues in her book, The Politics of the President’s Wife. Her groundbreaking work details the growth in power and organizational complexity of the East Wing from the time of Lou Henry Hoover. The Politics of the President’s Wife solidified Borrelli as a national expert on the role of America’s first ladies.
Wielding powers both formal—she has an office, staff and a budget—and informal, a first lady can serve as a presidential surrogate, a gender role model, a chief communicator, a policy advocate, and a mediator between the president and the public. Like all White House positions, the role has no formal charge but instead is based on “what the president requires, expects and allows,” Borrelli said.
“The presidency is really a two-person job. These people have usually had lengthy careers in politics, so they have that balance figured out,” she said. “The Bidens have been married a long time. He’s been the vice president; she’s had eight years as second lady. So, for Dr. Biden, that box is checked.”
Jill Biden holds a Doctor of Education degree and has enjoyed a long career as an educator. During the Obama administration, she became the first second lady to hold a paying job outside of the White House, teaching writing at Northern Virginia Community College. She has signaled she may continue teaching as first lady.
Security concerns aside, that will be a difficult juggling act, Borrelli said.
“As the first lady, she already has a job—a really demanding job. She’s the chief of an important unit within the White House. But if anyone can do it, it is Jill Biden, because she has seen it and recognized it; and she’s experienced it [before].”
If the first lady continues teaching, will it lend authenticity to her policy proposals or distract from them?
“[President Biden] is working on the pandemic and economy, and education is a pivot point between them—and there’s Jill Biden. If she is able to continue teaching, not only does that satisfy her heart, and her vocation, it gives her on-the-ground credibility,” Borrelli said.
The idea that her multiple roles could distract the public from Dr. Biden’s position as first lady began before President Biden’s inauguration, when Joseph Epstein wrote an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal, arguing that “Dr. Biden” should drop her title of “Dr.” because, Epstein wrote, it “feels fraudulent, even comic”—since her doctorate is in education.
While the op-ed was widely condemned, it reveals the scrutiny under which first ladies operate.
“Dr. Biden’s title rankled, and why did it rankle? She wasn’t tough enough? The only people tough enough to be ‘Doctors’ are white men? But really, that piece was less about Jill Biden and more a master class in ‘let me air all of my [the author’s] insecurities out in public,’” Borelli said.
“The fact that a woman has this title … there are two issues: one, she is inverting the hierarchy that he finds appropriate. The second is that he feels there is some injustice.”
Dr. Biden, the accomplished college professor, and first lady Jill Biden, the mother, grandmother and supportive wife of the president, will appeal to different audiences, Borrelli added. That might help Biden win popular support for her husband, an important part of the job.
“A first lady is a potent communications resource,” Borrelli said. “Jill Biden, whose task will be to … mediate the president’s message to the public, will want to sustain the base but also reach out to moderates and lower the temperature in this ‘uncivil war’ [taking place in our politics]. The ‘first lady’ title can provide some cover for folks [on the moderate right] who are ready ... but want to be reassured. ‘Dr. Biden’ can reach out to others [on the left] who are willing ... as long as the promises aren’t dropped.”
Borrelli is closely watching the new administration to see exactly how power is shared between President Biden, the first lady, Vice President Kamala Harris and Doug Emhoff, the first-ever “second gentleman.” That term “carries a whole bunch of gender, race, class, cultural markers—they are flaming bright,” Borrelli said.
That’s not only because of the obvious disruption to the traditional gender roles, but also because of the Bidens’ long tenure as Washington insiders, and Vice President Harris and Emhoff’s much shorter tenure.
“Usually, the president is a Washington outsider—Trump, Clinton, both Bushes, even Obama was a relative newcomer, for example—and the vice president is the Washington insider who does a lot of the mediating within the Washington community. It’s a division of labor that emerges gradually and consistently,” Borrelli said.
“This administration is different. I have no doubt Harris will be influential, but how will she use and develop political capital and political resources in terms of not overwhelming Biden’s desk? Harris knows [how to] negotiate political divides, and she has a strong and clear sense of her own identity. And next to her, Harris has a white guy. How is he going to present and message and communicate?
“It will be interesting to watch how the gender balance works and how power is distributed across the four in this administration.”
Image credit: Phil Roeder, Creative Commons