Day One in Office: What We Can Expect From First Lady Dr. Jill Biden

Day One in Office: What We Can Expect From First Lady Dr. Jill Biden
Before her term even began, Dr. Jill Biden promised to revive the Joining Forces program for military families, launched by then-Second Lady Dr. Biden and former First Lady Michelle Obama. (@DrBiden / Twitter / Amanda Lucidon)

“I’m a teacher. That’s who I am,” Dr. Jill Biden declared on the campaign trail, giving Americans a glimpse into what life in the White House would look like come January. 

The statement made headlines, because continuing her work as an English professor at Northern Virginia Community College will make Biden the only first lady to simultaneously maintain a career outside the White House.

Dr. Biden has made clear her commitment to her profession, and to her children and grandchildren—proving a first lady or first gentleman doesn’t need to sacrifice any of those in order to make a political difference.

So what else can we expect from a working first lady, one who has already made feminist history before even taking office?

Advocating for Military Families

Biden’s career, though demanding, certainly hasn’t detracted from her political ambitions. Before her term even began, she promised to revive the Joining Forces program for military families, and named transition team member and senior adviser Rory Brosius as its director.

The initiative, launched by Dr. Biden and former First Lady Michelle Obama, will continue with its mission under the Obama administration, which was to provide crucial resources to those currently serving, as well as their families and veterans. These services include employment, education and wellness opportunities. Brosius stressed that Joining Forces is a crucial initiative, and “military families still need support.”

“We’re going to build on what we learned during the Obama-Biden administration. We’ll continue to listen and work with you, making sure that your experiences and expertise are the North Star of this effort,” Biden said on a Jan. 14 call with several military-oriented organizations.

Her early action comes as no surprise, given the Bidens’ first-hand experience as a military family. Their son Beau Biden died from brain cancer at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in 2015 at the age of 46, having served in Iraq as a major in the National Guard. Dr. Biden is a self-proclaimed “proud Army mom,” and has promised to center military families in her work as First Lady.

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Beyond reviving Joining Forces, she has also helped military spouses get hired through the Department of Defense’s Military Spouse Employment Partnership. And during her time as second lady, drawing from her experience as a professor, she led “Educate the Educators,” an initiative in which colleges nationwide pledged to accommodate students with military connections. After leaving office, the Bidens continued to raise funds for military families through their foundation.

“We know that many future service members come from military families. So family readiness is integral to mission readiness, both now and in the future. This cannot be an afterthought. It is a national security imperative, and it should be resourced and supported as such,” Joe Biden’s campaign website states, promising to continue and expand on work that began under the Obama administration, with much participation from the First Lady.

An Educator in the White House

“For America’s educators, this is a great day. You’re going to have one of your own in the White House,” Joe Biden said in his Nov. 9 victory speech, referring to the future First Lady.

Although Dr. Biden’s platform on education is less clear from her past work, it’s evident that she values it highly and seeks reforms to make higher education more accessible. For example, Dr. Biden has spoken frequently on the importance of free, or debt-free, public college:

“College Promise means so much to me. Five years ago, the idea was as simple as it was transparent. Every hardworking student should have the chance to go to community college for free. That promise has never been more important,” Biden said at a symposium sponsored by College Promise, which aims to provide free college to students in need. “Joe and I will stand by you in those efforts.”

As a community college professor herself, she said, “What I’ve seen at every community college along the way is the story of hope.” Fellow educators say they believe Dr. Biden will be an advocate for teachers and students in the White House, whether or not they have family members in the military or are attending a four-year university.

“You can see she has shared the experiences we’ve had,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. ”She’s been the instructor at the blackboard coaxing the answers out of our kids. She hears us. She feels us. She knows us.”

“While it’s obviously too early to know how things will play out, campus leaders are understandably excited about having Dr. Biden in such a position, particularly since she has done so much to enhance understanding and appreciation of the colleges,” said American Association of Community Colleges senior vice president David Baime, who heads up government relations and policy analysis.

A Team Ready to Get to Work

To ensure she can carry out her ambitious agenda and revive former initiatives while simultaneously working as a professor, Biden needs a powerhouse team of advisors and directors. 

Her staff in the White House includes several highly qualified women, such as her chief of staff Julissa Reynoso, a former U.S. ambassador and deputy assistant secretary of state; communications director Elizabeth E. Alexander, who had previously served as Joe Biden’s press secretary; and policy director Mala Adiga, who spent several years serving the federal government before becoming director for higher education and military families at the Biden Foundation.

“The incoming Biden-Harris administration has a bold vision for our country that will build our nation back better than before. These skilled, diverse and incredibly talented and committed appointees to the First Lady’s Office will work tirelessly for American families. I am proud to have them join our White House team,” Reynoso said.

Dr. Biden expressed pride in her staff and its most recent additions just days before taking office, saying she looks forward to incorporating their wide-ranging perspectives into her work as First Lady.

“With their varied and diverse backgrounds, these dedicated and accomplished public servants bring a shared commitment to building an administration that lifts up all Americans,” said the first lady. “Together, we will work to open the White House in new, inclusive and innovative ways, reflecting more fully the distinct beauty of all our communities, cultures and traditions. I am proud to announce these individuals and look forward to working alongside them each and every day.”

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Sophie Dorf-Kamienny is a junior at Tufts University studying sociology and community health. She is a Ms. contributing writer, and was formerly an editorial fellow, research fellow and assistant editor of social media. You can find her on Twitter at @sophie_dk_.