When Barack Obama won the presidency, many tipped a hat to Michelle Obama, his wife and partner, including Barack Obama himself. It was true in 2008 that the candidate was a smart man, a gifted orator and an exceptional politician as he broke through to become the first Black president of the United States. But he could not have done it without Michelle Obama.
That’s my take, anyway.
The African American women who not only voted for him in droves but registered first-time voters and spread the word in their social groups and meeting spaces may not at first have been that familiar with the first-term senator from Illinois, but they immediately recognized the woman at his side, a child of the South Side of Chicago who wore her Princeton and Harvard Law credentials lightly.
When Obama was sometimes characterized as “aloof,” the first lady was there to keep the first couple’s persona very down to earth. She continued to draw crowds and admiration after she left the White House, when her autobiography “Becoming” made every best-sellers list. On his tour for his own memoir, “A Promised Land,” the former president, of course, gets asked questions about Michelle Obama; he answers, with a smile.
Joe Biden is set to follow his onetime boss into the White House in January. And, under the Obama model, the president-elect is also sharing the spotlight with a strong and independent partner. Like Obama, he doesn’t seem to mind one bit; Joe Biden realizes that Dr. Jill Biden is definitely an asset.
‘Living out her calling’
Dr. Biden, who worked as a community college professor when she was second lady, plans to be a first lady with a day job. Known as “Dr. B” to her students, she might find it a little more difficult to maintain a low profile. She has already made speeches to education groups, including opening remarks for the College Promise Careers Institute, highlighting the importance of education beyond high school and workforce training. (She is a former honorary chair of College Promise.)
While current first lady Melania Trump has so far not planned the traditional tea welcoming her, Dr. Biden has had eight years of experience working alongside Michelle Obama as they tackled issues, including launching Joining Forces, an initiative to support servicemembers, veterans and their families. She has experience as a military mom as well.
I realized the future first couple’s appeal to many voters as a package deal when I attended a rally in Charlotte, North Carolina, the weekend before the election. The crowd was masked and socially distanced while sitting in or on top of their cars. Comedian Amy Schumer was the opening act, but Dr. Biden was the star, as she presented a vision of life after Donald Trump, when “the headline isn’t about some late-night tweetstorm.”
“I love Jill Biden,” said Nicole Arnold, a Charlotte attorney. As second lady, Biden “was sincere about teaching and living out her calling,” she said. Arnold’s friend and car companion Lisa Brown, a laid-off flight attendant who started her own virtual assistant business, was excited about attending her first political rally. To her, the Bidens “stand for all the Christian values I stand for.”
Dr. Biden was warm yet tough in her remarks, which called to mind the moment on the campaign trail when she stood between her husband and an enthusiastic protester who tried to jump onto the stage in Los Angeles. “Jilly from Philly,” Biden senior adviser Symone D. Sanders, who made a timely block on that occasion, tagged her.
Sanders, who went from supporting Bernie Sanders in 2016 to Biden this cycle, is another strong woman on the Biden team, a young adviser whose honest relationship with the president-elect was clear as she served as spokesperson on many TV appearances.
The room where it happens
This week, Biden named some who will staff his new administration, among them Jennifer O’Malley Dillon, his former campaign manager, as deputy chief of staff. As it’s shaping up so far, the new team, including an expertise-heavy COVID-19 task force, is notable for its diversity.
While that’s not necessarily a sign of policies to follow, it highlights the people who will be in the room and in the president’s ear. After four years of a phalanx of predominantly male, predominantly white advisers and appointees surrounding Trump, who has bragged about eliminating diversity training in the federal government and halting DACA, it will be a change.
That the last voice in that room talking with the new president will belong to Vice President-elect Kamala Harris is a sort of Rorschach test for Americans facing a changing nation. Harris is known for being straightforward and incisive, whether she is questioning attorneys general and Supreme Court aspirants or criticizing the past views of a primary opponent (in this case, Joe Biden) on busing.
To Trump, and those who support his views, a strong woman is a threat to be dismissed and insulted, regardless of party (think of Republican Carly Fiorina, a victim of the president’s disapproving gaze who voted for his opponent this time around). However, if you tote a gun and spout QAnon conspiracies, like incoming Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, you may pass muster.
Trump could not believe Biden chose as his governing partner someone who had called him out, which doesn’t mean what I think Trump wanted it to mean, especially after he used his favorite epithet for outspoken women — “nasty” — to describe her.
Choosing a governing partner who will challenge rather than comply is a sign of strength rather than weakness.
Those looking to a brighter future viewed Biden’s promise to name a female vice president not as limiting the field but expanding it, and thought, “About time.” To those who supported Biden’s vision, it was liberating to hear his pledge to appoint a Cabinet that looks like America and to name a Black woman to the Supreme Court (if he gets a pick that Mitch McConnell doesn’t slip into his back pocket). It was acknowledging that Biden knows he owes a lot to the efforts of Black female activists of every age.
While millions once again endorsed the faux masculinity of Trump’s bluster, millions more rejected it. And come January, along with Joe Biden, they will get Dr. Jill Biden, the teacher, at a time when so many parents are struggling with keeping children safe and educated during a pandemic.
Not to take anything away from how Melania Trump has chosen to define her role, but it does seem fitting that the woman Joe Biden credits with healing their family after tragedy will be beside him as he tries to fulfill his pledge to heal the nation.
Dr. Biden will bring her own style and substance — and no doubt some surprises — to the White House.
Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer, as national correspondent for Politics Daily, and is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.