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Government

Why First Lady Jill Biden’s Visit To WV Is Important

Jill Biden spoke to NPR about her new book and her husband Joe Biden's recent overture to Anita Hill. "He apologized for the way the hearings were run. And so now it's kind of — it's time to move on," she said.
Jill Biden

First lady Jill Biden is visiting West Virginia Thursday. While she’s been called “a key figure to push White House plans” by the political website, The Hill, how much power does the first lady really have?

Robert Watson, a Distinguished Professor of American History at Lynn University, has written books about first ladies.

Watson says while it’s not an elected position, it's an extra constitutional office.

“She is without statute. She's not even paid, so in that respect, it's wide open,” Watson said. “However, first ladies have had a staff of between 10 and 20. She has a budget. She has office space in the East Wing of the White House and office space in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.”

Watson says the first lady’s role comes from three things; public expectation, the historical traditions of the office, and the nature of the marriage to her husband.

“Public expectations of the first lady -- it’s damned if she does and damned if she doesn't,” Watson said. “They have to walk a fine line and find that medium in terms of public opinion.”

President Bill Clinton, First Lady Hillary Clinton looking on, addressed the Monica Lewinsky scandal in January 1998.
President Bill Clinton, First Lady Hillary Clinton looking on, addressed the Monica Lewinsky scandal in January 1998.

He adds: “The nature of the marriage, if you look at, you know, the Clinton marriage, or the Roosevelt marriage, as strange as it was, Bill Clinton, FDR did value their wives. Even though they had affairs, they saw their wives for what they were, as really impressive people.”

Jill Biden is expected to visit the Yeager Airport in Charleston, then onto Capital High School where a vaccine clinic is being held. Joining her is West Virginia native Jennifer Garner, an actor and philanthropist.

Jennifer Garner
Cliff Owen

Watson says the state visit is more than just optics.

“For most presidencies, the first lady is even more popular than her husband,” Watson said. “The first lady can be an effective messenger because she is popular. She also has the added advantage as sort of the unspoken rule with the media that with the president, anything goes, but with the first lady, they're usually treated with softer questions.”

The office comes without a playbook, but first ladies typically get involved with causes that are in the public interest.

“First ladies are expected in modern times to have what we often call a pet project,” Watson said. “I've interviewed a half dozen first ladies and every one of them hated that term. They prefer that to be called a social project.”

Watson says the American people should be aware of the first lady’s political and policy views.

“What spouse doesn't play a role in their spouses’ career and life choices and serious-decision making,” Watson said. “Having said that, in a democracy, of course, power is not supposed to be vested in a wedding band. The first lady is unelected, unappointed, unpaid, and in a way, unaccountable.”

Watson said a visit from Biden will bring attention to some of her social platforms. Among those, owing to her career as a community college professor, is education.

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden joins his wife Jill Biden in a classroom after her address to the virtual Democratic National Convention on Tuesday.
Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden joins his wife Jill Biden in a classroom after her address to the virtual Democratic National Convention on Tuesday.

“By this kind of spotlight on West Virginia, and on Joe Biden, whatever she says is going to resonate,” Watson said. “I can imagine how many households across (West Virginia) the next day after they read your piece and 20 other pieces, people are going to say, ‘so what do you think about her proposal for free college education?’ or ‘yeah, we do need to take better care of military families.’”

Watson also points out that West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin will play a key role in American government and politics, and without Manchin, Biden’s plans won’t likely pass in Congress.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., speaks during a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing Tuesday on President Biden's massive infrastructure and jobs plan. Manchin's position in the Senate means he will have a lot of say on whether the package includes everything the Biden administration wants, and on how to pay for it.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., speaks during a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing Tuesday on President Biden's massive infrastructure and jobs plan. Manchin's position in the Senate means he will have a lot of say on whether the package includes everything the Biden administration wants, and on how to pay for it.

“Jill Biden is there because the Senate is 50/50,” Watson said. “Biden has three, four or five major pieces of his agenda coming down this year. He's got to get them in this year before the midterm elections of 2022. And Joe Manchin is the single most-important vote in the entire United States Congress. And if Jill can get the people of West Virginia on her side for infrastructure, for cancer research, for health care, for all these issues, then that might prompt Manchin to support Biden's agenda. If he doesn't, this thing is gone.”

Watson adds that Biden is the first American first lady in history to keep her day job along with her role as wife of the president. He said it’s another step towards gender equality and the election of America’s first female president, and in turn the first gentleman.

Reach reporter Jessica Lilly at jlilly@wvpublic.org


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