Jill Biden is thriving as Kamala Harris languishes

Many of the US president’s signature proposals have long been priorities of his wife

The woman with real influence in the White House is the first lady, Jill Biden. Photograph: Carolyn Kaster/AP Photo

The woman with real influence in the White House is the first lady, Jill Biden. Photograph: Carolyn Kaster/AP Photo

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Remember when it was confidently proclaimed that a vote for Joe Biden was a vote for President Harris? Allegedly, Joe Biden would simply keep the presidential seat warm for Kamala Harris in 2024. Until then, she would be the power behind the throne. Reinforcing the narrative, Donald Trump, who has the ability often associated with schoolyard bullies to pick the most damaging of nicknames, called him Sleepy Joe.

At this stage of Biden’s presidency, that has been revealed as fantasy. The real woman with power in the White House is not Kamala Harris, but Jill Biden. Many of Joe Biden’s signature proposals have long been priorities of his wife. It is hard not to see her influence in two free years of preschool and two free years of community college, and supports for women to return to the workforce. (Dr Biden has continued to teach English at Northern Virginia Community College, the only first lady in history to continue paid work outside the White House.)

Meanwhile, Harris has been given two major assignments. The first is to get to the roots of the migrant crisis and solve it. Thirty-odd years of American domestic policy and the negative consequences of globalisation would be beyond the most competent vice-president to solve, and Harris has hardly been that. She is not the only one announcing to potential migrants: Do not come! Nonetheless, as the first Black and first South Asian woman to be vice-president, who also has two immigrant parents, there is a particular “ouch” factor.

The second assignment is voting rights, a responsibility for which she apparently asked Biden. As of June 21st, 17 states have enacted 28 new laws that restrict access to the vote, mostly restrictions on voting by mail or requiring stricter voter ID. (Several states have also enacted more expansive laws, too.)

Perhaps Biden believes that a period of struggle is good for Harris, who is relatively inexperienced

Even with a recent announcement of a $25 million voting-rights campaign, Harris is stuck between Democrats who are likely to criticise any achievements as too meagre and Republicans accusing her of trying to gerrymander elections.

Furthermore, at the end of June, several critical pieces were published about Harris’s team, especially Tina Flournoy, her chief of staff. For example, a Politico headline read: “‘Not a healthy environment’: Kamala Harris’ office rife with dissent.”

Perhaps Biden believes that a period of struggle is good for Harris, who is relatively inexperienced. Or perhaps he is cynical enough to treat her as a mudguard.

Shambolic bid

Could it be a case of keeping your friends close but your enemies closer? During her shambolic bid for the Democratic nomination, Harris attacked Biden for working with two former senators who supported segregation, and for failure to support busing for integrated education. She did begin by saying she did not believe he was racist.

Jill Biden later said that Harris’s comments were like a punch in the gut. 

Joe Biden also went through an initially difficult period as vice-president. It took a long time for the bromance between Obama and Biden to materialise. Obama still endorsed Hillary Clinton, not Biden, in 2016, and only endorsed him very late in the day in 2020.

Jill Biden is strongly pro-choice, declaring that she is of the generation who fought for Roe v Wade

But as Harris flounders, the projects closest to Jill Biden’s heart are being promoted. One of her most attractive qualities is that she is fanatical about education. During a preschool visit with the Duchess of Cambridge during the G7 summit, Biden said that as a teacher at higher level, it was clear to her how much children suffered if they did not have a good foundation.

Biden has prioritised community colleges since her time as second lady and the opportunities that they offer to poorer students. Similarly, she believes strongly in state-funded childcare and focusing on opportunities for working-class families to enter the middle class and stay there. 

Share priorities

Joe Biden makes much of his hard-scrabble upbringing in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and it is not surprising that people married for more than 40 years would share priorities, but both the American Jobs Plan and the American Families Plan have Jill Biden’s fingerprints all over them. 

The former aims to invest in infrastructure, provide decent jobs and help the US to outcompete China. The latter aims to help families cover basic expenses and reduce the scandalous levels of child poverty in the US.

It is not clear whether his wife’s influence or Harris’s was more important in the decision to drop the Hyde amendment. For more than 40 years, this amendment prevented federal money from being spent on abortion. Until 2019, Joe Biden supported it. Jill Biden is strongly pro-choice, declaring that she is of the generation who fought for Roe v Wade. Tragically, the Weldon amendment which protects conscience rights re abortion is also being dropped.

Public visibility

There are still worries about Joe Biden’s propensity for gaffes, including mixing up Syria and Libya during the G7 conference when speaking about Russia. Nonetheless, his team has managed to keep him on message in a way that Obama’s team could only dream of, mostly by limiting his public visibility. As Harris languishes, Jill Biden’s public profile, as one of the president’s strongest assets, is increasing all the time.

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