Nuevo Culture

A First Lady for All of Us: On the Road with Dr. Jill Biden

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When Jill Biden visits community colleges, which is a lot these days, she is received in highly choreographed settings by a governor, say, or members of the public as the nation’s first lady. But to administrators and teachers, she is Dr. Jill Biden, college professor. At Sauk Valley Community College in Illinois, there were pink and white flowers set out everywhere, befitting her visit; they even matched her white dress and pink jacket. But there was also a “Welcome Dr. Biden” sign so huge that the period on the Dr. was as big as her head. It felt like a subtle rebuke to that scolding she was subjected to back in December for using the title she has every right to.

Indeed, in all the places she goes lately she is honored as a woman with several degrees who has worked really hard her whole life at the most relatable job there is. Everyone has a favorite teacher, after all. On her visit to the Navajo Nation in April, Dr. Biden was introduced by someone I came to think of as the Ruth Bader Ginsburg of Indian Country: chief justice of the Navajo Nation Supreme Court JoAnn Jayne, a tiny woman with hair pulled back in a tight ponytail, wearing Doc Martens: “Dr. Biden, millions reap inspiration from your quote ‘Teaching isn’t just what I do; it is who I am.’ ” In Birmingham, Alabama, she was introduced by a lawyer, Liz Huntley, a sexual-abuse survivor whose parents were drug dealers. “I want to thank Dr. Biden from the bottom of my heart for the role that she plays not just as the first lady…but for her heart for educating. She told me she’s grading papers on the plane, y’all! What? Who does that?! You know, they say being an educator is a calling…in your life that you can’t resist, and she just won’t let it go.”

Photographed in the East Sitting Hall of the White House. Ralph Lauren blouse and skirt. Fashion Editor: Tonne Goodman.
Photographed by Annie Leibovitz, Vogue, August 2021

The December debate over titles seems awfully small in the face of all of this: Jill Biden opening schools, visiting vaccination sites, traveling to red states to sell the American Rescue Plan, telling folks that “help is here.” The role she’s fulfilling on these visits is, in many ways, neither first lady nor professor but a key player in her husband’s administration, a West Wing surrogate and policy advocate. “An underestimated asset,” as Mary Jordan, the Washington Post reporter who’s written a book about Melania Trump, put it to me. “It’s hard to imagine Joe doing this without her.”

Which is not to say that Dr. Biden, who is constitutionally shy, doesn’t take special delight in these visits. She becomes looser, goofier, and more expansive. You generally hear her before you see her because she is often laughing. She is, quite simply, a joy multiplier. As part of her elevator pitch for free community college—part of the $1.8 trillion American Families Plan President Biden proposed to Congress in April—she likes to talk about one of her most dedicated students, a military interpreter from Afghanistan who came to America to start a new life. “A few semesters ago…I got a text from her—it was like six o’clock in the morning. ‘On my way to the hospital to have my baby, research paper will be late.’ To which I replied, Excuses, excuses.” It gets a big laugh, even from the jaded press corps.

No one thought she could keep teaching. “I heard that all the time during the campaign,” she told me. “Like, ‘No. You’re not going to be able to teach as first lady.’ And I said, ‘Why not? You make things happen, right?’ ” But as I traveled with Dr. Biden through much of April, I saw just how much time her day job took up: In Albuquerque, New Mexico, the entire retinue of staff, Secret Service, and press held at our hotel until well into the afternoon, when the motorcade finally hit the road for a nearly three-hour drive and a long evening of events in Arizona—because Dr. B was teaching her classes over Zoom. On a trip to Illinois, her motorcade sped toward the airport as if there weren’t a second to waste. Because there wasn’t: Jill had to teach!

Meanwhile, countless editorials began marking the first 100 days of the Biden administration, many expressing surprised relief over how much was getting done, how much legitimately helpful policy was moving through the system, how little drama, how few flubs or fumbles or ugly fights. Joe Biden is boring—and that’s not a complaint. One day, I asked Dr. Biden about the mood of the country. “During the campaign, I felt so much anxiety from people; they were scared,” she told me. “When I travel around the country now, I feel as though people can breathe again. I think that’s part of the reason Joe was elected. People wanted someone to come in and heal this nation, not just from the pandemic, which I feel Joe did by, you know, getting shots in everybody’s arms. But also…he’s just a calmer president. He lowers the temperature.”

Part of what makes the Bidens’ right-out-of-the-gate successes so extraordinary is that they seem to have perfectly read the room: We have been through this enormous, collective trauma, and here’s a calm, experienced, empathetic president, and here’s a first lady who is driven, tireless, effortlessly popular, but also someone who reminds us of ourselves. She’s selling a new vision for how our most fundamental institutions ought to work—infrastructure, education, public health—even as she goes to extraordinary lengths to keep a real-world job, to stay in touch with what makes her human and what matters most.

Now it is May, an unseasonably hot Tuesday afternoon, and I’m sitting with Dr. Biden under a white trellis in the Jacqueline Kennedy Garden, just outside the East Wing of the White House. She is wearing a red dress and red pumps. Finals were last week; the semester is over. Phew. Today—teacher-appreciation day, as it happens—is the first Tuesday since moving into the White House that she did not have her writing class (one of three she taught this semester at Northern Virginia Community College). She already misses her students, who were, for whatever reason, mostly men this semester. “Maybe two months ago they said, ‘Hey, Dr. B…. Can we ask you a question?’  ” I said yeah. They said, ‘When we write in our journals, can we curse?’  ”

They were worried it was inappropriate because you’re the first lady?

“I don’t know what they thought! We never said the words first lady ever. So I said, ‘Yes, you can curse.’ Because I tell them they can write anything. And here they are, these young men, like, ‘Yes! We can curse!’ I loved that. After that class, I felt…good. I’ve achieved what I wanted to achieve: They see me as their English teacher.”

Protecting this part of her life is “an underappreciated big deal,” says the journalist Evan Osnos, author of the recent Joe Biden: The Life, the Run, and What Matters Now. “Because, you know, the isolation and the seclusion and the degree to which that job messes with your head…it’s real. So to be able to step out of that, to be able to negotiate her way out of that, I’m sure, took some stubbornness—productive stubbornness.”

Stolen Moment
The first couple on a patio off the Oval Office. Dr. Biden wears a Michael Kors Collection sweater and skirt.

Photographed by Annie Leibovitz, Vogue, August 2021

He adds that she has a kind of “fortitude that most people didn’t really pay that much attention to”—and this is something I saw on the road. I watched her hold the hands of nervous women in Albuquerque as the vaccine needles went in their arms. (“Look at me,” said Dr. Biden. “It doesn’t hurt. Really. It’s mostly in your head.”) She is the designated driver on the piece of the American Families Plan meant to cut child poverty in half. She is working in tandem with the Secretary of Education, Miguel Cardona, “reimagining our education system from preschool to college.”

She has also restarted Joining Forces, the military family–support initiative she launched with Michelle Obama 10 years ago. And it won’t be long before her East Wing operation, which is still staffing up, plans state dinners and cultural events, fussing over menus and seating charts and Christmas decorations, because someone still has to be the nation’s hostess at the end of the day.

It’s a lot, I say. “Well, don’t you think that I always had a lot going on? I like that kind of energy,” she says. “When I became second lady—and there was so much I wanted to do—I always said, ‘I will never waste this platform.’ ” Most people had only a vague idea of who Jill Biden was during those years, except sort of maybe knowing that there was a nice teacher lady who was married to the vice president. I’d written two profiles of her, and even I was surprised to learn that she traveled to nearly 40 countries as second lady. “And now I have a bigger platform,” she says, “and I feel every day, like….What could I give up? That I would want to give up? Nothing. If anything, I feel like adding more things, but I know it’s not possible, because you want to stay centered, because you want to do things well. And there’s so much to do. There is…so. Much. To. Do.

Dr. Biden’s trip to the Navajo Nation was, in fact, her third official visit to the tribal land—a fact that was lost on no one. (Business leader and Navajo advocate Clara Pratte says, “As someone who has worked in this field for a long time, I can tell you: This is not the norm. But it should be the norm.”) Dr. Biden’s last trip was two years ago, when she came to open “the very first cancer-treatment center on any American Indian reservation,” as the Navajo Nation’s first lady, Phefelia Nez, pointed out. Her husband, President Jonathan Nez, added that it was the Navajo Nation that helped put Biden over the top in Arizona, with “60, 70, even 80 percent turnout in some places.” There is a Navajo word, jooba’ii, that sounds like “Joe Biden” and means compassion, he said. “That’s how a lot of our elders remembered it at the polls.”

Distances here are vast. The Navajo reservation is larger than West Virginia, with nearly 400,000 members. One of the pool photographers told me that in his 15 years of covering the White House, the nearly three-hour motorcade ride from Albuquerque was the longest he’d ever taken—an indication of the slog and why hardly anyone at Jill Biden’s level ever comes to visit. But the way she was received here was beyond touching. She gave a live radio address in front of the red sandstone arch—Window Rock—after which the tribal capital is named. As the sun was setting, and the speeches from the nation’s dignitaries dragged on, the temperature plummeted and the wind picked up—it quickly became teeth-chattering cold. Jill, who was wearing a dark suit with nude pumps and bare legs, looked like she was going to freeze to death. Someone came over and draped a Navajo blanket around her, which happened to perfectly match her Jimmy Choos, enveloping her like a sleeping bag. “We heard it here today,” said Seth Damon, the speaker of the Navajo Nation Council, from the stage. “You are a fierce warrior.”

Family Values
Dr. Biden with her grandchildren, Naomi, Finnegan, Hunter, Maisy, and Natalie, in Delaware. Photographed by Annie Leibovitz, Vogue, 2019.

“It was more than cold!” says Biden when I ask her about that evening. “Oh, I couldn’t stop my knees from shaking.” She laughs. “Didn’t it feel emotional to you? It wasn’t just a visit. I feel a real emotional connection to the Navajo Nation. They knew I was cold, and the woman came up behind me and put that blanket around me. They cared about me.”

The night before I started following Jill Biden around the country, I decided to take a walk around the newly fortified White House to figure out exactly how to get in the next morning. I was dumbfounded to see the brutal black fencing, as high as the towering old trees, and to realize how far I would have to walk to get to the checkpoint, like something out of Cold War Berlin. The White House perimeter keeps pushing farther out—security creep, with all of the attendant police-state vibes—scooping up ever more of the city grid.

But once I was inside the White House the next morning, I was greeted by nothing more forbidding than a bunch of nice, nerdy career D.C. people—working. That day Dr. Biden was giving a speech for the Joining Forces relaunch in an empty auditorium in the Old Executive Office Building, next to the West Wing. A handful of press, staff, and Secret Service would be on hand, but no eager, tittering audience, thrilled to be invited to the White House—only the now-familiar wall of human video tiles behind the podium. When Dr. Biden appeared onstage, a production person’s voice came over the sound system: “Whenever you’re ready to go ahead and start….” She gathered herself and launched in. “This work is personal to me,” she said. “My dad was a Navy signalman in World War II and went to college on the GI Bill. His love for this country was a part of everything he did, and he inspired us, his five daughters, to see America through his eyes.”

When she finished, she silently walked off the stage. “And so we begin!” she said to no one in particular, and then laughed. In many ways, Dr. Biden is perfectly calibrated for this moment—thus far, a nearly pomp-free presidency. “Oh, please, call me Jill,” she will say to people in formal settings who sometimes stumble over how to address her. “Sit down,” she says, laughing, when people stand for a second too long in her presence. “There’s an unadorned thing that I think she values,” says Osnos. “And she’s quite suspicious of artifice in others.”

After the speech, her 12-car motorcade, sirens blaring, sped across the Potomac to Arlington, Virginia. (I said to her, “It must be exhausting to always travel at the speed of motorcade.” “It’s funny,” she replied. “On the way to the airport, I said to Joe, ‘Where’s all the traffic?’ And then I realized…oh, yeah, they stop the traffic.”) In Arlington, she would be greeted by Charlene Austin, the wife of the Secretary of Defense, Lloyd Austin, among others, to take a tour of Military OneSource, a resource hub and call center for service members and their families. Among the White House reporters following her today—all women, many of whom covered the Trump administration—there was a lot of chatter, almost complaint, about how much more information they now receive: so many emails! Full readouts of calls President Biden has with foreign leaders arrive in their inbox the same day—as opposed to five days later with just one sentence saying that it happened, which was usually as good as it got with the Trump folks.

As Dr. Biden toured the call center, a woman who works here thanked her for her time and attention. “No,” said Dr. Biden, “thank you. We need you. Really. These families are desperate…if your child is not happy, your whole world just falls apart. You’re giving them hope and joy.” As the tour was ending, she talked to a member of the military who told her that he used the call center to find a counselor when he and his wife were having a “very hard time adjusting to military life.” “Did you go into counseling with your spouse as well?” asked Jill. Not at first, he said, but eventually. “Well, you have to,” she said. “You’re in a relationship.”

Two days later, the first lady was on yet another trip—to Birmingham, Alabama, quite purposely traveling to a red state as part of the “Help Is Here” tour, meant to amplify how the American Rescue Plan addresses child poverty. In nearly every way, it felt like a campaign stop: a speech in a gymnasium in a YWCA, with local dignitaries, like former Democratic senator Doug Jones, and a speech from Birmingham’s mayor, Randall Woodfin. But it was Congresswoman Terri Sewell, in her bubble-gum-pink suit, who stole the show with her volume and intensity. “I am so proud to have been the only Democrat in Alabama’s delegation to vote in favor of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan,” she said onstage. She talked about the big infusions of money the state, county, and city would soon be receiving. She talked about the child tax credit, how the Biden administration is “expanding it, by providing direct payments in the form of a child allowance. This year, families will receive $3,600 per child under the age of six and $3,000 per child between the ages of six and 17.” (The checks, for more than 65 million children, begin landing in people’s bank accounts in July.) “This is a big plan…. Good governance creates an environment that allows all of our people—all of our people—to reach their full potential.”

On the flight home to D.C., Dr. Biden came to the back of the plane for an off-the-record gaggle. It’s something I saw over and over again—her solicitousness with reporters, the times she apologized for keeping us waiting. “I’m trying to get to know them,” she told me later. “Because I don’t think it should be, you know, me versus the press.” She also sat down next to me for a few minutes to say hello. She had heard from one of her staffers that my mother died recently—from cancer—but what she didn’t know is that she died on the Saturday after the election in November, the very day her husband was declared the winner. Who can say why some people seem to have extra capacity to feel other people’s sorrow, but there I was, in front of group of strangers, becoming emotional as I relayed this coincidence of timing. When I composed myself, I looked up at Jill, and she, too, had tears in her eyes.

It’s very early on a stormy Monday morning in early May at Joint Base Andrews, and the press corps that follows the president (mostly middle-aged white guys) is standing under one of the wings of Air Force One trying to keep dry. When Marine One—the helicopter that flies the president from the White House to his plane—lands and then roars up to disgorge POTUS and FLOTUS (and the man carrying the football), it feels like a show of muscularity that is particular to the United States—one that is no longer in the hands of someone for whom that seemed to matter too much and for all the wrong reasons. The quasi-march across the tarmac, the crisp salute to the commanders and sergeants in place to greet him—it suits Joe, in his aviators, so tall and thin in his impeccable blue suit.

The president and first lady are traveling to southern Virginia today, a double act, both of them to give speeches meant to highlight the Biden administration’s jobs and families plan. Their first stop is at a magnet school, Yorktown Elementary—and Mrs. Bertamini’s fifth-grade class in particular. There are 18 students in their third week of in-person learning. All of them have three–sided plexiglass shields perched on their desks, along with elaborate weather–related science projects they’ve just completed. Press and staff, who are cordoned off in a corner of the room, outnumber the students, who seem startled into silent amazement by this once-in-a–lifetime intrusion into their precarious world.

After the Bidens enter the classroom—introduced as the Very Special Guests they most certainly are—Jill makes a beeline for a girl in the back of the room and then heads over to a student named Andrew. She hovers over his project, asks a series of thoughtful questions, while her husband, shifting from one foot to the other, looks a little out of place—letting the wife take the lead on this one. Not a chance. “Come on, Joe!” says Jill, waving him over. He hesitates for a moment and then, perhaps realizing there are cameras trained on him, takes control. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” he says to one of the kids.

“Fashion designer,” says the student. He turns to another kid. “How about you?” A music artist mumble-mumble-mumble. “A what?” Someone on his staff says it louder: A MUSIC ARTIST. “Well, I’ll be darned!” says the president. “And you?” A hairstylist, says the kid. “Holy mackerel!”

Two of Hearts
The first couple.

Photographed by Annie Leibovitz, Vogue, August 2021

Everyone piles back into the 20-plus-car motorcade, and off we go, passing clusters of people now lining the roads, everyone with cell phones up, many of them waving. “At least they’re waving at us now and not giving us the finger,” says one of the photographers. Suddenly the whole caravan comes to a stop. Word comes through that Joe wants to say hello to the students and teachers who have gathered in front of a high school, including a group of Navy ROTC, flags erect. The guys in the press vans leap out and race toward the front of the motorcade, and by the time I get there, the Bidens are just stepping out of the armored Cadillac known as the Beast. I watch, with some trepidation, as President Biden walks off down the road and into the grass. He crouches into a deep knee bend, impressive for a 78-year-old, as a little boy carrying a tiny American flag comes toward him. He embraces the child as Jill lingers on the macadam behind him in black-and-white stilettos, looking every inch a goddess at 69. It’s moments like this with the Bidens—hugging children!—that bring home just how incomprehensibly irregular and out of place our previous president and first lady really were.

I had talked to Joe Biden on the phone a few times—once at their beach house in Delaware, the grandkids swirling around, eating cheesesteak hoagies, when someone handed me a cell phone: Joe wants to talk to you—but I had never met him in person. On the flight back to D.C., I am fetched from the back of AF1, brought to somewhere in the middle of the plane, and deposited in a conference room in the sky: all burled walnut, plush carpeting, and dim table lamps. When the president and first lady appear, I tell him that I think I’ve met every person in his family over the past 13 years. “God, it doesn’t seem that long,” he says.

“You have,” says Jill. “You met Mom-Mom and Val,” Biden’s mother and sister, “all the kids.”

I ask if he’d given any thought in all these years to what kind of first lady Jill would be. “We never talked about this, so I’m probably going to get you in trouble,” the president says to Jill—before insisting that he never wanted to live in the White House. It was part of his reluctance to run for the office in the first place. “It was ‘Hail to the Chief’ and all that stuff when I was a young senator. But I never had a desire for that piece of it.” He adds that he thinks the Obamas kind of had a similar view. “There was no real upside to living physically in the White House. It’s the greatest honor in the world…but there’s no privacy. And the pomp-and-circumstance part is not something we’ve ever gone out of our way to look for.” But Trump vanquished his reluctance. “I think the same thing was sinking in with you,” he says to Jill. “About the state of the country.” He turns to me. “Jill said, ‘You gotta run. Because there’s so much at stake.’ So this was the first time I ran…without thinking about any of the accoutrements of, you know, I could have Air Force One or I could have. . . . I think part of that got knocked out by being vice president. And I realized that I probably—whether I’m right or not—knew more about the issues than most people because I’ve been around so long.”

Jill was hesitant to take on the “role of the wife of the United States senator,” he says—even as she would campaign by his side in those Senate years. “But it was clear to me that she knew exactly what she would do if she were first lady. And so she came in, I think—knowing the experience of being vice president, knowing the power of the presidency—knowing that she could change things.” He remembers the first time she spoke in front of a truly big crowd, “and I was like, That’s my girl. So proud. She would just go do it, and she got better and better. And she started saying, ‘Joe, you gotta put a little more emotion into what you’re doing.’  ”

I ask if becoming president and first lady affected their marriage. “Yeah, it has,” he says, and an almost pained expression crosses his face. “I miss her. I’m really proud of her. But it’s not like we can just go off like we used to. When we were living in Delaware and married, once a month we’d just go up to a local bed-and-breakfast by ourselves, to make sure we had a romantic time to just get away and hang out with each other.”

You might need to schedule that in, I joke.

“But all kidding aside, that’s part of the problem. You can’t. I’m not complaining. It’s part of the deal. But this life prevents it.” He looks at Jill. “It’s just harder. Don’t you think that’s right?”

“Oh, yeah,” she says.

“And the other thing is, she’s been traveling all over the country,” says Biden. “And doing major events for me…and for the country. And so I’ll find that I’m working on a hell of an important speech and I’m distracted. And then I may not be working on one and I want to go and hang out with her, and she’s working on an important speech! Or grading papers. We have to figure out a way—and I mean this sincerely—to be able to steal time for one another. I think that’s the deal.”

The next day, I’m sitting in the Jackie Kennedy garden with Jill. Like its counterpart, the Rose Garden, which is on the other side of the South Portico, just outside the West Wing, this one was redesigned in the ’60s by Bunny Mellon. It has been tinkered with over the years, but it remains fundamentally the same: ridiculously beautiful. And because it is early May, there are enormous, perfect blooms everywhere you turn, the smell intoxicating. The Bidens are gardeners. Joe once planted a rose garden for Jill at their house in Wilmington for her birthday, and Jill has put in a “little cutting garden” here at the White House “so that if I go to visit somebody, I can make them a bouquet.

“The flowers here…I mean…I’m out here every morning at six with the dogs,” she says. Do they run around? “Yeah. I throw the ball. They get water.” She insists we take a stroll over to look at the roses. “They just popped this week.” Everyone got so bent out of shape over Melania redoing the Rose Garden, but I think she made it better, I say. “Apparently she put in these walkways. Are these, like, some of the most beautiful roses you’ve ever seen?” Suddenly a few Secret Service guys and her senior adviser, Anthony Bernal, come pouring out of the West Wing. “Somebody was like, ‘Stop! The first lady’s out there,’ ” says Bernal, laughing. “I’m like, ‘What is the first lady doing…?’  ” It is a reminder of what a tight ship they’re running, especially today, with three different camera crews setting up around the White House and the president preparing to give a televised speech in the East Room.

Back under the trellis, I ask Dr. Biden how she’s adjusting to life in the White House. “You know, it has this sort of magical quality to it. One room is just more beautiful than the next, and you’re sort of in awe. Everyone here works so hard to create this world because I think that they understand the kind of pressure that Joe and I are under. They make the rooms beautiful, and the flowers and the food are perfect. And you have the balconies. And, of course, our grandkids had been here a lot with the Obama kids. So they knew it but not as intimately, of course, as us living here ourselves.” Suddenly you can hear Champ and Major, the Bidens’ German shepherds, barking in the distance. Jill’s ears perk up.… “Listen,” she says, smiling, “the dogs.”

Photographed by Annie Leibovitz, 2017

In most couples with pets, there’s usually one person who pays them a little more mind, senses their needs—even expresses feelings through them. (Timmy is bored, I will say when I’m the one who’s bored.) It’s a pretty good bet that person is Jill. Unbidden, she says, “…and then there was all the dog drama.” She lets out a mordant chuckle (both dogs temporarily left the White House after a pair of nipping incidents by the boisterous Major). “I knew it was going to be hard for the dogs. I mean, Champ’s going on 14, you know? And to move him in and have him get used to it? And then Major….I mean, let’s face it. He hadn’t been around so many people in forever. But now, at every turn, somebody’s stepping out or somebody’s coming around a corner. So I guess I felt…I really tried hard to make everybody comfortable. Make it feel like home. We brought family pictures down and put them all around. And so, you know, we’ve adjusted.” (Champ died peacefully of old age as this issue went to press.)

I ask her what she thought about what Joe said on the plane last night. “Well, it’s true because we’re both so busy. And so we have to, I think, try a little harder to make time for one another. Even the thing about having dinner together: Sometimes we eat on the balcony; last night we ate in the yellow Oval, upstairs. It’s just part of the day that we set apart, and we still light the candles, still have the conversations, still put the phones away.”

The Bidens clearly intend to spend time at the beach in Delaware—the White House got clearance to land Marine One in the parking lot at Gordons Pond in Cape Henlopen State Park, which is just minutes away from their summer house. But Dr. Biden worries whether Joe will be able to make the time, and there’s the hassle of how cumbersome everything gets with staff and security. “I’m going in about a week. Joe hasn’t yet. I think it’s going to be a lot harder for him. I don’t know. It’s just harder. I don’t know how he could actually go on the beach.”

They are, however, escaping to their home in suburban Wilmington, to the house that Joe famously designed himself. It is in a beautiful part of that infamously dreary city, situated on a lake, with a big swimming pool. Talking about it, I’m reminded all over again that the Bidens are really not creatures of Washington, despite their more than 40 years of service. “We have the best of both worlds,” says Dr. Biden. “We have our home in Delaware; we have grandkids in Delaware. Finnegan and Maisy are at Penn. They say, ‘Nana, we hear you’re coming home; can we come down and have lunch?’ Then they clean out the refrigerator; they take bags full of food home. And then, in D.C., we have grandkids here—Naomi’s here. She just got her first job as a lawyer. So she comes over, and she’ll do movie night with us, or she’ll play tennis with her boyfriend. We have friends in both places. I guess our home base has sort of stretched from Delaware to Washington. It’s just bigger now.”

We have moved into the White House for the end of our interview, to the Vermeil Room, on the ground floor. It is painted a rich yellow with green drapes, and there is a fair showing of modern art that I recognize as acquisitions from the Obama years. It also houses a collection of silver-gilt tableware gifted to the White House in 1958 by Margaret Thompson Biddle. Jill Biden hasn’t had much time to think about how she intends to entertain once things open up a bit more, but says this: “I want the White House to feel comfortable. It’s like my beach house, where you feel like you can just come in, and your bathing suit is sandy, but it’s okay to sit down on the chair. I want people to feel that way, that they’re comfortable, that it’s their house. Not like, ‘Oh, I can’t touch this.’  ”

“There’s just thousands and thousands of people who have pictures of themselves with Jill and Joe Biden,” says the Washington Post’s Mary Jordan, who has attended numerous Biden events at the vice president’s mansion. “Because they’re always together, and they threw parties, and they allowed people to take pictures. A lot of people don’t do that. Jill and Joe were always there, and it’s clear they like people. And Jill doesn’t act her age, either, which is great.” As an example, she tells me a story about the day the Bidens hosted a picnic on the lawn at the U.S. Naval Observatory. “It was a really hot summer day, and all of a sudden, Jill came out with a squirt gun and started squirting Joe. It was just this spontaneous, funny thing. I think they just get a kick out of life. That kind of thing is hard to fake.”

Jill Biden’s relationship to fashion seems to have been complicated by the pandemic. She is a very stylish person who even in jeans and a cashmere sweater over an untucked chambray looks totally pulled together. But for now, at least, she does not want to talk too much about it. It’s that reading-the-room thing: When you ask Dr. Biden a question that she does not want to answer, she flashes a winning smile that says very clearly, “Let’s move on.” Even Elizabeth Alexander, her communications director, looks uncomfortable when I bring it up. Dr. Biden doesn’t work with a stylist: “It’s all her,” Alexander says. Fine, then I’ll say it: She’s wearing a lot of Brandon Maxwell. She is also wearing a lot of young, emerging, and diverse designers. “I think that’s important: You try to lift up other people,” Dr. Biden says. “I like to choose from a diverse group of designers. When I was planning my Inauguration outfits, that’s one of the things I considered.”

When I point out the Instagram account that someone started last summer, drjillbidenfashion, she looks surprised. “No, I haven’t seen it.” Someone is dutifully posting everything that you wear, I say. “Oh, great,” she says with a comic roll of the eyes. And then this: “It’s kind of surprising, I think, how much commentary is made about what I wear or if I put my hair in a scrunchie. I put my hair up! Or the stocking thing.…” Fishnetgate? “It’s amazing how much people pay attention to every little detail.” Then she adds, just for the record: “And they weren’t fishnets. They weren’t lace. They were very pretty stockings.” 

The Vogue August issue is here, featuring Dr. Jill Biden SUBSCRIBE NOW