When you watch first lady Dr. Jill Biden out on the road in Philadelphia pushing the administration's efforts to get Americans vaccinated, said correspondent Rita Braver, you get a sense of how seriously she takes her role. "I told you, Rita, a long time ago, I think, that I would never waste my platform," Biden said. "And if I can help in any way with this pandemic, if I can help to heal this nation, I want to be in, I want to do this."
She wants to do it so much that, at age 70, she will then fly two-and-a-half hours to the solid red state of Oklahoma (one of 35 states she's visited this year), where she meets with the Republican governor and his wife; then, drives another hour-and-a-quarter to show the president's support for members of the Cherokee Nation and their efforts to preserve their native language.
"You are not alone in this endeavor," she told her audience.
Braver asked, "You are out there shaking hands with kids, hugging them, talking to them. What do you get from it?"
"I feel excitement,' Biden replied. "And I'm so happy that they're happy to meet someone who cares about them."
And the Bidens' daughter, Ashley, who usually keeps a low profile, was along for the trip. "She's so excited," said Jill, "because when I said I was coming to Cherokee Nation … 'Mom, can I go?' And I said, 'Of course, you can go."
And aboard an Air Force plane as she traveled back East late that Friday night, Dr. Biden said, "You keep asking me why do I keep going?"
"I do keep asking you that," laughed Braver, "'cause I'm exhausted!"
"Because of days like today. How can you not keep pushing forward every day, to try to make a difference and change people's lives, right?"
And her energy never seemed to flag, when she met Braver the very next day, for a rare visit to Camp David, the rustic presidential retreat in rural Maryland, and a conversation in Rosebud Cottage, to talk about the way she sees her role.
Braver asked, "Do you come up here a lot with the president?"
"Well, we've come, I think, 12 times now."
"Were you prepared for what its like to be the first lady?"
"I think it's a little harder than I imagined," Biden replied. "It's not like a job that you do; it's a lifestyle that you live. It's 24 hours a day."
Dr. Biden, the first president's wife in history to work outside the residence, is still teaching in-person classes two days a week at Northern Virginia Community College.
Braver asked, "I know, for example, that you came home from giving a final exam, changed your clothes and went to the Christmas tree lighting … I think some people would say, 'Hey, you've earned it, you've proven it, it's okay, you can hang up your text books now.' Why haven't you done that?"
"Because teaching really is who I am; it's a part of life for me," she replied. "And when I go into the classroom, people accept me for being their English teacher. And that's a gift. I mean, that's a gift they give to me."
But though Jill Biden is a long-time advocate for free community college, the president has now dropped it from his "Build Back Better" bill.
"So, was that hard for you to hear?" Braver asked. " Did you say to him, 'Joe, this is not the last you're gonna hear of it?'"
"No. I understand compromise. And I knew this was not the right moment for it. But that doesn't mean it might not get passed somewhere down the future!"
"Over the years, a lot of people close to the president have described you as one of his most important advisors … and I wondered how that's played out in the White House?"
"I listen to him, he listens to me," Biden replied. "It's a marriage, and we talk about what's going on every day, and what's going on with our lives. But I'm not his 'advisor,' I'm his spouse, I'm his wife."
"You've seen the president's poll numbers drop. Does that bother you?"
"You know, I look at it a little differently, Rita: During the campaign, Joe made certain promises, things that he would do. And we were going through a pandemic, which no one could have anticipated.
"So, he did come in and rescue America with the American Rescue Plan, and millions of families got money because they were desperate. We have vaccines for kids ages five and up. And now with the infrastructure plan, we're going to have better roads, and better buildings that don't have asbestos, better drinking water."
"So, do you figure once the public kind of comprehends this, things will turn around?"
"I do, I do," she said.
"And one more question on that, on the polls: because there's been some recent polls that show that quite a few Americans have some questions about the president's current mental fitness – as somebody who spends … I can see you shaking your head!"
"So, what's your response to that?"
"I think that's ridiculous," Jill Biden replied.
Braver got to observe the bond between the Bidens when traveling aboard Air Force One with them just a few days before Thanksgiving, to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, where she introduced him: "Joe and I feel like, you know, you're family to us, and we cannot thank you enough."
The two dished up dinner to service men and women. With their late son, Beau, an Iraq war vet, the Bidens have long been dedicated to supporting military families: "It's something I think about every single day," Jill said, "so it's great to feel welcome, you know, have dinner with people and hear their stories."
That Biden family spirit was visible at the White House this past Monday, where Dr. Biden's holiday decorations have drawn rave reviews. A gingerbread house honors America's essential workers. The central theme: gifts from the heart.
The gift being celebrated, she told Braver, "is the gift of peace and unity, and you can see that by all the doves that encircle this tree."
But, as President Joe Biden joined us. it was clear that both Bidens understand that unity is an elusive goal.
Braver said to the president, "This has been a hard year. I mean, we're in the middle of a pandemic. You know that various things that you've done have gotten a lot of criticism. You've had a hard time getting the other side to work with you … don't you ever feel discouraged about this?"
"No," he replied.
"And doesn't that criticism get to you? And how does Dr. B help you through that?"
"Well, you know, I guess it should get to me more," Mr. Biden said. "But look: one of the things we did decide, and I mean this, my word as a Biden, I know what I'm willing to lose over. If we walk away from the middle class, if we walk away from trying to unify people, if we start to engage in the same kind of politics that the last four years has done? I'm willing to lose over that."
"You mean, you're willing to lose your presidency?"
"My presidency, that's right. Because I'm gonna stick with it. There's certain things that are just, like for example Afghanistan. Well, I've been against that war in Afghanistan from the very beginning. We were spending $300 million a week in Afghanistan, over 20 years. Now, everybody says, 'You could have gotten out without anybody being hurt.' No one's come up with a way to ever indicate to me how that happens.
"And so, there are certain things that are just so important."
As for what it's like for him to have his wife of 44 years at his side through all of this: "Every time a helicopter lands, when we get out and I come home from wherever I am, she's standing on the balcony. No, I'm serious!"
"You're a lucky man," Braver said.
"I am!" said the president, getting emotional. "I am a lucky man."
Dr. Biden interjected: "Smile!"
"She says, 'Joe, you're too emotional, you get too emotional.' And she's right!"
"Over her?" asked Braver.
"Well, I am, I am, I am, I am," said Mr. Biden. "Jill is the life of my love and the love of my life. I mean, it's just a matter of, just be straight with one another, and it makes a lot easier when you start off from the same perspective."
And from the perspective of first lady Jill Biden:
"No matter where I travel across this country, a lot of people say to me, 'Jill, I feel like I can breathe again. Thank you. Please tell the president thank you for what he's doing.'"
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Story produced by Jon Carras. Editor: Remington Korper.
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