First Lady Jill Biden joins her husband US President Joe Biden on stage at the end of the first presidential debate of the 2024 elections with former US President and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump at CNN's studios in Atlanta, Georgia, on June 27, 2024. (Photo by ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS / AFP) (Photo by ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images)

Editor’s Note: Kate Andersen Brower is the author of “First Women: The Grace & Power of America’s Modern First Ladies” and “The Residence: Inside the Private World of the White House.” The views expressed in this commentary are her own. Read more opinion at CNN.

CNN  — 

If anyone can convince President Joe Biden to make a graceful exit, it’s his wife of 47 years. But for anxious Democrats hoping Jill Biden will step in, don’t hold your breath.

Kate Brower

Joe Biden has been a politician for five decades. Jill Biden has been by his side for almost that entire time. And ever since his mother Catherine “Jean” Finnegan Biden passed away in 2010, she has been the matriarch of the sprawling Biden family.

There has not been a more close-knit first family since the Kennedys. They include the first lady, Valerie Biden Owens, 78, the president’s younger sister and his longtime political adviser who ran several of his Senate and presidential campaigns, and his son Hunter. They are the triumvirate of decision-makers in the Biden family.

But it is Jill who is her husband’s greatest and most loyal defender. As someone who has studied first ladies, I was not at all surprised that she has been his most vocal supporter in the days since the President’s disastrous debate. Her main message? This too shall pass.

“Joe isn’t just the right person for the job. He’s the only person for the job,” she declared at a Long Island fundraiser on Saturday, two days after Biden’s disastrous debate performance that has put his reelection bid in peril. She was more forthcoming at an LGBTQ fundraising  event at New York’s Stonewall National Monument, when she admitted the obvious because, as she told the crowd, “I know it’s on your minds.”

“As Joe said earlier today, he’s not a young man,” she said. “And you know, after last night’s debate, he said, ‘You know, Jill, I don’t know what happened. I didn’t feel that great.’ And I said, ‘Look, Joe, we are not going to let 90 minutes define the four years that you’ve been president.’”

Every president ages dramatically in the job; even a youthful President Barack Obama left with gray hair. The weight of the responsibility of the presidency should have some effect. Biden will turn 82 in November and if he is reelected, he will be 86 at the end of his second term. Jill is so protective of her husband that I think the only thing that would make her tell him to get out would be if she genuinely thought the job was doing serious damage to his health.

Unless that’s the case, she has as much skin in the game as her husband does. Jill Biden believes that there is no one else who can defeat former President Donald Trump who poses a serious threat to democracy. Melania Trump is nowhere to be seen as her husband campaigns for the Republican presidential nomination. Jill, by contrast, is running around the country in a dress decorated with the word “Vote.”

Jill is more like other first ladies than her predecessor. She is his strongest campaigner, and, à la Nancy Reagan, she is her husband’s fiercest protector. But unlike Nancy Reagan, who operated mostly behind the scenes, she is not worried about letting people see just how strong she can be.

President Biden and first lady Jill Biden, right, arrive on Marine One with granddaughters Natalie Biden, from left, and Finnegan Biden in East Hampton, N.Y. on Saturday -- two days after his disappointing debate performance.

In 2020, we saw Jill Biden, flanked by the Biden campaign’s senior adviser Symone Sanders, insert herself between her husband and two protestors who separately ran towards him at a Los Angeles rally. Sanders actually wrapped her arms around one of the women.

“We’re OK,” Jill said after the protesters were led away, clapping as though nothing happened. “We’re OK.” In other words, the show must go on.

A month earlier, at a rally in New Hampshire, she walked calmly towards a man who was yelling at her husband and approaching the lectern where he was speaking. She put her hands on his shoulders, turned him around and redirected him off stage. She smiled as she walked back to her seat. When reporters asked her about the incident, she laughed and said, “I’m a good Philly girl” — by which she meant, presumably, that she’s tough as nails.

Behind the scenes, her Nancy Reagan-ness comes through. After the president misspoke during a nearly two-hour-long press conference in January 2022, Jill asked his advisers, “Why didn’t anyone stop that?”

A portrait of First Lady Jill Biden from a photo spread in August's issue of Vogue Magazine.

Jill Biden will be the very last person to tell her husband to get out, even though his debate performance has only served to confirm Democrats’ worst fears. A CBS News/YouGov poll published Sunday showed that 72% of registered voters don’t think Biden is up to the task, up from 65% earlier this month.

Just as with the 2022 press conference, Biden’s family reportedly blamed campaign advisers as they gathered at Camp David over the weekend, even suggesting that he fire some of them for not preparing him well. Aides say that he was sick and over-prepared, but in the end the president is the only one responsible.

Dr. Biden is also on the cover of the August issue of Vogue. In the accompanying article, she tells the reporter what every first lady — with the exception, one suspects, of Melania Trump — prides herself on. They are the go-betweens for their husbands and the American people.

“Jill Biden, I begin to suspect, doesn’t want to talk about her feelings. Less out of self-protectiveness than a conviction that at this moment, in this context, her feelings are not the point,” writes Maya Singer in the Vogue feature. “The American people are the point. She’s quick to flip the camera around, as it were, as if to say — don’t look at me; look at what I see.”

What she sees is a country that cannot risk another four years of Trump at the helm.

Jill Biden is not an anomaly. First ladies are often far more involved in the machinations of their husband’s presidencies than most people realize. And not just Hillary Clinton and Nancy Reagan. When I interviewed Rosalynn Carter in 2015, she was still bitter about her husband’s loss to Ronald Reagan. Nearly 40 years later, the stigma of a one-term presidency had stayed with her.

When asked decades after leaving Washington what she missed most about living in the White House, she replied, “I miss having Jimmy in the Oval Office taking care of our country. I have never felt as safe as I did when he was there.”

Even years later, in a 1999 interview with the New York Times, Rosalynn said, “My biggest regret in life was that Jimmy was defeated.” Betty Ford felt the same sting of defeat after her husband lost to Carter in 1976.

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President Carter of course ended up having had the longest post–White House career of any president — and Rosalynn was a crucial part of his success. Joe Biden, however, doesn’t have decades ahead of him to lead a thriving post presidential career.

Lady Bird Johnson earned the nickname “Mrs. Vice President” among the traveling press when the vice presidency was vacant and before her husband named Hubert Humphrey, US senator from Minnesota, to the position. She even graded her husband’s speeches.

In May 1964, a few months after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Lady Bird wrote a nine-page memo to her husband gaming out his political future. The Vietnam War was roiling and he needed her help as his closest and most loyal adviser.

Lady Bird drafted an announcement, ending the memo by suggesting that four years in the future — in February or March 1968 — he tell the country “that you are not a candidate for re-election.” Of course, he took her advice.

Biden is in a very different position, running against a convicted felon. Jill Biden is not going to suggest that he bow out and potentially — at least in her mind — hand the presidency to Trump.