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Jill Biden raises money for Democrats amid gaffes and popularity drop

July 23, 2022 Updated Sat., July 23, 2022 at 8:48 p.m.

Michelle Obama, left, and Jill Biden arrive ahead of the inauguration of President Donald Trump on Jan. 20, 2017.  (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
Michelle Obama, left, and Jill Biden arrive ahead of the inauguration of President Donald Trump on Jan. 20, 2017. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
By Jada Yuan Washington Post

WASHINGTON – The decline in Jill Biden’s popularity was happening before the first lady apologized for comparing the diversity of the Latino community to the uniqueness of breakfast tacos at a conference celebrating Latinos in San Antonio last week. Before she mispronounced “bodegas” as “BO-gih-dahs” in the same sentence at the same conference. Before she’d expressed frustration with President Joe Biden’s stalled domestic agenda at a private Democratic National Committee fundraiser in Nantucket, Massachusetts, saying, “he had so many hopes and plans for things he wanted to do, but every time you turned around, he had to address the problems of the moment” – such as the war in Ukraine. Before the New York Post declared that speech her “pathetic excuses for Joe’s endless failures.”

A CNN poll had already finished fielding as Jill Biden’s string of not-so-great news broke. Over the course of a monthlong survey, 34% rated their opinion of the first lady as favorable, 29% said it was unfavorable, 28% had no opinion, and 9% said they never heard of her. Previous CNN polling showed significantly more Americans holding a favorable rather than unfavorable view of the first lady – by about 2 to 1 in January 2021, at the start of Biden’s presidency. So what’s going on?

A first lady dipping in popularity alongside her husband is highly unusual. It also comes at a particularly bad time for Democrats and the Biden administration, who have relied on Jill Biden as one of their most powerful campaign surrogates and an uncontroversial bright spot for the White House. Last week, she spoke at three fundraisers over the course of five days, the final one on Monday, the day the CNN poll came out. The midterm elections that will determine whether President Biden gets a Congress that will support or torpedo his agenda are just four months away.

Is the first lady’s falling popularity an early warning sign of a Democratic bloodbath in the midterms?

“I think it’s a snapshot in time, and things are not going well for the administration,” said Lauren A. Wright, an associate research scholar and lecturer of political science at Princeton University who studies first ladies. Dissatisfaction with President Biden is consistent in multiple polls, including ones conducted by Fox News and the New York Times.

The issues pulling down his numbers are also probably affecting Jill Biden’s, Wright said. But in such a “low-popularity environment,” Wright said, it’s hard for a first lady to break through with a different message.

And what if that message is met with neither positive nor negative emotions, but neutrality? In the CNN poll, more than a third of adults said they had no opinion or had not heard of Jill Biden. That may have to do with the way the survey was conducted, compared with previous years, with most respondents having the option to choose “no opinion” when taking the survey online, rather than having to volunteer that they have no opinion in a phone survey.

“I think one outlier poll does not account for the real measure of how the American people feel about the first lady. And what is greater than one outlying poll is the interaction she has every single day she travels the country and the responses that she receives, the impact she has on the community, the impact the communities have on her, and the personal connection she makes,” said a White House official who asked for anonymity to speak freely.

Modern first ladies have almost universally enjoyed higher approval numbers than their husbands – except Hillary Clinton at the start of Bill Clinton’s presidency – and those ratings tend to remain buoyant even as their spouses’ ratings sink, Wright said. First ladies are unelected, appear apolitical and are rarely controversial, prone to taking on universal good causes that are unlikely to cause offense, like Jill Biden’s Joining Forces initiative to support military families. Even while ending her tenure with the lowest approval rating of any first lady, according to CNN and Gallup’s polls dating back to Pat Nixon, Melania Trump – at 42% favorable to 47% unfavorable rating – was still besting her husband’s low final favorability rating. There are even years, Wright said, when a first lady’s popularity, incongruously, goes up as her husband’s decreases.

That’s what happened with Laura Bush, who had a 73% favorable rating in 2005 in a Gallup/CNN/USA Today poll, two years after President George W. Bush had started a war with Iraq, while her husband’s rating was 46% favorable. “Even in places where, especially over the course of the second term, her husband was very unpopular, Laura Bush would still show up and raise money,” said Katherine Jellison, a professor of history at Ohio University who studies first ladies. Michelle Obama, too, was a sought-after Democratic fundraiser when President Barack Obama’s numbers were down.

Whereas presidents and first ladies typically travel on concentric orbits independent of one another in terms of popularity, this moment in the Biden presidency seems to have created a vortex that’s pulling in his surrogates, too. The CNN poll showed President Biden with 36% favorable to 54 unfavorable rating. Vice President Kamala Harris’s rating was 32% favorable to 49 unfavorable rating – a reversal of where she was at the start of the administration, with 51% favorable and 39% unfavorable.

“Some of that’s the political times we live in,” Jellison said. “It’s becoming the case that if people have turned against a president, then anyone who touches that president is receiving some of that residue. And that didn’t used to be the case.”

That vortex effect seems to have begun with Melania Trump, whose numbers tracked downward with her husband’s.

Jill Biden is also more political than any recent first lady, serving as a mouthpiece for her husband’s agenda, which could tie her popularity more closely to his. She has toured the country promoting pandemic recovery, often going into Republican strongholds to talk about vaccines and schools reopening. This year, she met with the families of mass shooting victims in Buffalo and Uvalde and advocated for gun control.

The CNN poll showed Jill Biden is still more popular among Republicans than are the president and vice president, and that the three principals share equal popularity among independents, with about a third favorable. “There’s some evidence that Jill Biden is being viewed differently “than the president and vice president,” Wright said. “It’s marginal, but it’s definitely there.”

That’s good news for Democrats, who could benefit from her campaigning skills in upcoming months. She was used as the closer on the 2020 trail, speaking last at events in tiny towns across Iowa to send crowds off with a rousing finish. She’s a seasoned pro with 30 years campaigning for her husband’s Senate reelections and eight years as second lady. The administration seems poised to deploy her heavily. In November 2021, she went to Virginia to make last-minute stump speeches for the state’s Democratic governor, Terry McAuliffe, in his doomed race against Republican challenger, and now governor, Glenn Youngkin. She tested the midterms waters as early as March by attacking Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin during public events and private Democratic National Committee fundraisers on a swing across Arizona, Nevada and Kentucky.

“If I were running a campaign, I’d invite her to come tomorrow. I wouldn’t flinch about the polling,” says Paul Begala, a CNN contributor and former adviser to Bill Clinton who has criticized Democrats as losing touch with the middle class. One cannot discount the media attention and fundraising pull that comes with a first lady simply showing up. And Jill Biden’s community college teaching puts her in touch with “real America,” Begala says, the kinds of working-class strivers the Democrats need to win back.

And it doesn’t sound as if the Democrats are going to let a bad news cycle stop them from deploying her. The first lady is “one of the top raisers across the board for us as a party,” said a Biden adviser who asked for anonymity to speak freely. She’s constantly getting asked to headline events in key states, and will hit the trail even harder “as we’re heading into the fall and a more aggressive campaign season,” the adviser said.

Her last couple of weeks have been a flurry of activity, as she welcomed Ukrainian first lady Olena Zelenska to the White House, 2 1/2 months after she had visited her in a secret and historic trip across the Ukrainian border on Mother’s Day.

It’s part of a busy summer off from her job as a community college professor – the first woman in her role to maintain her professional career outside the White House – that’s had her making trips this week to Connecticut, Michigan and Georgia with Education Secretary Miguel Cardona to highlight a program to stem K-12 summer learning loss. On Monday, she spoke at a fundraiser for Equity PAC, a political action committee led by gay and lesbian members of the U.S. House. She also attended fundraisers for the Democratic National Committee in private residences in Andover and Nantucket, Mass., last week while in Boston to visit a Joining Forces initiative and speak at the American Federation of Teachers Conference.

It was at the DNC fundraiser in Nantucket that she stepped out from behind the lectern to speak informally and told attendees about the president’s dashed hopes. “He’s just had some many things thrown his way,” she said, mentioning the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade. “The gun violence in this country is absolutely appalling. We didn’t see the war in Ukraine coming.”

She also expressed frustration with Republicans in Congress for stalling progress on global warming and gun control. “They are not budging,” she said. “Who would think that AR-15s make any sense for anything? Who doesn’t believe in the need to deal with climate change?”

And she used the fundraiser as a rallying cry. “I know there are so many naysayers who say we’ll get slammed in the midterms. OK. The Republicans are working hard, they stick together, for good or evil. So, we just have to work harder.”

But what if that hard work doesn’t have the effect you need? Jill Biden despite having a reputation for being a warm, vivacious communicator with a skill for the common touch, is a “cool personality” as far as media attention goes, says Jellison, adding, “she just doesn’t pop like her predecessors did in terms of public interest.” Relatable in an ordinary, everywoman kind of way is a great on a rope line, but it doesn’t get you headlines.

The problem with making news, of course, is sometimes you make news for the wrong reasons. If Jill Biden getting attention is an asset for Democrats, the real work will be in making sure it’s the kind of attention that leads to votes.

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