30 hours in Jillville (2024)

CENTRAL LAKE, Mich. — Here, in a northern Michigan cherry orchard, Democrats had nothing but good vibes to share with Jill Biden.

The first lady strolled through the barn at King Orchards on Wednesday afternoon, listening to members of the King family tell her about their various cherry products. The Kings had been lined up at the barn’s entrance awaiting her arrival, all smiles and big overhead waves as Jill emerged from her SUV in a navy, daisy-printed dress. “We were all hidden behind masks the last time we saw you!” one of them said as she approached, recalling her previous visit during the 2020 campaign.

The stop — just a short 20 minutes — looked like any other that a first lady might make during an election year. There were babies to kiss, selfies to take, a tart cherry juice to sample. The first lady’s staff stuffed the motorcade vehicles with fruit, pies and ciders to take back to the White House — so much, in fact, that aides had to find new seats for the ride back to the airport.


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Yet the vibes beyond the idyllic bluebird day were, so obviously, bad among Democrats. They had been since last Thursday, when President Biden’s lackluster debate performance against his opponent, former president Donald Trump, set off urgent concerns that the 81-year-old president isn’t capable of persuading Americans to vote for him in November. Following the first lady’s retinue on this 30-hour, four-stop jaunt was like watching a split screen: At pleasant appearances before supportive crowds, everything seemed normal. Wheels up, wheels down — each landing brought media reports and worrisome takes signaling more trouble for Biden’s campaign.

The cherry orchard was the last stop of the trip, Jill Biden’s first solo travel since the debate. She began Tuesday afternoon in Allentown, Pa., to tout the Biden administration’s community college programs. On Wednesday morning, it was on to Middleville, Mich., where she talked about summer nutrition programs for kids and visited a sleepaway camp for children of service members. She arrived in Traverse City, Mich., that afternoon to celebrate the opening of a new campaign office for Democrats up and down the ballot.

The itinerary had been planned before the debate and was unchanged in its aftermath. To the extent that she addressed the unfolding crisis, she did it just once: “Because there’s a lot of talk out there, let me repeat what my husband has said plainly and clearly: Joe is the Democratic nominee, and he is going to beat Donald Trump, just like he did in 2020,” she said in Traverse City.


Onward. In Jill’s world, it’s just forward motion.

Not that everyone at the orchard was so ready to move on. Suzanne Clark, from the nearby town of Bellaire, wanted to discuss the debate. “We’ve got to quit talking about what Joe said,” Clark said, cornering the first lady near the hard cider bar. “We’ve got to talk about what Trump said — how he’s going to annihilate the world!”

A mother with three small children approached Jill near the fresh cherry display to thank her for her work. Then, with furrowed eyebrows: “I hope you’re doing all right,” she half-whispered. The first lady gave her a small smile and a heavy nod before turning to the next waiting supporter.

“Safe travels, and God bless you,” a middle-aged man with a buzz cut said as he left the store.

Every leg of the journey played out like an alternate timeline, one in which the president is not 81, did not appear to lose his train of thought on the debate stage and is not facing calls to cut his campaign short. As the first lady’s plane took off for Allentown, Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Tex.) became the first Democratic member of Congress to call for Biden to withdraw from the race. By the time she landed, Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), one of the president’s leading congressional defenders, had said he’d support Vice President Harris as the nominee if Biden stepped aside. The three Democratic lawmakers who met Jill at the Allentown airport, meanwhile, showed no signs of disquiet. Reps. Nanette Barragán (D-Calif.), Nydia M. Velázquez (D-N.Y.) and Susan Wild (D-Pa.) all greeted her with warm embraces.


“It’s so great you were able to make it this time,” Barragán said when she later introduced the first lady at a community college event. “Just so you know, I’ve been trying to get on her schedule for a long time. She is so popular!”

Rep. Hillary J. Scholten (D-Mich.) had been so troubled by Biden’s debate performance that she raised concerns with Democratic officials, Scholten told the Detroit News on Tuesday. And yet, there was Scholten on the tarmac in Grand Rapids when Jill’s plane touched down that evening. Her older son handed Jill a bouquet.

The first lady had been with Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) in a mess hall at a YMCA camp, talking to children of military families, when the New York Times reported that her husband had privately mulled dropping out of the race. She was sitting with a smaller group of campers at a picnic table, discussing the plot of “Inside Out 2,” when CNN confirmed the reports 20 minutes later.


“I don’t think we’ve had a better president in my lifetime for Michigan,” Stabenow said after the event. Had she discussed the debate or its fallout with the first lady? “No, we did not,” she replied.

First ladies are typically insulated from political mudslinging, even when their husbands have been unpopular or controversial, said Anita McBride, co-author of “Remember the First Ladies,” who served as chief of staff to Laura Bush. But the displays of affection run counter to a shifting narrative surrounding Jill.

Some have compared her to Edith Wilson, who ran the White House after her husband had a stroke in 1919. Others have invoked Lady Macbeth, the power-hungry Shakespearean queen who manipulates a weakened man.

Biden’s right-wing critics have long lobbed such parallels at Jill. What’s changed is that some members of the president’s own party are now repeating them — especially in response to Jill’s cover story for the August issue of Vogue, published online on Monday, in which the first lady is photographed in a dress that cost nearly $5,000. There has been frustration among the first lady’s allies that the timing of the story (locked in long before the debate) and the optics (a profile in an elite women’s fashion magazine) had obscured its content. A source close to the first lady, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment on behalf of the campaign, says the story highlights how Jill is “mobilizing, motivating, and speaking to women voters” — and the dress is, purposefully, suffragist white.


“Jill Biden is always there for her family, always has been, always will be,” said Elizabeth Alexander, the first lady’s communications director. “These facts may not drive clicks or go viral as much as some bot-fueled, Shakespearean caricature, but it happens to be true.”

Just a few weeks ago, she had been viewed as the rock of her beleaguered family, spending long days in a Wilmington, Del., courthouse as her son Hunter was tried on federal gun charges. Her show of support engendered sympathy even from critics of the president and the Biden family. “Now, everything’s about a president who might not be up to the job,” McBride said. “This isn’t a personal family tragedy anymore. It’s an American tragedy now.”

The first lady fully supports her husband remaining in the race, and her allies emphasize it is simply just that: support. “The president has plenty of political and policy advisers — that’s never been her role,” Alexander said. “As much as any husband-and-wife team make decisions together that impact their lives, they absolutely do,” but “politics is his lane.” Alexander said the first lady faces an “impossible situation” when it comes to the state of her husband’s candidacy. “There’s an inherent tension for all first ladies, one that might be familiar to many women in their lives: You are supportive, but can’t be so supportive that your motives are questioned.”


Yet such explanations do little to quell the sense that the first lady has a role to play in whether her husband’s candidacy continues.

“She is the pivotal player, if not the only player,” said a former Obama White House official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations among Democrats. “How Jill Biden goes, so will President Biden. And so I think it almost all comes down to her judgment.”

“If she’s not the last person, she’s there with Valerie Biden,” said John Morgan, a Democratic megadonor who said he raised at least $100,000 for Biden on Monday, referring to the president’s sister, who managed most of his political campaigns. “That’s where it all finally ends.”

Donna Brazile, a former chair of the Democratic National Committee and a longtime friend of the Bidens, said efforts to corner Jill are misplaced. “If I wanted to pass on something that was purely political — and it’s something I really wanted the president to do because I have a stake in the game — I wouldn’t call Jill Biden,” Brazile says. “I would call his sister.”

Jill’s role is different, Brazile explained: “This is a moment where you look for steady hands, and you look for people who know how to keep the ship afloat. If there’s one person who knows how to steady the ship and how to keep people calm, it’s Jill Biden.”

That’s what the first lady sought to do at the campaign office opening in Traverse City on Wednesday afternoon. A crowd of roughly 75 packed into the campaign headquarters to see her speak alongside Chasten Buttigieg, who owns a home in Traverse City with his husband, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. There was little room to move, and it was hot; a woman fainted just moments into the first lady’s remarks.


But there was excitement, beyond the kind that requires a paramedic. Jill had picked up the microphone to extended, enthusiastic applause. The room erupted when she told them, “Joe is the Democratic nominee, and he is going to beat Donald Trump.” When she finished speaking, most of the attendees lined up to take photographs with her.

“I’m still supporting Biden,” said Noranne Morin, a Traverse City local. “I think they’re trying to muddy up Jill Biden now. They’re going after the Democrats at the top.”

“Look at this room!” Buttigieg said. “We’ve got energy.”

“Everyone was in fine humor — a good mood,” said Chris Cracchiolo, chair of the Grand Traverse Democrats. If anyone wanted Biden to withdraw, “I didn’t sense any of that today,” Cracchiolo added. “Obviously, that’s not the first lady’s message, either.”


Trenton Lee nearly broached the subject. The 31-year-old candidate for county commissioner said that his friends were disappointed that Biden was staying in the race — and that he intended to convey that message to the first lady. “I think the next generation of voters deserved better options this time around,” Lee said. “The debate didn’t give us much confidence, and I still had those feelings after the event today.”

But as his turn came to in the photo line, he stayed quiet. “She looked quite overwhelmed,” he said, and he opted to just pose for a photo. In the end, the only dissent registered — if it registered at all — was from two older men standing by the motorcade waving homemade signs. “Step Aside, Joe,” they said.

Near the end of Jill’s visit to the cherry orchard, Anthony Bernal, the first lady’s senior adviser, hoisted a case of cherries and told her that he’d picked some pies for her. “Everyone is coming to the White House — all of my family, for the Fourth of July,” Jill told her orchard hosts. She and the president would also be hosting military families for a picnic on the White House lawn.

As she returned to the motorcade, news broke that Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) became the second Democratic member of Congress to call for the president to step aside from his reelection bid. The first lady heeded a few more pleas for photographs before she stepped into her car.

Voght reported from the first lady’s stops in Pennsylvania and Michigan. Rodríguez reported from Washington.

30 hours in Jillville (2024)


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