First lady Jill Biden could be dispatched to Eastern Europe as Ukraine's humanitarian crisis worsens amid Russian President Vladimir Putin's escalated bombardment of civilian centers.
The East Wing and National Security Council are reportedly in talks regarding a trip to the region as they organize a phone call between Biden and her Polish counterpart, Agata Kornhauser-Duda. But although the first lady, one of the few popular, nonpolarizing figures in President Joe Biden's administration, would draw much-needed attention to the 2 million-plus refugees fleeing Ukraine, she risks upstaging her husband and Vice President Kamala Harris when they can least afford it.
Jill Biden taking "center stage" could be "problematic" for her husband considering his leadership during the Russia-Ukraine war has finally stabilized his free-falling approval ratings before the 2022 midterm elections, according to presidential historian David Pietrusza.
The optics would "only further fuel discussions of her husband's suspected limitations," Pietrusza told the Washington Examiner. "Prior to Eleanor Roosevelt, first ladies were seen but not heard. But while Eleanor famously traveled to coal mines, she did not travel to Tehran or Yalta in lieu of FDR," he added of the late President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Jill Biden would likely eclipse her husband because people tend to prefer her and her predecessors over their spouses, according to first ladies historian Andrew Och. And for Och, "the fuse has already been lit" concerning conjecture over Joe Biden's physical and mental fitness, so their staff "just have to work around that."
"You just have to keep driving the message home that President Biden makes all his own choices and consults with his wife, as he always does, because she's a great adviser and a great sounding board — or however they want to spin that," he said.
Regardless, a first lady trip to Eastern Europe is "an excellent idea," Och contended, particularly if the West Wing can use the publicity to underscore the White House's empathy for Ukrainian refugees, despite politics preventing direct U.S. intervention in the conflict.
Jill Biden broached the Russia-Ukraine war this week during a three-day swing of the country through Arizona, Kentucky, and Nevada. She described the situation as a moment in which "we suddenly realize that history is being written in front of us."
"When we can almost feel ourselves cross the line that will divide our world into 'before' and 'after,'" she told families of deployed Fort Campbell service members.
There is a lack of polling gauging the first lady's approval ratings. One survey conducted last year found that she ranked in the middle when respondents were asked about their favorite of the past dozen first ladies. Jill Biden is less popular than Jacqueline Onassis, Michelle Obama, Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush, Laura Bush, and Lady Bird Johnson, according to a Zogby Analytics poll last year. But she is better liked than Betty Ford, Rosalynn Carter, Hillary Clinton, Melania Trump, and Pat Nixon.
At the same time, Joe Biden and Harris's approval numbers are dismal. The president has an average net negative 10-percentage-point unfavorable rating, according to RealClearPolitics, while Harris has a net negative 13-point unfavorability.
Though Joe Biden's polling has improved slightly thanks to his Russia-Ukraine response, Harris struggled during her visit to Poland and Romania amid heightened tensions with the former over its rebuffed offer of MiG-29 aircraft. Poland had hoped to send the Soviet-era airplanes to the U.S. Ramstein Air Base in Germany so they could be forwarded to Ukraine.
A trip to Eastern Europe would mark a departure from Jill Biden's previous soft diplomacy demonstrations, including wearing a sunflower-embroidered dress to her husband's State of the Union address. Ukraine's national flower is the sunflower. Jill Biden also invited Ukraine's ambassador to the United States, Oksana Markarova, to watch the presidential report to Congress in her House chamber viewing box.
It would additionally broaden her policy portfolio, which has been focused so far on issues such as education, given her Northern Virginia Community College English and writing professorship, as well as cancer research and military families. The first lady, too, has been responsible for trying to humanize her husband through her holiday celebrations, from Christmas to Valentine's Day, leading the U.S. delegation at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, and introducing new first pets — German shepherd puppy Commander and tabby domestic short-haired cat Willow.
"My name is Joe Biden. I'm Jill Biden's husband. As you've already figured out, I can't dance," the president said last month after his wife joked about his dance moves. "I do it, but I ain't good at it. Oh man, you have great opportunities now, don't you, Jilly."