CENTERVILLE, Iowa — Jill Biden was torn.
Three months into Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s 2020 White House bid, he was struggling with the intense scrutiny that comes with being the front-runner, and she was increasingly needed on the campaign trail as a top surrogate for her husband. But Dr. Biden was reluctant to pull back from her obligations at Northern Virginia Community College, where she had taught English for a decade.
“I am getting pressure to take off a semester to campaign,” Dr. Biden confided to an associate dean in July, as they exchanged emails about her fall semester classes. “You know where my heart is.”
But before making a decision on her teaching schedule, she wrote, “I’d like to talk to Joe first. If I ever see him!!!!”
By early August, it was decided. Dr. Biden would participate in her husband’s campaign — but she would teach that autumn, too. She informed her colleague of her plan as she took off for “Iowa … again!”
The challenge was resolved only temporarily: The demands of the campaign increased and as the first voting approached she was again conflicted about her dual roles. A month ago, she made the decision to pull back from teaching this semester.
Over their 42 years of marriage, Dr. Biden has been by turns Mr. Biden’s greatest champion and a hesitant political spouse, committed to supporting his career just as he has embraced hers, but protective of her family and her own identity, and keenly aware of the costs of presidential campaigns.
This cycle, outraged by President Trump and reflecting a partnership long rooted in mutual encouragement, Dr. Biden has emerged as one of the race’s most prolific surrogates as her husband make his third attempt at the White House. She has crisscrossed Iowa in the weeks leading up to Monday’s caucuses, undertaking campaign trail commitments that have sometimes been more extensive than his.
At fund-raisers and phone banks, house parties and parades, Dr. Biden praises her husband’s character and provides raw political assessments of his electoral prospects in a contest that has already turned deeply personal, as Mr. Trump and Republicans direct a barrage of attacks on their son.
“She knew that this was going to be a very, very difficult race,” said former Senator Ted Kaufman, a longtime Biden friend and former chief of staff who briefly succeeded him in the Senate. “But then again, she agrees with him on how important it was that he run.”
That hasn’t always been the case.
‘Thank God it’s only one date’
When the Bidens met, Dr. Biden was a college student who had already experienced marriage and divorce.
“The guys I dated had bell bottoms and clogs,” Dr. Biden told a small group of voters gathered at a bookstore here one recent Sunday. “Joe showed up at my door. So I opened the door and I took one look at his perfect suit, and his leather loafers. And I thought, ‘Thank God it’s only one date.’”
Mr. Biden, nine years her senior, was a Delaware senator and widower, the father of two young boys who survived a car crash that killed his first wife and a daughter. It took five marriage proposals before Dr. Biden — wary of the public spotlight, focused on her career and cognizant of the responsibilities that came with joining a fragile family — said yes.
For years, the Bidens sought to build their lives and their family — a daughter, Ashley, was born in 1981 — away from the swirl and scrutiny of Beltway politics. Mr. Biden commuted home nightly from Washington to the Wilmington area on Amtrak, while Dr. Biden taught, acquired two master’s degrees and eventually earned a doctorate in education. The routine was punctuated by sometimes exhilarating, sometimes painful turns in the national spotlight.
In 1987, she cut a forlorn figure beside Mr. Biden as he dropped out of a presidential contest. In 2003, she wrote in her memoir, she sought to end talk of another run by parading through a strategy session in a swimsuit, the word “NO” written on her stomach.
In the 2008 campaign she embraced Mr. Biden’s ultimately doomed presidential run and then his selection as Barack Obama’s running mate, and relished her work as second lady. But in 2015, devastated by the death of their elder son, Beau, the Bidens passed on another race.
This time, according to interviews with more than 20 friends, former staff members and Democratic officials, Dr. Biden is fully committed to her 77-year-old husband’s candidacy, serving privately as a trusted confidante who can offer unvarnished feedback in a way few others can, and publicly as an active surrogate. She adheres to her stump speech more than her sometimes-meandering husband does to his, and while she does not speak in smooth sound bites, after her tour as second lady she is more comfortable onstage.
“She’s like the adviser in chief,” Mr. Kaufman said. “Kind of like the relationship he had with Obama, he’d be the last person in the room — that’s Jill.”
Dr. Biden’s campaign aides declined repeated requests to make her available for an interview.
Dr. Biden, 68, whose lingering accent and sports loyalties reflect her Philadelphia-area childhood, has a reputation for being direct and energetic, the type to call former staff members to sing “Happy Birthday” and to enjoy practical jokes — she concluded a recent campaign video by smearing pie on her press secretary’s face (“caucusing for Joe” is “easy as pie”). She is not a political obsessive — which can lead, occasionally, to off-message moments.
In August, for instance, she advised Biden skeptics they should vote for her husband even if they were not enthusiastic about him, saying, “Maybe you have to swallow a little bit and say, ‘O.K., I sort of personally like so-and-so better,’ but your bottom line has to be that we have to beat Trump.” And she made headlines in May for saying that “it’s time to move on” from controversy surrounding her husband’s treatment of Anita Hill during Justice Clarence Thomas’s 1991 Supreme Court confirmation hearings.
A personal touch on the trail
While Mr. Biden often flies on private planes and speaks from behind rope lines, Dr. Biden is campaigning closer to the ground: In October, she regaled attendees at a Florida fund-raiser about the indignities of campaign travel (“You haven’t lived until you’ve changed in the ladies’ room of the Tampa airport”). In a small room at a church in rural Albia, Iowa, she stood before about a dozen people last month, asking who had reservations about her husband that she could address .
“This is just like the classroom!” exclaimed Dr. Biden. “Who here is on the fence?”
At the moment, Dr. Biden is on leave from her twice-a-week classes after balancing campaign duties with teaching all fall. But she would have preferred to continue teaching, said Jimmie McClellan, the dean of languages, arts and social sciences at the college’s Alexandria campus, where Dr. Biden works.
“We had her in the schedule,” said Mr. McClellan, who supervises Dr. Biden and supported her decision. “She was prepared to teach and was ready to go, but the campaign told her she was needed.’’
“She said, if what she is engaged in is successful, it’ll have a great impact on the country,” Mr. McClellan added.
At school, Dr. Biden has long sought to ensure that she was known for her work as an English professor, not as Mr. Biden’s spouse.
“My standard line when students ask me if I am married to the VP is to say that I am one of his relatives. That usually quiets them,” she wrote in an email to a colleague years ago, according to a review of correspondence obtained through a public records request of the community college.
The records contain a selection of emails from 2009 — when she began teaching at the college — through September 2019, offering a window into Dr. Biden’s parallel life as a professor.
They include no direct messages between the Bidens, although there are exchanges with White House staff members. There are also no substantive references to Hunter Biden, whose dealings in Ukraine played a role in the impeachment proceedings against Mr. Trump.
In her book, Dr. Biden calls Hunter “the heart of our family in so many ways.” She has defended him amid scrutiny of his overseas business dealings, saying flatly in an interview with MSNBC last year: “Hunter did nothing wrong. And that’s the bottom line.”
Fran Person, who served as an aide to Mr. Biden for years, described Dr. Biden as “very warm,” but also as a tough “Philly girl” who does not “mince words.”
“It would not shock her,” Mr. Person said of Mr. Trump’s attacks on Hunter Biden. “Would it make her mad? Of course. That’s her son.”
‘I admire how she’s always worked’
Dr. Biden was the first known second lady to also have a full-time job, and that is a core part of her appeal on the campaign trail now, where she frequently discusses her students and education policy.
“I admire how she’s always worked,” said Tara Pedersen, who attended a Biden campaign rally in Des Moines in the fall. “She kept a prestigious career while he was vice president, and I find that respectable.”
As second lady, Dr. Biden’s emails show, she shared the perks of the White House with her teaching colleagues, arranging for tickets to White House events like a garden visit and a holiday tour. But she didn’t appear to pull rank; when she needed to take time off work — to attend an event with the Obamas or go an overseas trip with her husband — she requested permission from the college. (When she inquired about attending Senator John McCain’s funeral, she was asked to “find someone to cover for you or find an out-of-class exercise,” and she said she would oblige.)
In January 2017, Dr. Biden wrote about the personal transition that came with her husband’s departure from public office.
“I am currently living in 3 houses!” wrote Dr. Biden, whose emails show up as “Jill Tracy.” “I can’t find a thing!!! I have my DE home, our new rental, and the Vice President’s Residence all this for a middle class girl. Amazing.”
In recent years, the couple rented a 12,000-square foot residence in McLean, Va., not far from campus (they no longer rent that home) and bought a vacation house in Rehoboth Beach, Del., for $2.7 million.
Dr. Biden’s work at the university continued, but she and her husband also signed lucrative book deals and accepted paid speaking engagements. The couple’s three-book deal was reported to be worth about $8 million and, according to a financial disclosure, Dr. Biden reported more than a dozen speaking engagements that had associated honorariums ranging from $25,367 to $66,400. In all, the Bidens reported an adjusted gross income of about $11 million in 2017 and $4.6 million in 2018, according to tax filings released by the campaign.
On the campaign trail, Dr. Biden is animated and at times fiery when she gives her prepared speech, often from notes. The remarks typically highlight Mr. Biden’s chances against Mr. Trump and the broader goals of restoring decency and experience to the White House.
At several recent campaign stops, Dr. Biden has earnestly asked voters how she could get them on board with Mr. Biden, even giving out her campaign email address. Yet there have been flashes of impatience, too.
“Pennsylvania, Florida and Wisconsin: These are the states that we must win in 2020, and Joe has the strongest chance of beating Trump, more than anyone else,” she said as she introduced her husband at an event in Des Moines in the fall. “There’s no time for indecisiveness. It’s time for us, it’s time for you Iowans, to get to work.”
If the message from the podium was assertive, the relationship between the Bidens appears palpably affectionate. She has described her demonstrative husband as someone who “tends to pull me out of my shell, and I help keep him grounded.”
Mr. Biden caused an internet stir when he playfully gnawed on her finger as she introduced him in Council Bluffs, Iowa, the Saturday after Thanksgiving. He sometimes jokes that if he didn’t champion teachers, “I would be sleeping alone.”He often introduces himself as “Jill Biden’s husband.”
“The happiest times I’ve seen him have been when Jill is doing something,” Mr. Kaufman said. “When Jill is happy, when Jill is doing something, like, ‘Oh, God, did you see that? Did you see what she did? Just incredible!’ And she feels the same way about him.”