“What Is My Goal?”: Inside the Tense Roundtable to “Define” Jill Biden’s Legacy

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Joe Biden has been focused on his presidential legacy for so long that he wasted no time ushering a group of historians into the White House once he finally got the job. Six weeks after taking office, he met with presidential scholars in the East Room to discuss what sort of president he could be, should ambitious plans for social spending and infrastructure bear fruit.

The listening session was organized by Jon Meacham, a Pulitzer Prize–winning biographer and historian who moonlights as a Biden speechwriter. Other attendees included the author Michael Eric Dyson and a selection of historians from Ivy League universities. (Though Joe has emphasized his lack of Ivy credentials, in practice he is happy to be surrounded by advisers who have them.) Meacham was the person the president looked to when he wanted to muse about what the Biden presidency could mean when viewed against the long scope of history—a favorite topic for the politician who, when he was elected at seventy-seven, was the oldest commander in chief the country had ever seen.

It would not be the president’s last check-in with historians, but his first meeting with them in office was notable because very few meetings like this were being held at the White House at that time. On March 2, 2021, the day of the meeting, the coronavirus vaccine was still not widely available. Masking mandates and public health guidelines on social distancing were still strict. Very few people were authorized to be in the same room with the president, lest they be unwitting vectors for disease. In the meeting with historians, the paper covering their water glasses was embossed with a golden presidential seal.

The sit-down occurred as the Biden administration was working to contain a wily virus; put checks on an aggressive authoritarian, Vladimir Putin of Russia; and craft a sizable social spending plan to sell to the American public. Given the hectic backdrop, a meeting with historians sounded like Joe’s idea of a good time. It was one of very few in-person pandemic visitations he had been allowed to enjoy with people outside of his tight circle of aides and family members.

As he eyed social spending and infrastructure legislation that, together, could add up to more than $3 trillion, he was curious to know what some of his most admired predecessors had done to secure their transformative legacies: How much change, he wondered, could the United States tolerate at once?

“I’m no FDR, but . . .” Biden said to the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin at one point, a reference to one of his heroes, the news site Axios reported. Michael Beschloss, the presidential historian, compared what the president was trying to accomplish to the New Deal, the Great Depression–era relief plan Franklin Delano Roosevelt championed in 1933 to help stabilize the American economy.

By the end of the meeting, Biden felt satisfied with the comparisons to historical giants. He told an aide that he could have gone another two hours listening about presidential history and scribbling notes in his little black notebook.

The invitees to that meeting recalled a West Wing so quiet that it felt like a snow day. Across the White House, the East Wing was similarly calm, mostly because March 2, 2021, was a Tuesday. This meant that Jill was scheduled to teach. While the president picked the brains of historians in the chandelier-studded opulence of the East Room, the First Lady was in her office, teaching English over Zoom to community college students.

Unlike her husband, who has been ruminating over his presidential legacy since the Carter era, Jill Biden has not spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about what her own impact on history might look like. But over a year after Jill’s husband first summoned historians to the White House, she invited a group of them to the East Wing.

A year into the presidency, the sense among people close to Jill was that she was not doing enough to shape her legacy as First Lady. Several people, including Cathy Russell, Jill’s former chief of staff and a close friend, had urged her to make the most of her time in office—whether that was four or eight years. Russell had left Biden world to become the executive director of UNICEF, but she was still an occasional presence around the East Wing, taking walks with Jill on the South Lawn out of earshot of her deeply curious aides. Privately, Russell had encouraged her to think about streamlining the many trips she was taking in the service of her husband’s policy goals into one cohesive initiative that fit more into the grand tradition of modern First Ladies who focused on a single issue, according to people familiar with their discussions.

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