The new president and first lady open up about their initial days after returning to Washington, D.C., and starting the nation’s next chapter: “We have problems, but we also have enormous opportunities”

By Sandra Sobieraj Westfall
February 03, 2021 06:00 AM
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With his presidency just seven and a half days old, Joe Biden had already put his signature to dozens of executive orders — on everything from the COVID-19 pandemic to the climate crisis to transgender rights — when he strode into the White House Blue Room last week practically vibrating with the urgency of all he plans to do.

"How long is this going to take?" he asked. "I need to get back to the Oval."

Only when Biden, 78, sat down beside wife Jill Biden did he seem to exhale, taking a pause from the nation's crises — "We have problems, but we also have enormous opportunities" — to get misty-eyed about his grandchildren and the "surreal" return to a building the former senator and vice president had frequented but never called home.

Some things are very different in the White House the Bidens moved in to only hours after the Trumps vacated on Jan. 20. But others are just as they remembered, starting with Michelle Obama's kitchen garden.

("The garden is going strong!" the new first lady, 69, reports — and Obama herself soon concurred, with an Instagram post showing off a vegetable basket from the Bidens, grown right outside.)

And Jill, who goes by Dr. Biden — or "Dr. B" to her students — is back to teaching English at Northern Virginia Community College, though instruction is over Zoom for now. She is the first presidential spouse in modern memory to juggle a separate career. "That's my passion," she says. "That's my life."

In their first interview as president and first lady, for this week's issue of PEOPLE, the Bidens shared the "magic" of their first days in the White House and the miracle that their 43-year marriage only grew stronger through the highs and lows of getting here.

"There's that quote that says sometimes you become stronger in the fractured places," Dr. Biden says. "That's what we try to achieve."

Below are excerpts from the conversation.

• For more from Joe and Jill Biden's first White House interview, subscribe now to PEOPLE or pick up this week's issue, on newsstands Friday.

joe and jill biden
From left: President Joe Biden and First Lady Dr. Jill Biden photographed for PEOPLE at the White House Blue Room on Jan. 27; right: the latest issue of PEOPLE.
| Credit: Celeste Sloman

Is the White House starting to feel like home?

President Biden: It's surreal ... but it's comfortable. We were here for eight years, just not in this part of the residence. Spent a lot of time in the Cabinet Room and the Oval with the president. So upstairs [in the private family quarters] is new.

Dr. Biden: The residence staff has been so great, trying to make it feel like home for us. We have family pictures all around, our books, some furniture we brought from home.

Your inauguration was like no other before and hopefully no other again. What was it like for you to step out on that west front of the Capitol and see that sea of flags where thousands of people should have been?

President Biden: This was maybe one of the most consequential inaugurations in a long, long time — not because I was being sworn in, but in the sense of what the state of the nation is, between everything from COVID to unemployment to racial inequality. We wanted to make sure that as many Americans could participate as possible, and it turns out millions of people watched it. We have such an incredible opportunity as a country now. Not because of me but because the American people sort of had the blinders ripped off, and they realized that, man, we have problems, but we also have enormous opportunities.

You wrote in [your memoir] Promise Me, Dad that the two of you grow stronger and closer under pressure. We've seen public marriages—in politics especially—crumble under stress. So what is your secret?

President Biden: She has a backbone like a ramrod. Everybody says marriage is 50/50. Well, sometimes you have to be 70/30. Thank God that when I'm really down, she steps in, and when she's really down, I'm able to step in. We've been really supportive of one another. I've read all that data as well about families under pressure, and that's why I'm glad she kept her profession. It's really important that she's an educator, although she took off two years when we first got married because the boys were little. It's important that she has the things that she cares a great deal about, her independence. And yet we share each other's dreams.

Dr. Biden: All that we've been through together — the highs, the lows and certainly tragedy and loss — there's that quote that says sometimes you become stronger in the fractured places. That's what we try to achieve.

Could you do this job without her?

President Biden: We each could do our jobs, but not as well as we do them. I don't think I would have stayed involved in public life. Jill came along at a really important point and put my family back together. She's the glue that held it together, and I knew that I wanted to marry her shortly after I met her. … It's not that we don't fight and argue sometimes. I'm just lucky.

Dr. Biden: Well, after 43 years of marriage there's really not that much more to fight about. [Laughs]

• Watch the full episode of People Cover Story: President Biden and Dr. Biden streaming now on PeopleTV.com, or download the PeopleTV app on your favorite device.

President Joe Biden and Dr. Jill Biden
From left: First Lady Dr. Jill Biden and President Joe Biden photographed for PEOPLE on Jan. 27 in the White House Blue Room
| Credit: Celeste Sloman

Given the stakes in the pandemic and the economic crisis, do you lean into prayer to help you lead?

President Biden: I don't want to proselytize. My religion, for me, is a safe place. I never miss mass, because I can be alone. I mean, I'm with my family but just kind of absorbing the fundamental principle that you've got to treat everyone with dignity. Jill, when she wants me to get a real message, she tapes it on the mirror above the sink where I shave. And she put up a great quote from Kierkegaard saying, "Faith sees best in the dark." Other people may meditate. For me, prayer gives me hope, and it centers me.

Madame first lady, you also got right to work and are also teaching classes.

Dr. Biden: I teach writing. I taught all eight years that I was second lady. That's my passion, that's my life.

President Biden: The thing that surprises me is how much energy Jill gets from her students. The students she teaches, these are foreign students or people who weren't the people who graduated from high school, but they're remaking their lives. It's an inspiration. It's energy for Jill, but it's a lot of work.

Dr. Biden: It's been busy. But it's been so many different things, so many different areas, and Joe's been working hard on foreign policy and of course his new [COVID relief] plan. And so we have a lot to do — but we have a lot ahead of us and we feel good about it. We feel like people have hope that we're moving the country forward.

One of the first things you did as president was sign tough new ethics rules for appointees. As a father who saw son Hunter [and his business deals in Ukraine and China] come under scrutiny, are you putting up guardrails for family and friends, too, to avoid any appearance of wrongdoing?

President Biden: We're going to run this like the Obama-Biden administration. No one in our family and extended family is going to be involved in any government undertaking or foreign policy. And nobody has an office in this place.

Where do you think the country will be at this time next year?

President Biden: I hope we have fundamentally returned to normal as it relates to COVID — and it's going to be hard, because they're predicting another 100,000-150,000 dead unless we take precautions, even with the vaccine. I hope we have really begun to make inroads on equity for all people ... where they can have decent jobs and decent opportunities, and the economy is growing, and people are back to a degree of optimism.