Apr 11, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Jill Biden tests White House red-state messaging in Alabama

First lady Jill Biden is seen sitting in a classroom during a visit to Birmingham, Ala., on Friday.
Jill Biden in Birmingham, Ala., on Friday. Photo: Anna Moneymaker/Pool/AFP

Jill Biden's visit to Alabama is an early look at how the White House plans to deploy the first lady to connect her husband's message to struggling Americans, in red states especially.

Driving the news: Axios traveled with Biden on Friday to Birmingham, accompanying her to the James Rushton Early Learning Center and a YWCA where Biden spoke about how the administration's $1.9 trillion stimulus law can help address child poverty. Both centers she visited run Head Start programs that benefit from the law.

  • "This pandemic will not break us," Biden said in her remarks. "I know that you would do anything for your child. You want to give them the world. Every parent does."

Why it matters: Democrats passed the massive spending package with no Republican support. Now President Biden is seeking to highlight what's in it for Americans in every state, as the administration sets the table for an even bigger infrastructure bill the GOP leadership also has vowed to oppose.

  • The COVID-19 pandemic has hit Alabama hard, disproportionately affecting Black residents and increasing hunger and unemployment across the state.
  • The child tax credit provision in the law could cut child poverty by half, according to the Center on Poverty and Social Policy at Columbia University.

Details: Jill Biden, who is continuing to work as a community college professor, brought English papers to grade aboard the flight. Her work as an educator is woven through her speeches and personal interactions.

  • She quoted Mr. Rogers in one set of remarks to community members and elected officials.
  • She grabbed a pipette and joined preschoolers in a science experiment around chemical reactions that involved baking soda.
  • Rep. Terri Sewell, the state's only Democratic member of Congress, introduced her to students by saying, "She's a teacher. She's also the first lady. Isn't that cool?"

The big picture: Alabama overwhelmingly backed former President Trump over President Biden last November, with 62% of the vote. But reaching across the aisle and engaging with Republican-controlled states is a key part of the Biden message.

  • Alabama was No. 47 of 50 for education in the latest U.S. News & World Report ranking of states, 45th for health care and 37th for opportunity.
  • Meanwhile, Georgia's pivotal shift to Biden underscores the power of engaging voters of color and progressives in Southern states that once were considered deep red.
  • With Republican Sen. Richard Shelby's decision not to seek reelection next year, some Democrats see Alabama as an opportunity to pick up a seat — though most strategists agree it would be a long shot.

Between the lines: Jill Biden made several stops in Alabama during the 2020 Democratic primary campaign, helping her husband compete against rivals Michael Bloomberg — who invested heavily in staffing and ads there as part of a Super Tuesday strategy — and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

  • During her previous visits there, she got to know Sewell as well as Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin, both of whom were part of the Friday trip.
  • And the Bidens have long been close to Doug Jones, a Democrat and former prosecutor who served as Alabama's senator for three years.
  • Jones was seated after Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions left his seat early to join the Trump administration and the Republican nominee in the race was beset by scandal. Jones decisively lost his reelection bid last year.

What they’re saying: Jones, who also was part of Friday's entourage, told Axios that sending the first lady to Alabama sends precisely the message President Biden has sought to convey.

  • “You don’t just go to your supporters,” he said. “You go to some places where there might be some skepticism.”
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