Apr 5, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Jill Biden leans on Michelle Obama alums

Jill Biden is seen hugging Michelle Obama on Inauguration Day 2021.
Jill Biden hugs Michelle Obama as their husbands greet one another on Inauguration Day 2021. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

As President Obama returns to the White House on Tuesday for the first time since his term ended, he'll find some familiar faces — and not just in the West Wing. First lady Jill Biden is leaning on staff originally hired by former first lady Michelle Obama.

Why it matters: Presidential spouses are notoriously insular and tend to rely on a longtime, trusted inner circle. Biden’s hiring shows a focus on honing her strategy and brand — an approach that vaulted Obama into a policy advocate, style icon and, since leaving office, best-selling author and content creator.

The details: Three staffers on the first lady’s team previously worked for the Obama White House.

  • Rory Brosius was tapped to lead the strategy for Joining Forces, a pro-veterans effort that started under Obama and was relaunched under Biden last year. Brocius was the deputy executive director in Obama's office.
  • Kelsey Donohue, Biden’s new deputy communications director, was Obama’s assistant press secretary.
  • And Gina Lee is the director of scheduling and advance. She worked in communications and scheduling for the Obama White House.

Between the lines: The hires give a clue into Biden’s approach and provide insight into what's still to come for the current first lady’s tenure.

  • Donohue, whose hiring Axios first reported in January, has joined the first lady ahead of an aggressive midterm travel schedule.
  • She's already accompanying Biden on the road, according to pool reports — a sign of her involvement in the itinerary.

What they’re saying: Analysts said the hirings make practical sense, even without political or personal motivations.

  • “I see this as totally in line with an increasingly strategic and intentional mobilization of staff surrounding the president’s spouse,” said Lauren A. Wright, an associate research scholar and lecturer in politics and public affairs at Princeton University.
  • In fact, the majority of the members of the first lady’s staff have worked for her or the president on and off for years. 
  • Wright also noted that because the East Wing tends to need to keep its staff numbers down, it's imperative employees have diverse resumes and multitask.
  • Michael LaRosa, Biden’s press secretary, has a background as a cable news producer, for example.

Patti Solis Doyle, director of scheduling for Hillary Clinton during her tenure as first lady, told Axios: “There are very few people in this country, maybe even in the world, who have experience doing this kind of work, working in the White House or specifically even working on a first lady’s team."

  • “So, it doesn't surprise me that she's reaching out to people who have done it before and have experience here."

Jill Biden has maintained a busy travel schedule, going to 36 states during her first year as first lady.

  • In one instance, she did a coordinated, cross-country swing in under a week.
  • The stops included Boston, Kentucky, Phoenix, Tucson, Reno and San Francisco.
  • She's expected to maintain a similarly aggressive travel schedule — including stops abroad — during the remainder of President Biden's term, a senior aide to the president told Axios.

As the war in Ukraine rages, the first lady has engaged on the topic in public and is expected to travel internationally to expand her involvement.

  • Biden already showed her support subtly by wearing a sunflower mask in the East Room and an embroidered sunflower on her blue dress at the State of the Union.
  • Blue and yellow are the colors of Ukraine, and the country's ambassador to the United States was the first lady’s guest for the State of the Union address.
  • The first lady has also visited Fort Campbell to meet with family members of troops deployed to Eastern Europe.
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