WASHINGTON — Jill Biden went public Monday with her frustration over a political process that she says treats legislation like a football to “pass or pivot” while real people, such as her community college students, wait for assistance that would help them build better futures.
“Governing isn't a game. There are no teams to root for or against, just people, Americans from all walks of life who need help and hope,” the first lady told a meeting of advocates for community colleges in a message that also seemed directed at members of Congress.
She was talking about a proposal to make community colleges tuition free, promised during the 2020 presidential campaign but now dropped from a much larger social welfare and climate bill that was a core domestic priority for her husband, President Joe Biden.
Her pointed comments were unusual since first ladies generally try to avoid being drawn into the political fray or getting too involved in the legislative process. But the issue is deeply personal for Jill Biden, who has taught at community colleges for many years and is a longtime advocate of waiving tuition to help the students who attend these schools. She worked on the issue during the Obama administration, when her husband was vice president.
President Biden scrapped the tuition plan as he tried to win the support of key Senate Democrats who objected to the scope and cost of the overall measure, and whose votes he desperately needed given solid opposition from Republicans in a chamber split 50-50.
But the “Build Back Better” bill ended up stalled in the Senate anyway, and one of those Democrats, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, recently declared that measure “dead.”
On Monday, Jill Biden told the Association of Community College Trustees national legislative summit that the president will continue to push Congress to adopt the proposal.
“Joe doesn't quit. He doesn't give up. He is keeping his promise to rebuild our middle class and he knows that community colleges do just that," the first lady said to applause.
Last year, Jill Biden, a veteran community college English and writing professor, addressed the organization with taped remarks, bowing to the COVID-19 pandemic, and promised that her dream of waiving some tuition would become reality with her husband in the White House.
“We have to get this done. And we have to do it now. That’s why we’re going to make sure that everyone has access to free community college and training programs,” she said in 2021.
Speaking in person on Monday to a masked audience inside a hotel ballroom, she blamed failure to deliver on the “compromise” the president had to make.
The first lady, a professor at Northern Virginia Community College, talked about having to lend a book to one of her students last week because he couldn't afford to buy it before pay day, and about a student mom who eventually dropped out of class because her child got COVID-19.
Both students would benefit from tuition-free college, child care support and other provisions of the stalled legislation, she said.
“Build Back Better isn't just a piece of legislation and it's certainly not a football to pass or pivot,” Jill Biden said.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the first lady was “speaking from her heart.”
Myra Gutin, a Rider University professor and author of “The President’s Partner: The First Lady in the Twentieth Century,” said first ladies don't take on Congress or call out their failures, but that Jill Biden “must have felt that she could not remain silent” on this particular issue.
“Her dismay is genuine and she was not going to paper over the lack of action,” Gutin said in an email.
The first lady, who grew up in Pennsylvania, opened with a few words about her love for sports and Philadelphia's pro teams, before she got to her point.
“I’m a first lady for all Americans, but when it comes to teams, my heart belongs to the Philadelphia Eagles, the 76ers, the Phillies, and the Flyers,” she said. “The competition, the crowds, the rivalries, I love it all.”
“But too often, we treat what happens in our nation’s capital like a sports game, too, wondering which team will score the most points with voters,” she said. “Legislation becomes a football to keep away from the other side, and Americans get lost in the playbook.”
Jill Biden said she and the president both knew getting tuition-free college wouldn't “be easy," but she was still disappointed “because, like you, these aren't just bills or budgets to me.”
“We know what they mean for real people, for our students, and it was a real lesson in human nature that some people just don't get that,” the first lady said.