As second gentleman Doug Emhoff spoke to a group of Jewish leaders gathered at the White House in the wake of Hamas’s terrorist attacks on Israel, his voice shook with emotion.
Emhoff, who is Jewish, slammed his first on the lectern as he described his outrage over the “mass murder of innocent civilians.”
Days later, Emhoff met with survivors of the 2018 Tree of Life Synagogue massacre, in which 11 people were killed in an antisemitic attack in Pittsburgh.
Emhoff’s urgent efforts to address antisemitism are reflective of how the first and second families have taken on heavy causes with deeply personal meaning since the beginning of the Biden administration.
Like Emhoff, the other top principals lean into their own “point of personal privilege,” as President Biden often says, citing a Senate phrase that allows for members to discuss the topics they want.
Biden and first lady Jill Biden have taken on fighting cancer following the death of their son Beau from brain cancer. The first lady also leads an initiative to help military families.
Vice President Harris has spearheaded the administration’s work to fight for voting rights and reproductive rights in the wake of Roe v. Wade — all issues that will uniquely be a part of this administration’s legacy.
Advocating for a cause they are passionate about is historically the role of first ladies, but all four principals at the White House have chosen to work on emotional issues, which experts say marks a shift.
“We live in a more transparent society, where people are more apt to share their feelings and their concerns. We are also a society that has a more heightened appreciation of one’s identity. So, I think in this era, it is less surprising if members of the executive branch, if they share concerns that are more personal to them,” said Tim Naftali, presidential expert at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.
It’s not uncommon for members of the first or second family to focus on areas they are passionate about. Michelle Obama led efforts to address childhood obesity through exercise and healthy eating. Laura Bush, a former public school teacher, launched a reading program. And Karen Pence, also a longtime school teacher and mother in a military family, focused her efforts on art therapy to assist military members.
But for the Bidens, Harris and Emhoff, the causes they’ve championed carry particularly emotional weight. They are connected to the deaths of loved ones, the erosion of rights, a rise in attacks on Jews.
In addition to meeting with Jewish leaders and community members related to specific attacks, Emhoff helped launch the administration’s strategy to combat antisemitism domestically. He also visited Poland and Germany to commemorate International Holocaust Remembrance Day earlier this year.
Harris’s policy portfolio has overlapped with issues she is passionate about, and in some cases she has sought out that work. The vice president asked to take the lead on pushing for voting rights legislation, an effort that ran into roadblocks in the narrowly divided Senate before Republicans retook the majority in the House.
Harris, as the highest-ranking female official in U.S. history, has been the administration’s most visible official in speaking about reproductive rights and abortion access in the aftermath of the Supreme Court striking down Roe v. Wade.
And while Biden is occupied with myriad crises and issues, both domestic and foreign, he has still found time to focus on a cause that is deeply personal: finding a cure for cancer. Along with son Beau, Biden has lost Senate colleagues including John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) to cancer.
Biden has relaunched the Cancer Moonshot and has spoken about cancer research as an area of bipartisan concern, hosting lawmakers from both parties at the White House to discuss the issue and addressing it in his State of the Union addresses.
“As president, a lot of your time can be diverted to managing challenges that were unforeseeable or unpreventable. But you also get the opportunity to put your stamp on issues that you care about,” said Eric Schultz, a former deputy press secretary in the Obama White House.
“The issues that this administration’s principals have chosen to champion are windows into what they each care most about,” Schultz said. “The slow, hard work of making progress can be much more manageable when you’re tackling issues that are deeply personal. In this case, they’re also authentic to who they are as people.”
Biden reignited the cancer moonshot project in 2022, with a focus on reducing the death rate by 50 percent in 25 years. This personal initiative for Biden has led to calls from the administration for cancer screening, early detection and ensuring equitable access to screenings.
The president also considers as a major victory the legislation that expands benefits for millions of veterans who were exposed to toxins during service; he brought in his own family’s struggle when pushing for the burn pits legislation.
Biden speaks frequently about how Beau — who served in the Delaware National Guard — was exposed to burn pits in Iraq, and suggests that could have been the cause of the glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer, that led to his death.
“It’s not unique to me and my family,” the president said in December, relating to the struggle of military families dealing with the aftermath of exposure to burn pits.
That personal spin on policy choices is a staple of the Biden White House, as the president, first lady, Harris and Emhoff tend to lean into it when they can.
“The concept of authenticity. What might have been considered oversharing a generation ago is obviously expected,” Naftali said. “Now people would say, ‘Why are they not feeling this? Are they machines?’”
Source: The Hill