Former Vice President Joe Biden, then Democratic presidential nominee, second left, and Senator Kamala Harris, then Democratic vice presidential nominee, hold hands next to Jill Biden, left, during the Democratic National Convention in Wilmington, Delaware, on Aug. 20, 2020.
Stefani Reynolds—Bloomberg/Getty Images
December 11, 2020 12:49 PM EST

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The cookies were plated, but the welcome mat was performative. At least at first.

To understand the dynamics of the incoming White House, it’s worth stopping for a minute to consider the fulcrum that is First Lady-in-waiting Jill Biden. Dr. Biden — a Ph.D.-credentialed college professor and perhaps the most indifferent-to-politics person to take on the task since Mamie Eisenhower — had choked back her skepticism about the woman her husband was about to announce as his governing partner. Dr. Biden wasn’t rushing to forget how Kamala Harris savaged Joe Biden at that first debate in Miami or the sting that lingered when she implied his motives in busing policies were racist. The Joe known to Jill was a just man who held no racism in his bones.

Still, Dr. Biden opened the doors of their Wilmington home to Harris and her family. Dr. Biden may lack the personal political ambitions of some of her predecessors, but she knew that her husband believed he needed Harris to win. Put plainly, Joe Biden couldn’t reach the White House without the political clout Harris controlled. And he had spent every waking moment since the 1970s trying to figure out how to crack this code. So Dr. Biden plated the cookies and hugged her guests in service of her husband’s dream of serving in the White House.

“This is a marriage, and I feel very protective of my husband and my children, as is any mother,” Dr. Biden tells TIME for a profile of President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Harris, this year’s TIME Person of the Year. “You move beyond it — that’s politics.”

As that day and those that followed wore on, though, Dr. Biden got more comfortable with those in her home. In the end, the self-described Philly Girl — the one who body-blocked a heckler in Manchester, N.H., and nearly tackled a protester in Los Angeles — found herself liking Harris and her family. In them, she saw a familiar tableau: step-kids and stand-in parents, political neophytes making the best of a situation they never sought for themselves. It didn’t take long for Dr. Biden to understand the allure of Harris’ online fan base, branded the #KHive. And she also realized that Joe Biden’s political next act hinged on Dr. Biden’s ability to hold this scene together. It was exactly the test drive she would face if Biden were elected — as he was.

Dr. Biden is not a natural politician, but she knows what makes people tick. She’s spent enough time in the front of classrooms — first high schools and later community colleges — to know how to spot the troublemakers. Even after she moves into the executive mansion in a few weeks, she plans to continue working in a classroom, becoming the first First Lady in history to have a job outside the 18 acres of the White House complex.

She’s scrappy, and makes no apologies for it. She may not be Joe Biden’s most seasoned adviser, but she is his most loyal. Need proof? When Joe Biden had settled on Harris, he asked his wife to phone the team brought together to vet and advise the former Vice President on choosing a running mate to let them know he had decided. She might not have been the most frequent voice in meetings of Joe Biden’s braintrust, but when the woman known as “Jilly” spoke, you knew her husband heard her loud and clear. So with the pick of Harris settled, Dr. Biden turned to the next task at hand. She had to get ready to welcome the Harrises to Wilmington — and to the Biden clan.

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Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com.

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