Harris charts her own course as vice-president amid intense scrutiny
Harris is navigating a position that comes with great influence but few formal responsibilities – and the stakes are even higher for her compared to past vice-presidents
Earlier this month, Kamala Harris convened the inaugural meeting of the National Space Council, an important summit that brought together cabinet secretaries and top space and military officials in the sun-drenched atrium of the US Institute of Peace. Over the course of nearly two hours, the vice-president engaged the panel in discussion with real, earthly implications for national security, the climate crisis and workforce development.
But attention in Washington was diverted elsewhere. At the supreme court, the justices were weighing the future of abortion rights. Republicans in Congress were threatening a government shutdown over their opposition to Covid-19 mask mandates. And as Harris spoke, public health experts confirmed the first case of the Omicron coronavirus variant in the US.
Such is the challenge of Harris’s mission: a historic first navigating an inescapably secondary role. Her work on the president’s most urgent priorities – combatting the coronavirus pandemic and enacting his legislative agenda – is often overlooked, while her efforts on her own policy portfolio often goes unnoticed.
It is a dynamic that has frustrated past occupants of the office, which comes with great influence but few formal responsibilities. But the expectations – and the stakes – are even higher for Harris, both because she made history as the first Black, South Asian and female vice-president, and because she is next in line to Joe Biden, who, at 79, is the oldest president ever to hold office.
Speaking to the space council, Harris shared a piece of wisdom given to her by an astronaut, offering it as a guiding principle for tackling the myriad challenges before them: “Just focus on what’s right in front of you. And from there, widen your view.”
Nearly a year into her vice-presidency, Harris has plenty to focus on – and more than enough distractions.
‘There is no playbook for this’
Harris has been handed a portfolio packed with politically thorny issues, voting rights and the root causes of immigration from Central America, among them. That work comes in addition to a host of other assignments that includes selling the president’s infrastructure plan, advocating for his sprawling social policy bill, representing women in the workforce, highlighting maternal health disparities, combatting vaccine hesitancy and championing small businesses.
The Biden administration continues to face a global pandemic that has not receded, rising inflation and uncertainty over the centerpiece of the president’s legislative agenda. Since taking office, her approval numbers have fallen precipitously alongside Biden’s, fueling early chatter about possible Democratic alternatives should Biden not run for re-election in 2024.
She is a frequent target of attacks from conservative media outlets, where some pundits still willfully mispronounce her first name. But she has also come under pressure from activists frustrated by the slow pace of progress on issues like immigration and voting rights. And the recent departures of high-profile aides from her office have renewed scrutiny of her management style.
In the churn, Harris has struggled to chart her own course in a position that can be simultaneously forgettable and highly visible.
“When you are second in command, not first in command, no one understands your role,” said Donna Brazile, a veteran Democratic strategist who is close to Harris. “So you have to constantly define your role and shape your own narrative. That is the challenge that she has.”
The pandemic, and the possibility of being summoned to cast a tie-breaking vote in the Senate, have made travel tricky. But Harris said recently she hopes to spend more time away from Washington next year, selling the president’s agenda. And she will surely be a sought-after surrogate for Democrats on the campaign trail ahead of November’s midterm elections.
Already, Harris has made dozens of domestic trips, hosting roundtables and giving local interviews to spotlight the administration’s work.
On recent trip to Charlotte to promote the infrastructure law, Harris was joined by the transportation secretary, Pete Buttigieg. During a tour of a bus depot, Harris sought to keep the focus on infrastructure, quizzing a local transit official about the features of a brand-new electric-powered bus. But after the event, Harris was peppered with questions from reporters about 2024, the rumored rivalry between her and Buttigieg and reports of a “staff shake-up” in the vice-president’s office.
Harris has expressed frustration with the breathless coverage, which includes a recent report on her skepticism of Bluetooth headphones and an interview with a body-language expert analyzing her interactions with Buttigieg during the North Carolina trip. In an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, Harris called the coverage “ridiculous” and said she would not allow herself to be distracted.
“There is no playbook for this,” said Karen Finney, a longtime Democratic strategist who is close to the Harris team.
Noting that Harris has broken barriers in every job she’s held, Finney said she came into office with her eyes wide open.
“She’s tough,” Finney said. “She’s focused on the job.”
Some stories are harder to dismiss. Stories about staff dysfunction have dogged Harris throughout her nearly two decades in elected office, from San Francisco district attorney to the US Senate to her 2020 presidential campaign, which fell apart amid reports of internal discord.
Allies see overtones of sexism and racism in the coverage of Harris. They say the portrait of her as an overbearing boss is a trope used to diminish women in politics, and that male politicians are rarely subject to the same level of scrutiny over their leadership style. And former aides have come to her defense, saying she is demanding but not unfair.
But critics say Harris stands apart. She burns through staffers who have a high tolerance for difficult work environments under both male and female bosses. They point to the high turnover in her office and the lack of longtime aides by her side, a sharp contrast with Biden, who is surrounded by advisers who have been with him for decades.
Gil Duran, a columnist for the San Francisco Examiner, worked for Harris in 2013, when she was attorney general. He left five months later. In a recent column, he wrote that Harris was repeating the “same old destructive patterns”.
Those concerns did little to slow her political rise, Duran told the Guardian, but now that she is seen as Biden’s heir apparent, they could color perceptions of her ability to manage the presidency.
“It’s important to put a stop to this narrative,” he said. If she can do that, he believes the stories of internal dysfunction will be “old news” by the time she might face voters again. “But if it continues to be refreshed by new drama,” Duran warned, “then I think it’s going to be hard to escape.”
Rise to the presidency?
Harris’s difficult portfolio has caused angst among supporters and allies who hope to see her rise to the presidency. Some have argued that tasking the vice president with politically sensitive – and potentially intractable – policy issues positions her poorly for future endeavors. Others have argued she is being sidelined in her current role, left to handle matters that are either unpleasant or peripheral to the administration’s priorities.
When asked by ABC’s George Stephanopoulos if she felt “misused or underused” by the White House, Harris disagreed. “No,” she said. “I don’t. I’m very, very excited about the work that we have accomplished.”
Elaine Kamarck, a senior research fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of Picking the Vice President, says the concern is misguided.
“The measure of a successful vice-president is whether or not the president trusts them enough to give them major duties,” she said. “That she has been given important jobs by the president means that he trusts her. And of course, they’re tough. If they weren’t tough, they wouldn’t be important.”
But she has also frustrated immigration advocates and progressives, who consider the California Democrat, herself the daughter of immigrants, as a close ally. Many were upset that she used her first international trip to Central America to warn migrants: “Do not come.”
They are also disappointed by the slow pace of progress on the administration’s long-promised immigration reform. For several days, immigrant rights activists protested outside Harris’s residence at the Naval Observatory, demanding the administration make good on their promise to deliver pathway to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants.
Carving her own path
Harris has stressed that progress will be slow. Combating corruption and violence in Central America, not to mention addressing the threat of climate change, will take years to bear fruit. But she has made some headway. Harris recently announced a slew of new pledges from companies like PepsiCo, Mastercard and Microsoft, as part of her efforts to improve economic opportunity in the region.
Perhaps no issue in her charge is of more urgent concern for her party than voting rights. It is a task even Biden conceded would take “a hell of a lot of work”, but one that has personal resonance for Harris, who likes to say that she attended civil rights protests as a child, when she was still in a stroller.
Activists have spent months pressuring Biden and Harris to use their bully pulpit more aggressively to push for voting rights legislation. A pair of voting rights bills are stalled in the Senate, where Republicans have used the filibuster to block the measures on four separate occasions.
A recent meeting with Harris left leading voting rights advocates frustrated and alarmed that the White House did not have a strategy to pass federal voting rights legislation as Republicans roll back access to the ballot box in state legislatures across the country and enact new electoral maps designed to benefit them politically.
“We need to see that sense of urgency as they have done with other priorities in administration,” said Melanie Campbell, president and CEO of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation. “We’ve not seen that level of urgency yet.”
One of the few concrete duties the Constitution provides for the vice president is to serve as president of the Senate, casting tie-breaking votes when they arise. It’s a job that keeps her busy – and nearby – as she can be summoned to Capitol Hill at any hour of the day to push legislation or one of the president’s nominee through the evenly divided chamber.
“Every time I vote, we win,” Harris told NBC News after casting her 14th and 15th tie-breaking votes.
Despite her time on Capitol Hill, she has not served as the administration’s lead negotiator on its legislative agenda, a role Biden relished as Barack Obama’s vice-president. Harris, who spent a large part of her nearly four years in the Senate running for president, lacks the deep bonds Biden forged with lawmakers over his decades in Congress.
But Harris has worked to strengthen those relationships with her former colleagues. Earlier this year, she invited all 24 female senators for dinner at her residence. And during the fraught, final negotiations over the infrastructure law, she huddled with Biden at the White House, making late-night calls to members of Congress that helped seal the deal.
Carving her own path, Harris has sought to use her ceremonial office to elevate issues and voices that are often underrepresented in Washington. Earlier this year, she met with disability advocates to discuss how the administration could make voting more accessible. She also recently convened the first White House’s first day of action on maternal health. During the summit, she highlighted the racial disparities in the nation’s maternal mortality rate, which is more than double that of most other developed nations.
“I wonder what my mother would say today, had she been here to see this, or my grandmother or any other woman from that era, including Shirley Chisholm, who I had the great opportunity to work for,” Brazile, who was the first Black woman to manage a presidential campaign, said, becoming emotional.
“What would they say if they got up every morning knowing that the person who is a heartbeat away from the presidency, the person who is second in command, is someone who looks like them?”
On 19 November, Harris became the first woman in American history to hold presidential powers. The brief transfer of power occurred from 10:10 am to 11:35 am EST, while Biden was under anesthesia for a routine colonoscopy. Harris spent the time working from her office in the West Wing and most would agree her stint in the role of president left the glass ceiling largely intact.
Yet for her supporters, the moment was a glimpse of a future they still believe to be possible.
History has shown that the best path forward for a vice president with higher ambitions is to ensure the success of the president, said Kamarck.
“In the end, what matters is whether people end up liking the Biden years,” Kamarck said. “Do they want it to continue or are they sick of the Biden years and want something different?”