Amid an ongoing spate of stories challenging Kamala Harris’s capabilities as vice president and possibly president sometime relatively soon, the vice president’s response is to dig down into the substance and brush off the criticism.
Monday, the vice president will announce more than $1.2 billion in new funding to address migration to the United States through fostering more economic opportunity. Harris is making the announcement during a roundtable with CEOs, including Microsoft’s Brad Smith, PepsiCo Latin America CEO Paula Santilli, and Cargill’s David MacLennan, this afternoon, according to a White House official.
The announcement was previewed by senior White House officials to reporters on Sunday. “We’ve brought resources, we’ve brought political focus, we’ve raised the international profile, and the vice president—with her leadership, her vision—has caused all of that to happen,” a senior White House official said.
The announcement itself is a clear statement about Harris’s approach to the difficult portfolio she’s been handed as vice president: dealing with immigration issues in Central America and voting rights. She’s doubling down here—highlighting her interest in maternal health and generally trying to ignore data points that have been taken as signs she’s unprepared for at least her current job and most definitely being president.
The list of knocks Harris has had to endure has gotten long. Most recently, it’s been that Symone Sanders, one of the most well-known officials in the Biden administration, is departing the vice president’s office at the end of the year. Harris’s communications director, Ashley Etienne, recently left her office as well. Then there’s been a spate of stories in national outlets essentially examining the same question: whether Harris is capable of being an effective vice president for Biden. There have been stories about how she won’t read briefing materials, then will punish her staffers when she comes off as unprepared. She also had to endure a bizarre news cycle after buying some cookware at E. Dehillerin while abroad.*
Thus far, Harris and her team haven’t been able to just hunker down and let annoying news cycles fade away. She and her staff have struggled to parry the inevitable Republican criticism that she is only making the immigration crisis at the border worse. “She was supposed to be the voice of and the sign that a very high priority was being placed on a much broader, long-term, ultimately you’ve-got-to-change-the-conditions-that-drive-this-migration approach, and so she got burned very quickly,” Doris Meissner, a former commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, said of Harris’s border assignment.
Harris has not been especially visible in the ongoing interparty Democratic negotiations over the filibuster and voting rights, either, even as she regularly travels to the Capitol to break ties in the Senate. Unlike Biden when he was vice president for Barack Obama, Harris’s relationships in the Senate are only a few years deep, since she was elected to the chamber in 2016.
At the beginning of the Biden administration, Harris appeared only to complicate the White House’s efforts to sell a Covid relief bill when she did an interview with a local West Virginia radio station that angered Senator Joe Manchin. The White House opted to do some cleanup after that.
Over the past year, Harris’s office has emitted the usual Washington insider-political signals that all is not well. Advisers have been brought in to try and assess what could be going better in the office. One of those advisers, Lorraine Voles, according to a former Harris aide, is one of the lead liaisons between Harris’s office and the West Wing, alongside Harris’s chief of staff, Tina Flournoy.
Allies and former aides to Harris will concede that things could be going better. One former aide said Harris’s office can sometimes have a “constant hair-on-fire feeling.” It doesn’t help that, despite reassurances from Biden and his team, talk about who could be the next Democratic president if Biden doesn’t run for reelection is in full swing. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg makes virtually every shortlist.
Veteran Democratic advisers stress that some of this is par for the course. The actual job of being vice president is either to stand by or take the leftovers. “When you’re the vice president you get the leavings, you get the stuff that the president doesn’t want to do. So right off the bat, you’re in a bit of a disadvantage,” Roy Neel, a former chief of staff to Vice President Al Gore. “You don’t chart your own course. Your staff doesn’t chart your course for you. You’re both at the whim of the president and the president’s team.”
A common argument in Washington circles in Harris’s defense is that there isn’t a lot of perspective about her job. Harris’s missions right now are hard. By contrast, Harris’s defenders gripe, Buttigieg’s job is to travel the country, put on a hard hat, and cut some ribbons in front of whatever new infrastructure projects the Biden administration can point to. One such trip for Buttigieg happens to be to New Hampshire on Monday to do two hanging-curveball events—one on expanding commuter rail, the other on money in the infrastructure bill to improve the Manchester mill yard.
Democrats also often argue that the flak Harris is getting is actually part of a larger problem: that Biden’s approval ratings are in the low 40s, inflation is on the rise, and Democrats are still neck-deep in the legislative sausage-making on their expansive social spending package. These efforts, in other words, don’t have an easy or quick fix.
Donna Brazile, the former Democratic National Committee chair and outspoken Harris ally, stressed that most of the attention on Harris is not on the substance of her tenure as vice president.
“Look, I think the difficulty, and what I’m seeing some days, is that you have a White House press corps that covers the substance and you have a group of political reporters and others that covers the superficial,” Brazile said. “There’s no way to bring the substance and the superficial in the same room of conversation.”
Former Harris aides and Brazile stressed to me that what is doable in the immediate future is to sort of let Harris be Harris—that is, let her fly free and publicly on topics that she’s very interested and comfortable with, like maternal health or the African American community.
“Where those windows of opportunity present themselves, I would script her less and put her out there,” a former top Harris aide said. The former aide also said, “I think this administration has tried to get her out there a lot, not necessarily on the world’s best topics all the time. But when you’re governing, you don’t get to decide what’s the most pressing issue all the time.”
Last week I covered Harris ceremonially swearing in Jeff Flake as ambassador to Turkey. I was able to ask her what she thought of the Supreme Court’s ruling that retained Texas’s restrictive abortion law in place. Harris seemed more than happy and comfortable to weigh in.
“As far as I’m concerned and as far as our administration is concerned, a woman’s right to make decisions about her own body is nonnegotiable,” Harris said in response to my question on Friday. “And so we will continue to fight for the constitutional right of all women to make decisions about their own body without interference by some legislative group of people that think that they can replace their judgment with hers.”
Brazile argued that there’s just no normal scheme for a vice president like Harris. Remember she’s not only the first woman vice president, Brazile stressed, she’s also the first African American vice president and first vice president of South Asian descent.
“I still believe that she’s making her own mark on the vice presidency.… She’s not afraid to weigh in on issues involving equity and social justice,” Brazile said. “And lastly, she’s using her office to bring people to the door that have not been paid attention to in almost 20 years. So yes, she’s having issues with tribal leaders, members of the disability community, the survivors of the Tulsa massacre, the LGBTQ community. I mean, she uses that ceremonial office to make sure the administration is reaching out and talking to the American people.”
Whether Harris likes it or not, she’s stuck with a portfolio that largely doesn’t provide her with any easy wins in an administration that increasingly needs some victories to the issues Americans seem most concerned about, like the economy or the omicron variant. Meissner said dealing with the border and immigration won’t offer any short-term win anytime soon. “I don’t think so,” Meissner said. “I can say that things are moving forward on that agenda. There are things that are beginning to change within the region.”
Harris knows this is a tough job. In an expansive interview with The San Francisco Chronicle published on Sunday, she said, “There is nothing about this job that is supposed to be easy.”
That’s been true about the vice presidency for decades. What’s different now is that within the Democratic Party the current vice president’s very presence hasn’t reassured the administration’s political party in the same way the last three vice presidents have. Dick Cheney signaled to Republicans nervous about a neophyte Texas governor that Washington experience mattered. Biden did something similar for Obama. And Mike Pence, who had been in Congress, partly did that for Donald Trump—and he was solid with the evangelicals.
What does Harris bring to the Biden White House along these lines? It isn’t clear. She may have helped goose the Black vote during the campaign, but in terms of governing as opposed to campaigning, she hasn’t yet been a clear asset. So on top of everything Harris is having to deal with, she also has to actively calm nervous questions from various corners of the Democratic Party. It’s truly new ground for everybody involved.
* This article originally misidentified the cookware manufacturer.