Politics

Why Kamala Harris’ Job as VP Is So Hard

She’s a historic choice. That’s the problem.

Vice President Kamala Harris in Washington on June 15.
Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

Joe Biden set Kamala Harris up for failure before he even chose her as his running mate. In March 2020, in a presidential debate with Bernie Sanders—then his last opponent standing—Biden promised to name a woman as his vice president. (Sanders replied that “in all likelihood,” he’d do the same.) It was a tactless, tokenizing way to make Democratic voters, the vast majority of whom are not white men, feel less icky that their choices had come down to two white men after the most diverse presidential primary in history.

Biden was always going to have to choose a woman; the era of all-male and all-white presidential tickets feels decidedly over for Democrats. That’s for good reason—diverse political teams tend to make better, more inclusive policy. But instead of asking a woman to join his ticket on the basis of her political skills or legislative accomplishments—and leaving the gender mandate to speculation—Biden made sure everyone knew that his selection wouldn’t have to beat out the entire field of potential competitors, just the other ladies. He got to look like an ally who valued women, while ensuring his vice president would end up looking like a “diversity hire” who got a possibly unwarranted leg up because of her gender.

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The likelihood of that narrative taking hold grew during the racial justice uprisings of summer 2020, when Biden’s team reportedly scrambled to add more Black women to its vice presidential shortlist. The campaign saw the protest movement as “a watershed moment that has made the issue of a black running mate a top consideration,” Politico reported, which constrained the choice further. The pool of Black women with national political profiles was small enough that the shortlist ended up “elevating the prospects of several candidates once viewed as long shots,” according to Politico. Now, Biden’s eventual pick would come from an even narrower demographic category, in part because George Floyd’s murder happened to fall in the window between Biden’s nomination and his vice presidential pick.

We all know how this story turned out—Biden selected Harris for the job. Now that she’s a few months into her historic tenure, Harris has drawn criticism from the left for her alarming rhetoric on immigration—“do not come,” she advised potential asylum-seekers in Guatemala—and continuous attacks from the right on just about everything. As I’ve read assessments of her first months in office, I’ve thought a lot about the unfortunate way she came into the role of vice president. She was the payoff to a Biden campaign gimmick that relished in her communal identities more than her particular skills. As the first woman of color in the role, she was bound to face extra scrutiny. Biden didn’t just give her bad-faith critics a head start—he seems to have left his own administration and Harris herself in doubt about what exactly she’s there to do now that the campaign is over.

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The funny thing is there is no “most qualified person for the job” when the job is vice president, because there is no standard for what the job should be. The veep has barely any codified responsibilities beyond being a body on the bench in case of presidential incapacitation and a tiebreaker for the Senate—a job at which Harris has proved more than proficient. “Biden believed, during his running-mate selection process, that he needed Harris more to help him win the White House than to help him govern,” reported Edward-Isaac Dovere in the Atlantic. That’s no surprise after all the noise his team made about choosing a Black woman for optics reasons, nor is it an anomaly: Vice presidents are often chosen more for campaign strategy reasons, filling in perceived demographic or geographic gaps on the ticket, than for any sort of policy expertise. (Mike Pence, for instance, was picked in part to soothe any misgivings people of faith had about Donald Trump, though it turned out evangelicals ended up liking Trump himself just fine.)

Harris clearly meets the main requirement for vice president—she appears ready to take over the presidency if need be. But the expectations set for Harris exceed those of any previous vice president. Aware that Biden himself was an unexciting settle-for candidate and president, his team centered Harris during his campaign, transition, and inauguration events. That made sense—a certain segment of voters passionately adored her, and even more were moved by her history-making ascension to the vice presidency. When I spoke to some of the few people who came to D.C. for Biden’s pandemic-limited inauguration, most said they were there to celebrate Trump’s defeat and Harris’ win. Now that the pair is in office, the right has chosen to overemphasize Harris’ role in the administration, too—because nothing strikes frothing fear into the heart of the Republican base like a liberal Black woman who likes to laugh. In right-wing media, commentators are slamming Harris for neglecting to hold press conferences, which vice presidents typically do not do. Dovere reported that Harris’ detractors (including the more genuine ones) interpret her tenure so far as “a collection of unconnected set pieces”: She visits places, makes an unnewsworthy speech, listens to people on the ground, then disappears, presumably back to Washington, where she has promised to bring their stories. But isn’t that exactly what the vice presidency is, and the reason why many politicians don’t want the job? Members of both parties want much more from Harris than her job description allows.

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Harris herself has sought a higher level of responsibility and influence in her role, in part because she rightly sees it as an opportunity to correct for some of the shortcomings that tanked her presidential campaign. As a relative newcomer to the national stage with explicit aspirations to the office above hers, Harris has to prove herself in a way that Biden never did when he was VP, all while taking greater care to avoid the impression of treading on the president’s toes. Though Biden had run for president before, having served in the Senate for four decades, he wasn’t seen as an overambitious striver bent on making his own name at the expense of Barack Obama’s. Biden “has no personal political ambitions to dilute his loyalty to President Obama’s agenda,” Republican political adviser Mary Matalin told the Washington Post in June 2009. (This reading suited Republicans, who felt more threatened by Obama than they did Biden.) Harris, by contrast, already has a reputation as a Biden antagonist. She can’t afford to be seen stepping out of line.

Which may be why, when questioned about her ideological differences with the president, Harris tends to avoid policy and instead falls back on the main reason she was picked for the job: her personal biography. It doesn’t always go smoothly: In a painful interview with 60 Minutes in October, Norah O’Donnell asked Harris if she’d try to push Biden to the left on policies such as marijuana legalization and “Medicare for All.” Harris hedged, saying she’d simply “share with [Biden] my lived experience as it relates to any issue that we confront” and “give him that perspective.” O’Donnell pressed her with an accusation from the right: “Is that a socialist or progressive perspective?” Harris became indignant. “No,” she said, “it is the perspective of a woman who grew up a Black child in America, who was also a prosecutor, who also has a mother who arrived here at the age of 19 from India, who also, you know, likes hip-hop. Like, what do you want to know?”

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In pre-election interviews like this one, Harris risked selling herself short just by repeating what Biden’s team had already told voters: that her value to the ticket was limited to her “lived experience.” Now that she’s in office, Biden risks overcompensating by giving her an overly full plate that happens to include one of the most intractable foreign and domestic policy problems facing the White House: addressing the tide of migrants at the Southern border, in part by resolving the “root causes” of migration from Latin America. This mission would be arduous for any Democrat, requiring a strong vision, the ability to answer hard questions, and diplomatic aplomb. Biden has made it particularly tricky for a Democrat committed to a humane immigration policy, as the White House continues to detain immigrants, militarize the border, and insist the U.S. cannot handle all the migrants seeking asylum. For Harris, a politician with little to no foreign policy experience who never even completed her first Senate term, and who has a history of wishy-washiness and a defensive posture toward the press, it’s been a nightmare.

By all measures, Harris’ centrality to the pomp and circumstance of Biden’s election—the proliferation of exclusive Harris merchandise, the Vogue cover, the viral “We did it, Joe” phone call, her prominent spot in their victory celebration, her equal footing at transition events—has not been borne out by her actual influence. Harris has previously suggested that she would support a policy of broad acceptance for asylees and refugees. During her presidential campaign, she told NPR, “I disagree with any policy that would turn America’s back on people who are fleeing harm. … And so I would not enforce a law that would reject people and turn them away without giving them a fair and due process to determine if we should give them asylum and refuge.”

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Yet Democratic Rep. Pramila Jayapal told Dovere that, when the Biden administration first opted to keep Trump’s record-low cap on refugee admissions, then raise it after many criticized the move, it didn’t even occur to her to bring her concerns to Harris.

Harris’ no-win situation evinces the thanklessness of the vice presidency. Veeps often get picked for political reasons, then judged on policy. They must show leadership within the confines of their fealty to a president who is, in some cases, a recent political rival. They get little credit for whatever good they do within their portfolio of responsibilities and are easy scapegoats for whatever goes wrong. The job is famously frustrating. Those who rejoiced at Harris’ win probably hoped that her tenure would somehow be  different, maybe even better, because of the glass ceiling she broke. Instead, because of those elevated expectations and her relative inexperience on a national stage, it’s looking like it will be worse.

In addition to the general pitfalls of the vice presidency, Harris will have to overcome her own particular weaknesses to get what she wants from the role she’s secured. She failed up to the veep slot after a presidential campaign that fell far short of early expectations, and the challenges that hampered her candidacy back then—her tendency to falter when pressed on tough issues, her difficulty reconciling her prosecutor past with her platform on criminal justice reform, her inability to communicate a legible, cohesive political message—will continue to dog her. She was smart to take over the administration’s efforts on voting rights, a high-profile issue that befits her strengths as a civil rights advocate and already has a series of proposals around which her party is almost entirely unified. But Harris can’t avoid a familiar conundrum for leaders of color in historically white workplaces: How do you share your knowledge and advocate for the communities you represent without being pigeonholed or reduced to one lone facet of your expertise—especially when that facet is exactly why you were tapped for the job?

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The importance of representation is often understood in aesthetic terms rather than substantive ones. Harris has prompted a few prime examples of this misconception: “I think that Vice President Harris herself personifies the need for voting rights to be extended,” the Rev. Al Sharpton told the New York Times of Harris’ leadership on the issue. “When she’s on the phone or walks into an office, we’re looking at the reason we need voting rights.” But surely, Harris is equipped to make the case for voting rights legislation for reasons other than her mere existence as a Black person. Harris may not be as preternaturally gifted a politician as her rapid rise would suggest, but she has skills that extend far beyond her “lived experience.” One can imagine the pointed argumentation on view in her grilling of hapless Trump acolytes in Senate hearings (which made her a star) deployed against those seeking to restrict the franchise. While her lived experience may have given her particular expertise on the issue, it’s what she does with it that will determine her success.

In the first several months of Biden’s own vice presidency, reporters marveled at how much he’d done in such little time. He visited four countries in the Middle East just before taking office, logged trips to four more in Europe and Latin America in the spring of 2009, and flew to Kosovo, Ukraine, and Georgia soon after. He’d also met privately with the then-presidents of Afghanistan and Pakistan to discuss the Taliban. It was immediately clear that Obama was leaning on Biden for his proficiency in foreign policy, which far outpaced Obama’s own. Biden was also credited with getting the votes to pass the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Harris could never mirror this performance. Biden doesn’t need her foreign policy know-how, and she doesn’t have it; nor does she have his long-standing connections in the Senate, which also has 10 more Republicans in it today than it did then. If Biden is expecting Harris to be the same kind of vice president he was—he reportedly put Harris on migration diplomacy duty as a show of respect, since Obama had given him the same task—he’s going about it all wrong. Harris will bring a different utility to the role, though both she and Biden still seem unsure about what exactly that will be. Harris should figure it out for herself before someone else, possibly one of her critics, establishes it for her. Otherwise, her tenure as vice president will follow the same track as her presidential candidacy: sky-high expectations, mediocre follow-through.


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