Read the rest of our Happy Birthday, Mr. President package.
When Kamala Harris launched her bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2019, she was considered one of the party’s brightest rising stars. An early frontrunner, she was a young, highly accomplished, relatively charismatic Black woman in a party built on Black women’s support. She had built name recognition by devouring conservatives in viral moments at Senate hearings. Her actual politics were hard to pin down (a former prosecutor running on criminal justice reform?), but that might have worked in her favor if she’d run a strong campaign down the middle.
Instead, Harris’s presidential campaign will be remembered as one of the worst of that election cycle. Internally, it was a disastrously mismanaged mess. Externally, it offered a series of mixed messages, short-lived slogans, and attempts to backpedal along the ideological spectrum. Her dazzling presence in planned speeches and gotcha moments flickered out when she was forced to think—and relay a coherent policy position—on her feet. It was a spectacular letdown that contained a lesson about electoral politics: candidates who looks promising on paper can easily flounder under pressure.
As Joe Biden weighs a run for re-election even as he becomes the first octogenarian U.S. president in history, he should think back on what it was like to watch the Harris campaign flame out. A second Biden term would mean even higher stakes for a vice-presidential pick—not only because Biden is older than he was the first time around, but because the VP serving when he leaves could be the de facto frontrunner in the 2024 Democratic primary. Harris, a proven dud of a presidential candidate who has done little to distinguish herself since, is not a good choice for the Democrats’ top billing. For his second term, should he seek one (he shouldn’t!), Biden should tap someone else.
It’s not just that Harris was a bad presidential candidate. She was a bad vice-presidential one, too. I will never forget how clumsily she struggled to respond to what should have been an easy, predictable question from Norah O’Donnell in a 60 Minutes interview a few weeks before the 2020 election. Asked whether she would push Biden to the left and bring a “socialist or progressive perspective” to the White House, Harris first answered with a “no.” She continued, audibly annoyed:
“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.”
This is the response of a candidate who, when pressed to the point of discomfort on matters of policy, instinctively pivots to her biography. That might have flown in the 2020 election, which was rightfully sold as an emergency situation in which everyone needed to band together to protect the country from incumbent Donald Trump. But in 2024, the landscape is going to look much different. I suspect voters will be less enchanted by vague gestures in the direction of unity and normalcy. They will also be less willing to forgive a candidate who can’t provide a clear, consistent message. Will Harris be prepared to communicate Team Biden’s accomplishments and defend its perceived failings? Or, with her eyes set on 2028, will she be unwilling to take a firm position she might have to carry into her next campaign?
Biden shouldn’t wait around to find out. Right now, hot off an unexpectedly decent Democratic showing in the midterms, he is probably feeling a bit smug. But he would do well to remember that the Dems did well in spite of, not because of him: His approval rating has been below 45 percent for more than a year. Harris’s is even worse, and her net favorability is lower than all four of her most recent predecessors at this point in their tenures. If Biden intends to keep his job, he would do well to join forces with someone who isn’t even less popular than he is.
I’m not trying to lay all the blame for the Biden Administration’s image problems on Harris. And I think Biden himself bears part of the blame for Harris’s inability to hit her stride as vice president. During his campaign, transition, and inauguration events, Biden—aware, perhaps, that he didn’t inspire much passionate fandom—highlighted Harris as a historic and unusually exciting partner. (That was both entirely understandable and put Harris in a tough spot—I’ve written before about the unreasonable expectations and hopes she faced due to the momentous nature of her win.) But it remains true that as she settled in to do the job of vice president, which entails little more than staying alive and breaking ties in the Senate, it felt like an underwhelming performance. Even some of Harris’s biggest fans, the members of the so-called #KHive, have been dispirited by her failure to make a splash. “The disappointment is real,” one such person told the Daily Beast earlier this year.
The Democrats’ razor-thin margins in Congress haven’t helped. Neither has the fact that Harris assumed a portfolio stacked with some particularly difficult issues, including immigration and voting rights, on which she made astonishing missteps and little progress. And as a woman of color in one of the highest political offices in the nation, Harris has faced a barrage of vicious insults from the right, in addition to broad misgivings about her competence that have been amplified by racism and sexism.
But at the end of the day, it doesn’t much matter why Harris’s public favor has fallen. Even though her bad polling numbers are not entirely her fault, for a variety of substantive reasons, she is not the rising political star she was initially made out to be. And an aging, past-his-prime statesman—especially one as disliked as Biden—needs the momentum of a rising star.
Democrats know this. They are already worried about it. I’ll leave it to them to decide who should replace Harris and how she could transition out of the job. (Would a Cabinet position do the trick?) At this point, almost any of the people who have been named as possible successors to Biden would be a better pick. If Harris cares about the future of the Democratic agenda, she should gracefully step aside. The vice presidency is a valuable mechanism for soft-launching future presidential hopefuls. Democrats cannot waste it on a candidate who has already failed to launch.