President Biden Isn’t Making Life Easy for Kamala Harris

The vice president takes a difficult message to Guatemala. Photo: Daniele Volpe/Bloomberg via Getty Images

When Joe Biden chose Kamala Harris as his running mate nearly ten months ago, it was assumed she was the odds-on favorite to succeed him if they won, quite possibly as early as 2024. That is probably still the case. But if Biden is indeed positioning his vice-president to run for president, you might expect him to give her some important assignments that will give her the occasional easy win while avoiding too much controversy. So far it’s not working out that way, as the New York Times observed when Biden asked her to lead the administration’s voting-rights efforts, even as she was dealing with the “root causes” of a refugee crisis on the southern border:

[H]is decision to install Ms. Harris as the leader of an effort to beat back bills in states nationwide that are trying to tighten voting rules — “a truly unprecedented assault on our democracy, ” Mr. Biden told the crowd — added another politically thorny problem to the vice president’s policy portfolio.

Ms. Harris has already been tasked with leading the administration’s efforts to deter migration to the southwestern border by working to improve conditions in the Northern Triangle countries of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. The vice president — who will visit Mexico and Guatemala next week — and her staff have worked to reframe expectations around her role, stressing that she will examine the root causes of migration, not single-handedly stop the flow of migrants to the United States.

To put it more bluntly, Harris will likely become the public face of a doomed effort to enact major voting-rights legislation that cannot be enacted without the filibuster reform Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema (with a few other Senate Democrats probably quietly abetting them) have made impossible. And even if conditions on the border improve (which is a development hardly within the full control of the U.S. government), Harris will be identified with an exceptionally fraught issue that divides Democrats and energizes Republicans. Thus, through no fault of her own, she may suffer in public perceptions, particularly as Republicans focus their fire on her as a riper target (and as an obviously easier object for racist and sexist contempt) than the hard-to-demonize Uncle Joe. There is already a “polling gap” between the two members of the Biden-Harris ticket, as The Hill noted last month:

In a May 4 poll, Vice President Harris is at just 41 percent approval, with 49 percent disapproval. Compared to her boss in the West Wing, that’s a 10-point approval gap …

Among independents in [a] May 11 poll, Harris clocks in at 38 percent “favorable,” 53 percent “unfavorable.” That’s 15 points underwater.

It’s possible that Harris will shine in the tough jobs she has been given, proving her mettle in a way that her prior Senate service couldn’t. But as her current trip to Latin America shows, the odds for success are contingent on developments no one can precisely foresee, as Reuters reports:

She visits Mexico after midterm elections on Sunday eroded [President] Lopez Obrador’s power base in Congress …

A Mexican government official said the timing of Harris’ visit was not ideal. Speaking on condition of anonymity, the official said the United States had pushed for the visit.

Once Harris returns home, with the expected mixed assessments and uncertain results, she will likely spend some time promoting the For the People voting-rights legislation prior to its planned arrival on the Senate floor the week of June 21, after which Republicans are 100 percent certain to deep-six it.

Following Harris’s solid performance as Biden’s ticket mate in the campaign and the long, painful denouement, it’s hard to see how she deserved this initiation. It’s probably a tougher situation than the ones faced by her recent predecessors, since Bill Clinton made Al Gore the first unquestionably significant vice-president, with assignments beyond attending the funerals of minor foreign dignitaries and yielding every bit of positive favorable light to the president. Gore’s first big assignment was to die for: a “reinventing government” initiative, which enabled the veep to make fun of random stupid government regulations and boast of taxpayer savings that were probably already identified before his first press conference.

It’s true that George W. Bush’s vice-president was given an entire war to plan and oversee. But then again, no one expected Dick Cheney to run for president after Bush was done; Cheney’s unpopularity was an inexhaustible resource that helped the boss (thought to be his functional subordinate) avoid full blame for the Iraq fiasco.

Biden got the full “partner” treatment from Barack Obama, and also got some perilous legislative assignments in the Senate. But at the time the people in the White House figured Biden was too old to run for president in 2016, so again, they were not looking out for Uncle Joe’s political welfare.

For a time it seemed Donald Trump really was preparing Mike Pence to inherit his MAGA following, assuming he ever relinquished control of it (an ever more distant contingency, now that the 45th president appears to be determined to regain and keep the White House until 2029). Pence’s most important initial assignment (other than looking at Trump like he was a hot fudge sundae on every available occasion) was to serve as liaison to the Christian right. It was a wonderful gig since Christian nationalists were the one constituency Trump did not betray. But then Trump put Pence in charge of COVID-19 response, a task made nearly impossible by the president’s endlessly erratic leadership. And then, of course, in the end, Trump assigned Pence the job of stealing the 2020 election for him just two weeks before Biden’s inauguration, which he could not and would not perform.

Compared to what Pence went through, Harris’s assignments are relatively benign. And the very narrative of her taking on the tough jobs could help set expectations for what she can accomplish, while burnishing her credentials as a future party leader and president of the United States.

Certainly no one should underestimate Harris’s staying power. She has already put up with a lot of flak from Republicans, the media, and (more quietly) potential Democratic rivals and seems to have developed a knack for promoting the boss while showing her talents to the best advantage. And if, as appears to be increasingly likely, Biden wants to stick around for two terms, Harris could become not just inevitable but unassailable as the next Democratic nominee, given her strong resume, her enviable positioning smack in the ideological center of her party, and her media savvy. In 2028, she will be 64 years old, 13 years younger than Biden was in 2020. Maybe he will soon give her an important but strongly popular cause, as Clinton did Gore. At the present pace, she will have earned a break.

President Biden Isn’t Making Life Easy for Kamala Harris