the inside game

The Kamala Conundrum

Photo: Tom Brenner/The New York Times​/Redux

Political news rarely gets much grimmer than it did for Joe Biden on July 26, when he was greeted by a surprise poll showing that, were he to run again in a contested primary in New Hampshire, he might command less than one-fifth of the vote. It was a far-fetched hypothetical — the likes of Pete Buttigieg and Elizabeth Warren won’t challenge him if he runs for reelection — but the dearth of support for a sitting president was still galling. And yet, improbably, the news was even worse for his presumptive heir: Kamala Harris was all the way down in the single digits.

The vice-presidency is, by definition, a nearly impossible job. There’s the prestige and the “one heartbeat away” of it all but few defined responsibilities and political pitfalls at every turn. Eighteen months in, thanks to a combination of Biden’s age and unpopularity, the lingering pandemic and punishing inflation, a relentless opposition, and — most visibly — her own struggles to communicate a satisfactory role for herself, Harris has reached an unparalleled low point.

“There’s a cruel irony to the thing, which is you are almost as big a target as the president for the opposition and critics, but by definition you need to keep a lower profile because no one wants to upstage the boss, and you don’t ever want to be in a position where you’re saying anything even a millimeter differently,” said a veteran operative who has worked with three Democratic vice-presidents. Harris is partly a victim of the enormous expectations placed on her when Biden thought he was selecting the future leader of a vibrant, thriving post-Trump Democratic Party. And if you ask some of her supporters, she may be one of the few things keeping the Biden administration’s languishing popularity barely afloat, leaving Democrats with a conundrum: a successor-in-waiting who is just as disliked as the standard-bearer but is also exactly as irreplaceable.

Harris is the most scrutinized vice-president in memory, and those around her have no doubt her coverage has been heavily warped by sexism and racism. Viewed from the most sympathetic perspective, the Harris who emerged as the administration’s foremost advocate of abortion rights this summer has hit her stride. She’s sat for high-profile interviews and condemned Republicans in speeches. She’s met with state legislators facing the most immediate threats, as in Indiana and Florida, and campaigned in states where the midterms will determine the fate of legal abortion, as in Pennsylvania. Her role now resembles one Biden envisioned for her in the summer of 2020 — aggressive partisan warrior selling the administration’s popular line.

But that was a different political universe, and it took one and a half uncomfortable years for her set of skills to align with the administration’s strategic needs. Harris set up her office with the instruction that maintaining close ties to the president was a priority, believing that to be a guarantee of internal influence. That proved unexpectedly complex, partly owing to their different operating styles. Whereas Biden has been surrounded by a core of the same staffers for decades, Harris’s office has seen enough turnover to make it a much-whispered-about story line in Washington and beyond. She has replaced her chief of staff, deputy chief of staff, communications director, spokeswoman, national security adviser, and speechwriter (twice), and her longest-serving senior aide, domestic-policy adviser Rohini Kosoglu, will depart this summer. Though Biden and Harris get along and meet regularly, it is rarely in the kind of one-on-one setting like the lunches that famously formed the cornerstone of Biden’s relationship with Barack Obama.

Harris has leaned on a rotating group of outside counselors. This includes some elected officials, such as Representative Barbara Lee, and others in the administration, such as Housing Secretary Marcia Fudge, but also longtime party operatives including Minyon Moore, the Reverend Leah Daughtry, and EMILY’s List leader Laphonza Butler as well as — occasionally — Hollywood power agent Bryan Lourd. She has also kept in sporadic touch with Hillary Clinton. But Harris’s sister, policy expert Maya Harris, is known to be her closest confidante, though she has no formal role in the White House.

The vice-president’s thankless portfolio is more to blame for her slip in political traction than staff turnover. Her popularity started sinking when she first visited Central America and appeared dismissive of a suggestion that she visit the border. Behind the scenes, she was worried the assignment to take on the migrant crisis was a clear political loser. When critics latched on to her admonition to would-be migrants — “Do not come” — her frustration grew, as this was the administration line. Later, she remained silent at a tense meeting with Biden, letting other officials speak when he asked for updates. Afterward, she told aides to underscore that she was focused on the origins of migration, not the border itself. Her other top priority — voting rights — was no less publicly frustrating when the administration’s preferred legislation predictably failed in the split Senate. Some close to her wonder why she didn’t muscle her way into leading more popular projects: implementation of the COVID-relief-bill spending or, later, the infrastructure package.

Most exasperating to her advocates, however, have been the questions about her preparedness for the top job, an especially sensitive line of inquiry ever since the 79-year-old Biden contracted COVID earlier in July. The concern comes mostly from her occasionally stumbling responses to journalists. She told a CBS interviewer who asked if Democrats had erred in not codifying Roe v. Wade into law, “I think that, to be very honest with you, I — I do believe that we should have rightly believed, but we certainly believe, that certain issues are just settled. Certain issues are just settled.” It was one genuinely cringeworthy moment in a straightforward interview, but it was shared far and wide, especially on the left. “Often Democrats are their own worst fucking enemies,” said Democratic pollster Cornell Belcher. “Democrats will stab each other up at the drop of a dime.”

None of it has dimmed the confidence of Harris’s closest aides that she can regain her political footing by traveling more, and her new staff has suggested she take advantage of interviews with celebrities and influencers to reach nonpolitically focused audiences. Plenty of supporters also believe the administration would be in worse shape if not for her sustained popularity with Black women in particular — Democrats’ most reliable voting base and the group that won Biden the nomination in 2020. Belcher recently found that this group gave Harris a “thermometer rating” in the 70s, meaning they viewed her far more warmly than most politicians. A Fox News poll had her overall approval rating just below 40 percent but as high as 65 percent among Black voters.

Top party donors have privately worried to close Obama allies that they’re skeptical of Harris’s prospects as a presidential candidate, citing the implosion of her 2020 campaign and her struggles as VP. Jockeying from other potential competitors, like frenemy Gavin Newsom, suggests that few would defer to her if Biden retired. Yet Harris’s strength among the party’s most influential voters nonetheless puts her in clear pole position.

Harris is careful not to be seen as overtly angling for the presidency. But it was no coincidence that this summer she visited the early-voting and often decisive state of South Carolina, in which Black voters make up most of the primary electorate.

For now, anything beyond her role as a booster for Biden is moot while the president clings to the notion that only he can beat Trump and that he therefore must run again. But that posture may be sustainable for only so long. Just hours after the New Hampshire poll dropped, the cloud over the White House darkened further. A new CNN survey found the number of Democrats prepared to turn the page on Biden had risen. Now it’s three out of every four.

The Kamala Conundrum