Co-President Harris?

The day before President Biden’s inauguration, I noted the unusual number of references to “The Biden-Harris Administration” in the various rollouts of cabinet nominees and policy proposals. That they were doing so to a far greater extent than I’d ever seen before suggested to me either that Biden was paving the way for Harris to take over in 2024 or that he saw her as some sort of co-President.

Looking at the White House Flickr account, one would get the impression that it’s actually the Harris-Biden administration.

Granted that Harris is decidedly the more photogenic member of the duo, I’ve never seen this many pictures of the Veep in any previous administration’s stream. There are weeks where Biden doesn’t appear at all. And, hell, it’s supposed to be the White House photo stream. While the VP has an office in that building, her main offices and those of her support staff are in the Executive Office Building.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that Biden isn’t performing his duties or that Harris is secretly running the show. There is zero indication of that. But the outsized prominence of Harris in the early going is something I’ve never seen before in forty-plus years of paying rapt attention to the American presidency.

FILED UNDER: Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Tony W says:

    Biden is very collaborative and the polar opposite of the former guy in terms of seeking attention and grabbing the glory for himself. He gets his “glory” through good, solid work and decency.

    There’s nothing more to it than that.

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  2. steve says:

    I suspect he realizes he is 78.

    Steve

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  3. MarkedMan says:

    It’s almost like they have a plan beyond his own narrow political ambitions…

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  4. Jen says:

    Black women are a key (if not THE key) Democratic constituency. We’ve also been faced with a bit of a racial reckoning over the past few years, along with a concurrent rise in white supremacy/white power movement nonsense.

    Using images to advance a narrative that challenges that makes perfect sense.

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  5. Liberal Capitalist says:

    The role of the VP has changed over time.

    No longer are they only the person standing in the wings, but an active player in an administration.

    https://www.cbsnews.com/video/the-changing-role-of-vice-president/

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  6. MarkedMan says:

    @Liberal Capitalist: Just going by the modern era, who would be considered an active participant and who would be considered a place holder?

    D – Roosevelt – VP was not active (actively despised)
    D – Truman – No idea who is VP was so assume not active
    R – Eisenhower – Not active (actively despised)
    D – Kennedy – Narrowly active
    D – LBJ – Narrowly active
    R – Nixon – Not Active
    D – Carter – More than narrowly Active
    R – Reagan – Not Active (or at least not used by Reagan, although his cabinet seemed to value Bush Sr’s experience and tapped him for international relations)
    D – Clinton – Very Active
    R – Bush 1 – Extremely (dangerously) active – it could be argued that Cheney was an unelected President when it came to every significant initiative
    D – Obama – Very Active
    R – Trump – Not Active

    Throwing the bizarre Cheney Vice Presidency out of the mix, It is clear that since Kennedy, only Dems have used their Vice President to significant effect, and more and more with each administration.

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  7. FDR had three Vice-Presidents and basically kept them far out of the loop to the point where Harry Truman had no knowledge of the Manhattan Project until he actually became POTUS.

    Nixon was actually pretty active in the Eisenhower Administration, especially in the foreign policy area.

    LBJ played an important role in working with the Senate on civil rights legislation and other matters

    Bush Sr. wasn’t very active publicly but he and Reagan worked closer together and Bush was an important link between the Administration and the establishment Republicans

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  8. KM says:

    I guess the question is why is anyone bothered by this?

    We The People are paying the VP to do essentially nothing Constitutionally – Harris is the only one in recent memory to actually matter as the tie-breaker on a consistent basis. Other then being the democratic version of the Spare to the Throne, a VP that isn’t working is a useless paid employee sitting on their butts for 4 years. Putting them to work on major issues is cost-effective and a great delegation to keep control of details relatively close to the Oval Office. It helps maintain narratives, builds relationship and impresses people who think title = power.

    Biden’s saving us money and getting the most value out of a government employee that’s otherwise wasted. That seems very conservative to me (small c of course) so naturally Conservatives are getting cranky and claiming she’s usurping power. Yeah, she’s building up cred for a POTUS run and so what? If she gets the job done well and gains valuable skills then she deserves the praise. VP’s traditionally a dead end political job specifically because they weren’t given these kinds of chances. In business, this is exactly how you build up future C-suite folks and groom them to replace you; you create a legacy and leave behind a suitable candidate you’ve had a hand in molding.

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  9. I suspect part of this is at least partially about preparing Hatris if she has to take over the role of POTUS. As someone said above, Biden is 78.

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  10. James Joyner says:

    @MarkedMan: The vice presidency was a consolation prize in the early days of the Republic and later became about “balancing the ticket.” Most cite Jimmy Carter’s relationship with Walter Mondale as the turning point. Bush 41 and Reagan initially had a frosty relationship but quickly formed a strong working partnership. Bush-Quayle was a deviation, a return to the “VP as electoral tool” strategy that didn’t work. Clinton-Gore worked together really well. Bush 43-Cheney was, as you note, unbalanced the other way, at least in the early years, although I think not as much as some believed at the time. Obama-Biden worked well. Trump-anybody would have been a disaster.

    Biden-Harris being one where the VP gets more spotlighting is odd in that Biden is far, far more experienced, respected, and connected than Harris. Hell, he outperformed her with Black voters in the Democratic primaries.

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  11. Kathy says:

    I believe Nixon did the Kitchen Debate with Kruschev while Ike’s VP.

    There’s an analogy of the US government asa complex machine with much redundancy, so it can continue to work when damaged, except for one vital part that, if damaged, renders the whole thing useless.

    The VP is the spare for that part, sitting on a shelf gathering dust until they are needed, while everyone hopes they never will be.

    Me, I think the president needs a second in command who is involved in all administration processes to varying degrees, and who can both help with the duties of governance, and take over at a moment’s notice being fully up to speed in all that’s going on.

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  12. Jen says:

    There’s also the optics of prioritizing the role of our first female ever at this level of government. (Nancy Pelosi is politically more powerful in her role, but VP is different insofar as it’s part of a ticket voted on by everyone, etc.)

    Overall, if this highlighting of Harris’ work is intentional, it is a smart move.

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  13. Scott F. says:

    @James Joyner:

    Biden-Harris being one where the VP gets more spotlighting is odd in that Biden is far, far more experienced, respected, and connected than Harris. Hell, he outperformed her with Black voters in the Democratic primaries.

    Biden is more experienced, respected, connected, and popular with Black voters in no small part due to how Obama partnered with him during 44’s terms. As is often noted, there are very few roles in government (or business – HA!) to build suitable experience to be POTUS. VP is actually one of those roles, if properly approached.

    Kudos to Biden for learning from his own VP experience and applying the knowledge with his VP.

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  14. gVOR08 says:

    I’m not sure Biden did Harris any favor by putting her in charge of border issues. Every few days I see some Republican assert, without evidence, that Harris is the real power and Biden a senile puppet. (The local paper had a letter today saying Tom Perez is the real puppet master, ordering Biden, Harris, Pelosi, and Schumer to do his bidding. A tribute to the vast powers of an ex party chair.) Keep in mind that if Biden kept Harris hidden in a corner Republicans would bitch about it. No matter what Harris’ duties and visibility Republicans would be making it out to be the most evil plot ever.

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  15. @MarkedMan:

    Throwing the bizarre Cheney Vice Presidency out of the mix, It is clear that since Kennedy, only Dems have used their Vice President to significant effect, and more and more with each administration.

    TBH, the N is so small I don’t think you can say anything definitive about party and the veep.

    I also don’t think there is any cause to throw Cheney out of the conversation–not liking what he did doesn’t change the fact that he was quite active.

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  16. just nutha says:

    @MarkedMan: Oh come on, now! No one ever has a plan beyond their own narrow political ambitions. 😉

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  17. Scott F. says:

    @gVOR08: I would say that one of the lessons learned by Biden from his time as VP in the Obama White House is that the Republicans will claim evil intent regardless of how anodyne the policy or initiative actually is. Biden’s been focusing on Republican voters (as derived from public polling NOT letters to the editor) over Republican politicians and activists. So far that is working for him.

    Let the Republicans caterwaul about Harris as she works on border issues. After the performance of the Trump administration on the border, they don’t deserve to be given even the slightest credibility on the topic. No wall, no reduction in illegal immigration, abundant and egregious humanitarian failures – how could Harris not improve results on any measure not confined to the fevered imagination of Stephen Miller?

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  18. Gustopher says:

    Granted that Harris is decidedly the more photogenic member of the duo, I’ve never seen this many pictures of the Veep in any previous administration’s stream.

    Come on, man, we all hope to look as good as Biden when we hit 78.

    Here’s a photo of him shopping for mideval torture butt plugs:
    https://www.flickr.com/photos/whitehouse/51101863289

    He’s a silver fox.

    To be clear, I’m not suggesting that Biden isn’t performing his duties or that Harris is secretly running the show. There is zero indication of that.

    My brothers are convinced that the only reason Harris hasn’t invoked the 25th on Biden is that once she is raised to President, there is a unbreakable tie in the Senate, and no way to get the new tie-breaking VP confirmed.

    This shows both an amazing break from reality (they are convinced Biden is senile, has no idea where he is, and is just a puppet), and a surprisingly accurate grasp of the process for presidential succession and the ways Republicans could screw it up.

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  19. Mister Bluster says:

    @Kathy:..I believe Nixon did the Kitchen Debate with Kruschev while Ike’s VP.

    I was 10 years old in 1958. I remember seeing reports about Vice President Nixon’s travels to South America on the 15 minute daily edition of Douglas Edwards with the news on CBS.

    (He said stoned Nixon Bevis…hee..hee…hee…)

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  20. MarkedMan says:

    @Doug Mataconis: Didn’t know that about Nixon.

    Several Dems, including LBJ were used for their Congressional experience and network, and that is what I meant by narrowly active.

    Your recollection of the Reagan/Bush relationship is different from mine. My impression was that there were an awful lot of administration leaks belittling and demeaning Bush, and Reagan did nothing to stop it or to counter the narrative. The public perception was of an errand boy sent out to the funerals of unimportant rulers. It was to the point that when he threw his hat in the ring I assumed he was delusional. I didn’t have anything against him and was vaguely aware of his foreign policy chops but I thought his time in the administration had so soiled his reputation that he had no chance.

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  21. DrDaveT says:

    @MarkedMan:

    it could be argued that Cheney was an unelected President when it came to every significant initiative

    I thought that was Karl Rove

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  22. JohnMcC says:

    @MarkedMan: I recall a political cartoon from the Iran-Contra scandal. The HWBush character is seen wandering the halls of the WH forlorn: “No one tells me a thing!” Then the scandal breaks and a delighted HWBush dancing through the halls “No one tells me a thing!”

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  23. Mister Bluster says:

    I think it was December 1986. The message board on the Walnut Street Baptist Church read:

    No Christmas in Washington this year. Couldn’t find Three Wise Men.

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  24. Joe says:

    @MarkedMan and JohnMcC:
    I remember a popular contemporary theory that Bush picked Quayle as VP to blunt any attempts to impeach Bush over the Iran Contra scandal.

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  25. MarkedMan says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: Bush Jr. didn’t “effectively use” Cheney. It was the other way around. There is no other P/VP relationship in the history of the country that is anywhere close to that.

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  26. MarkedMan says:

    @gVOR08: I find this (giving Harris responsibility for the border) one of the most fascinating things to come out of the Biden Presidency to date. She had to have agreed to it. And, knowing Biden, he wouldn’t have tried to talk her into it unless he thought it was good for her and the country. But I can’t see any political upside for her. It’s a mess, and she’s going to be associated with a mess.

    There’s only one thing I can think of, and it’s not very convincing. He is truly grooming her to succeed him, and they, jointly, feel that she needs to tackle Presidential level (i.e. no easy answers) type of problems. I’d love that to be true, but I’m too… cynical? To think that two high level politicians could put the country above their immediate interests. I think a President could do it, and a significant but not large number have done it, but a VP? No disrespect to Harris, but that would require a level of commitment to public service I just don’t think is commensurate with actually getting elected to the Presidency.

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  27. Liberal Capitalist says:

    I would be very interested to see Biden decide to retire 3 years into his presidency.

    Imagine: President Kamala Harris.

    We would be sold out of mops and buckets nationwide, cleaning up all the exploded heads.

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  28. Jax says:

    @Liberal Capitalist: CAN a President “retire”, without somebody pulling a 25th Amendment or Impeachment in both the House and the Senate?

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  29. The Q says:

    Mr. Mataconis, not sure about your assertion of how robust was Nixon’s tenure under Ike. At a press conference before the 1960 election, the topic of Vice President Nixon’s role came up. President Eisenhower had this exchange with Time‘s Charles Mohr:
    Q. Mr. Mohr: We understand that the power of decision is entirely yours, Mr. President. I just wondered if you could give us an example of a major idea of his (Nixon) that you had adopted in that role, as the decider and final–
    THE PRESIDENT. If you give me a week, I might think of one. I don’t remember.”

    Nixon quietly SEETHED as JFK used this clip against him in the campaign.

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  30. Gustopher says:

    @Jax:

    CAN a President “retire”, without somebody pulling a 25th Amendment or Impeachment in both the House and the Senate?

    Yes. Nixon did, after all.

    I would be fascinated by the means of enforcing the alternative though, keeping someone President against their will. The marine running around with the nuclear football as the President tries to evade them, and secret service is trying to protect the President…

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  31. OzarkHillbilly says:

    I find it interesting that in all this discussion, there is little to no acknowledgment of the fact that she has agency.

    It doesn’t seem to occur to anyone that she negotiated all this as part of her acceptance of the VP slot on Biden’s ticket. You know, maybe she even demanded it? That this would be the Biden/Harris administration? That she would have significant duties assigned to her? That she would have a say in what those duties were?

    #1, she’s smart. #2, she’s capable. #3 she’s hard working. #4, she’s fearless. #5, she’s ambitious.

    This is her vice presidency and there was no way she was going to spend it warming a bench. She owns every bit of this. Time will tell if this works out for her or not. After all, Hillary was a smart, capable, hard working, fearless, and ambitious woman and we all saw how that ended up. Add to it the fact that Kamala is a woman of color to boot and…

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  32. James Joyner says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    It doesn’t seem to occur to anyone that she negotiated all this as part of her acceptance of the VP slot on Biden’s ticket. You know, maybe she even demanded it?

    I suppose that’s possible. But, presumably, the 48 VPs that went before her had agency as well and never got this sort of treatment. And, frankly, while she struck me as the obvious candidate once it became clear that it had to be a woman of color, I’m not sure she was in a position to demand anything. How many votes was she going to bring to the table, really? She was a dud in the primaries.

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  33. KM says:

    @James Joyner :
    The most of other 48 were from a time before the Imperial Presidency in which they would be considered effectively more part of functional Congress than the caretaker Executive branch. That’s why the VP is the President of the Senate – it is indeed the consolation prize as Congress was considered the more active branch and theoretically they’d have something to do in settling close debates.

    Secondly, the fact that POTUS’s terms were limited is very recent too. An ambitious and active VP would be seen as a threat to a sitting POTUS who could go 3 terms or more if they managed it. After FDR, it would have been well cemented in the political world that POTUS is the One that Does Stuff and the VP is the just Sits Around Spare. DC doesn’t like change and the few VPs who went against the grain (Harris now included) get lambasted as somehow stepping outside their roles.

    Harris may have demanded this specifically because if she has Biden’s blessing, she’s look less upitty and ambitious to some. She was a non-starter to them for several reasons but if she can make some headway on a critical issue, that buys her cred with most everyone outside the FOX crowd.

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  34. @MarkedMan: That is an interpretation of the relationship and it may even be accurate. But even if that interpretation is accurate, Cheney’s ability to manipulate Bush would have only been possible if the President allowed his VP such a role.

    Your categories were active/not active/very active. Cheney was very active in that scheme.

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