Kamala Harris is Frustrated
Apparently, getting her elected President is not a high enough priority in the Biden White House.
The bizarre campaign of whining to the media by the Vice President’s staff continues in this morning’s New York Times in a report headlined “Heir Apparent or Afterthought? The Frustrations of Kamala Harris.”
The president needed the senator from West Virginia on his side, but he wasn’t sure he needed his vice president to get him there.
It was summertime, and President Biden was under immense pressure to win the support of Senator Joe Manchin III, whose decisive vote in a 50-50 chamber made him the president’s most delicate negotiating partner. Mr. Biden had invited Mr. Manchin to the Oval Office to privately make the case for his marquee domestic policy legislation. Just before Mr. Manchin arrived, he turned to Vice President Kamala Harris.
What he needed from her was not strategy or advice. He needed her to only say a quick hello, which she did before turning on her heel and leaving the room.
The moment, described as an exchange of “brief pleasantries” by a senior White House official and confirmed by two other people who were briefed on it, was a vivid reminder of the complexity of the job held by Ms. Harris: While most presidents promise their vice presidents access and influence, at the end of the day, power and responsibility are not shared equally, and Mr. Biden does not always feel a need for input from Ms. Harris as he navigates some of his most important relationships.
Well, why would he? Unlike several recent Presidents who were Washington neophytes, Biden has been an insider for nearly half a century, having been elected to the Senate in 1972 and serving eight years as Vice President. Harris, by contrast, came to town two weeks before Biden’s term as VP ended. And, in a negotiation with a septuagenarian Senator from West Virginia, I can’t possibly fathom how she would be useful.
But without a headlining role in some of the most critical decisions facing the White House, the vice president is caught between criticism that she is falling short and resentment among supporters who feel she is being undercut by the administration she serves. And her allies increasingly are concerned that while Mr. Biden relied on her to help him win the White House, he does not need her to govern.
“I think she was an enormous help to the ticket during the campaign,” said Mark Buell, one of Ms. Harris’s earliest fund-raisers since her first race for district attorney in San Francisco. “I would like to see her employed in the same way, now that they’re implementing their objectives or goals.”
There is simply zero evidence that having Harris on the ticket made any difference in getting Biden—who won by some seven million votes—elected. Media narratives notwithstanding, pretty much every political science study of the matter shows the bottom of the ticket has next to no bearing on how people vote for President.
Beyond that, it’s not like she was a major national figure. Aside from a gotcha moment that temporarily hurt Biden in one of the early debates, she was a non-entity in the 2016 primaries, dropping out before Iowa.
That’s not a criticism of her. She did all we can expect a running mate to do: not screw things up. But it’s simply silly that, because she got handed the Vice Presidency after three years in Washington, she’s somehow owed a role as co-President.
The urgency surrounding her position is tied to whether the president, who at 79 is the oldest person to hold the office, will run for re-election in 2024. He told ABC News on Wednesday that he would run again if he was in good health. But questions about Ms. Harris’s readiness for the top job are starting far earlier than is usual for an administration in its first year.
They started during the campaign for the same reason. If Biden runs and wins again, it’ll be an irrelevancy come 2028: she’ll be a seasoned Washington pro who would be objectively more qualified than any Democratic alternative under 80. If Biden’s health falters and she’s running for the nomination in 2024, her brand is far elevated over what it would otherwise have been after seven years as a Senate backbencher.
Ms. Harris declined requests for an interview, but White House officials said that her relationship with Mr. Biden is a partnership.
“The vice president has diligently worked alongside the president coordinating with partners, allies and Democratic members of the House and Senate to advance the goals of this administration,” said Sabrina Singh, Ms. Harris’s deputy press secretary.
If the White House Flickr page is any indication, she’s busier than Biden.
An early front-runner whose presidential ambitions fizzled amid a dysfunctional 2020 campaign, Ms. Harris was pulled onto the Biden ticket for her policy priorities that largely mirrored his, and her ability as a Black woman to bolster support with coalitions of voters he needed to win the presidency. But according to interviews with more than two dozen White House officials, political allies, elected officials and former aides, Ms. Harris is still struggling to define herself in the Biden White House or meaningfully correct what she and her aides feel is an unfair perception that she is adrift in the job.
I honestly don’t know who it is that thinks “she is adrift in the job.” The job has no position description, changing from administration to administration based on the experience level of the President and the nature of the relationship.
And, again, I don’t know that we should read all that much into her selection. Biden boxed himself in early during the primaries by pledging, at the height of the #MeToo movement—in which he was a minor participant—that he would choose a woman as his running mate. As the Black Lives Matter protests raged, pressure increased on him to choose a woman of color. That left the range of viable candidates pretty small and even then it took quite some time to settle on Harris, even though I thought she was obviously the best alternative within those constraints.
Faced with declining approval ratings, a series of staff departures and a drumbeat of criticism from Republicans and the conservative news media, she has turned to powerful confidantes, including Hillary Clinton, to help plot a path forward.
Ms. Harris has privately told her allies that the news coverage of her would be different if she were any of her 48 predecessors, all of whom were white and male. She also has confided in them about the difficulties she is facing with the intractable issues in her portfolio, such as voting rights and the root causes of migration.
Again, aside from all of these reports—clearly generated by Harris staffers—of her complaining about the strictures of the job, I’m just not seeing much in the way of evidence that people are paying all that much attention to her. She entered the job with the least experience of any VP in the modern era; even Dan Quayle, widely mocked as unprepared for the job, had eight years in the Senate and four in the House. And, to the extent anyone is paying attention to voting rights and the root causes of migration, I don’t think they’re blaming Harris for not solving those problems.
The White House has pushed back against scathing criticism on both fronts, for what activists say is a lack of attention.
“I think it’s no secret that the different things she has been asked to take on are incredibly demanding, not always well understood publicly and take a lot of work as well as a lot of skill,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in an interview. “You have to do everything except one thing, which is take credit.”
Even in the best of times, the constraints of the job often make the vice president an afterthought, and not everyone asked to serve accepts it. (“I do not propose to be buried until I am really dead and in my coffin,” Daniel Webster, a former secretary of state, said in the 1840s about declining the job.)
The job is much bigger than it was in the 1940s, much less the 1840s. But yes.
But the complexity of the issues she has been assigned, and the long-term solutions they require, should have prompted the West Wing to defend Ms. Harris more aggressively to the public, said Representative Karen Bass, Democrat of California and the former chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus.
“What the White House could’ve done is been clearer with the expectations of what was supposed to happen under her watch,” she said.
I can’t remember a White House spending a lot of time trying to minimize the expectations for the VP. And this President, in particular, has a hell of a lot on his plate right now, what with a pandemic, struggling economy, and an elevated risk of civil war.
If anything, the report gets more bizarre from there.
Other Democrats say their frustrations run deeper.
Ms. Harris, who spent much of her four years in the Senate running for the presidency, was at odds with Mr. Manchin after she gave a series of interviews in West Virginia that he interpreted as unwelcome infringement on his home turf. Asked about the meeting in the Oval Office over the summer, a spokeswoman for Mr. Manchin said that the senator enjoys “a friendly and respectful working relationship” with the vice president.
Representative Henry Cuellar, a moderate from Texas and one of the more prominent voices on border issues in the Democratic Party, said his experiences with Ms. Harris’s team had been disappointing. When Mr. Cuellar heard Ms. Harris was traveling to the border in June, he had his staff call her office to offer help and advice for her visit. He never received a call back.
“I say this very respectfully to her: I moved on,” Mr. Cuellar said. “She was tasked with that job, it doesn’t look like she’s very interested in this, so we are going to move on to other folks that work on this issue.”
In the future, Mr. Cuellar said he would go straight to the West Wing with his concerns on migration rather than the vice president’s office.
Of the White House, Mr. Cuellar said, “at least they talk to you.”
Managing egos is a full-time job in Washington. That Manchin is just one of 100 Senators and Cuellar just one of 435 Representatives doesn’t mean that they don’t expect to have their calls answered immediately.
Ms. Harris’s aides have pointed to her work lobbying other countries and companies to join the United States in a commitment to invest about $1.2 billion to expand digital access, climate resilience and economic opportunity in Central America. But little progress has been made on curbing corruption in the region.
I’ll defer to my colleague, Steven Taylor, on the politics of Central America. Still, I am not the least bit shocked that Harris has not eradicated corruption in the region in eleven months.
On voting rights, Ms. Harris, who asked Mr. Biden if she could lead the administration’s efforts on the issue, has invited activists to the White House and delivered speeches. But her office has not developed detailed plans to work with lawmakers to make sure that two bills that would reform the system will pass Congress, according to a senior official in her office.
I’m not sure how to assess this given the paucity of information. If it’s her portfolio, she should certainly have staffed it. But given that Manchin is, as on most things, the key obstacle to achieving 50 votes in the Senate, I’d think the Senate leadership is going to have the main role there.
After several paragraphs about how Harris reaches out to other powerful women, like Hillary Clinton and Madeleine Albright, to commiserate, we get to this:
By all accounts, she and the president have a warm relationship. In meetings, the two often play off each other, with Mr. Biden allowing her to jump in and ask questions that go beyond what he has asked for; one adviser likened it to them playing “good cop, bad cop.” Alongside the president, Ms. Harris, a former prosecutor, has quizzed economic experts and immigration officials, at times asking them to better explain their reasoning.
Still, her allies are concerned that she is sometimes treated as an afterthought.
When the president worked late hours on a Friday night last month to win approval from lawmakers for his bipartisan infrastructure plan, a White House statement said only that he was working with a group of policy and legislative aides.
The vice president’s team, surprised her name had been omitted, informed the news media that she had also been there, placing calls to lawmakers. Asked about the exclusion, a White House spokesman said the initial statement issued to the public was based on information gathered before the vice president had arrived to join Mr. Biden and his senior staff. The White House issued a statement hours later noting Ms. Harris’s presence.
Again, this comes across as petty. Biden has gone out of his way, in a manner I have never seen despite having paid pretty close attention to these things for more than four decades, to brand his initiatives as Biden-Harris. But, surely, propping up her ego and Presidential ambitions shouldn’t be top of mind for a President still in the first year of his administration.