Harris seeks her own unique path at White House
When the Biden administration announced Gene Sperling would oversee the execution of its coronavirus relief plan, a question was asked among Democrats: Why wasn’t it Kamala Harris?
After all, when Joe Biden was vice president, he had a similar role for the Obama administration, overseeing the 2009 stimulus bill’s passage and implementation during the downturn known as the Great Recession.
In the first two months of the administration, Harris has been at the forefront of the COVID-19 rescue plan and is a constant fixture at Biden’s side, during speeches, executive order announcements and rollouts.
But she has yet to carve out a specific policy role at the White House, and some were surprised she didn’t get Sperling’s responsibilities.
“I think it took a lot of Democrats by surprise,” said one Democratic strategist close to the White House. “And it made a lot of people question what exactly her role is as vice president.”
“It seems like a lot of people are asking that question,” said one Democratic donor who expressed concern that Harris isn’t yet building her own brand. “She has the unique ability to take on her own portfolio and highlight her strengths so why not capitalize on that?”
On Friday, Harris appeared alongside Biden in Atlanta, where the two met with state legislators and advocates from the Asian American and Pacific Islander community following the killing of eight people, including six Asian women.
Harris is the first Black vice president, and the first Asian American vice president.
They also visited the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, where they received an update from medical experts on the pandemic. They also were side by side in meetings with Sens. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, the Democrats whose victories in Georgia meant Harris would be the Senate’s tie-breaking vote for her party, and with voting rights activist Stacey Abrams, who was widely credited with Biden’s win in Georgia and the Democratic Senators, as well as Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms.
During the visit, Harris delivered remarks introducing Biden and condemning the recent surge in violence against Asian Americans.
“For the last year, we’ve had people in positions of incredible power scapegoating Asian Americans, people with the biggest pulpits spreading this kind of hate,” Harris said, a remark clearly directed toward former President Trump, who repeatedly labeled the coronavirus as the “China virus.”
“Ultimately this is about who we are as a nation, this is about how we treat people with dignity and respect,” she said. “A harm against any one of us is a harm against all of us. The president and I will not be silent, we will not stand by, we will always speak out against violence, hate crimes and discrimination wherever and whenever it occurs.”
Harris’s biggest and most important role so far in the new administration may be in the Senate.
She has cast three pivotal tie-breaking votes in the 50-50 Senate, and could be the deciding vote on pivotal legislation over the next two years.
She’s also taken a foreign policy role, making calls to Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, French President Emmanuel Macron and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
The trip to Georgia, the Senate votes and all of Harris’s work points to a busy agenda, even if she is not spearheading one policy area.
Asked last month in an Axios interview what her signature issue would be in the administration, Harris replied that her focus would be “making sure Joe Biden is a success.”
Still, Democrats say it would be good for her to develop a portfolio, especially if she wants to take the reins from Biden in 2024. That’s considered a strong possibility given that Biden is 78.
“The challenge for Kamala Harris is that she does not have a well-defined brand,” said Democratic strategist Jamal Simmons. “Her challenge is to put more definition around her so people know what they’re getting.”
“Right now people think of her as a competent, smart lawyer prosecutor but she has to define herself around a set of issues,” Simmons added.
Harris also finds herself in a delicate situation given the possibility Biden could only serve one term. To be sure, Biden has not ruled out running again, meaning the vice president has to not get ahead of Biden on the issues of the day even if she keeps an eye on her own next steps politically.
“This is a unique situation,” said Joel Payne, a Democratic strategist. “Joe Biden has acknowledged the transitional nature of his presidency and that creates expectations for Kamala Harris that we just haven’t seen for a modern vice president. Normally a vice president isn’t thinking about their future in such an acute way at this point.”
Harris’s allies say any talk of her lack of a portfolio is unfair.
“Biden and Harris took office in the midst of historic public health and economic crises,” one ally said. “Ending the pandemic and boosting the economy are far and away the public’s top priorities right now. It wouldn’t be good for her, the president, or the country if she was off doing other things when everyone else was rightly focused on those issues.”
Cal Jillson, a professor of political science at Southern Methodist University, said he also doesn’t find it surprising that Harris doesn’t have a defined portfolio of responsibility so early in the administration.
“Biden seems to like and respect Harris, but he has vastly more political experience and policy experience than she does,” Jillson said. “So she is shadowing as she becomes familiar with a broad and complex terrain.
“She is also being prepared, brought along, and she seems clever enough to realize and appreciate it,” he added. “If someone is taking you where you want to go, just pick up your feet.”
Morgan Chalfant contributed to this report