Kamala Harris grapples with unique challenges as vice president

Four months into her time as vice president, Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisThe Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - CDC equates Delta to chickenpox in contagiousness Harris's bad polls trigger Democratic worries Why in the world are White House reporters being told to mask up again? MORE is still finding her footing in the role. 

Harris is seen as a major reason why President BidenJoe BidenThe Supreme Court and blind partisanship ended the illusion of independent agencies Missed debt ceiling deadline kicks off high-stakes fight Senate infrastructure talks spill over into rare Sunday session MORE won the White House, and she’s considered an heir apparent for the Democratic nomination in 2024 or 2028. 

But she has struggled to break through as she juggles an evolving portfolio, adapts to a new staff and builds a relationship with Biden, who has a completely different style than her own. 

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“I don’t think it’s been as seamless as it appears,” said one Democrat who has spoken to aides in the White House about the matter. “There have been some growing pains and learning curves across the board.” 

Harris is constantly by Biden’s side when he makes announcements or holds meetings and has herself phoned at least a dozen foreign leaders, according to a White House official.

She’s hit the road to sell Biden’s agenda and used her platform to address vaccine hesitancy among Black Americans. The White House has put Harris at the center of its efforts to ensure equity in the coronavirus response and Biden’s American Jobs Plan. The White House announced earlier this month that she would also lead the National Space Council. 

Behind the scenes, however, some Democrats have grumbled that Harris is attached to Biden’s side at major public events but hasn’t paved her own path.

“It feels more like she's an extension of staff, like a chief of staff,” said one strategist close to the White House. “It seems like they go back and forth on whether they want that to be the case. It's clear that they kind of don't know what to do with her.”

Harris occupies a unique role as vice president, one with few if any parallels in modern history.

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There are the historic firsts: She is the first woman, the first Black person and the first Indian American to be vice president. 

She is also the first vice president in a long time who might become her party’s nominee four years after the election of the president for which she serves — and when that president is eligible to serve another term.

Biden, 78, has said he plans to run for president in 2024, but his age will continue to cause people to wonder if Harris will actually be the nominee. That puts Harris in a difficult position, not wanting to overshadow Biden and not wanting to be seen as someone eyeing his job and thinking only of her next position. 

It’s a problem that may be exacerbated by Harris’s natural political charisma and Biden’s own more low-key public persona. There was never a question of Biden overshadowing former President Obama when he served as vice president for two terms. But it’s at least possible with Biden and Harris given their historic roles and personalities. 

Anita McBride, who served as an assistant to President George W. Bush and chief of staff to first lady Laura Bush, said she thinks Harris is keeping with tradition in the role.

“She is in that support role to the president. She is not stepping out of line,” McBride said. “It appears clear to me she knows who is No. 1 and as most vice presidents who know what their lot is when they take this position  it’s the president first and you’re there to do what the president wants to do.”

During the VP vetting process last year, people close to Harris warned her that she was getting a reputation of not being a team player and that was one reason she could be passed up for the job. Since landing the job, those around Harris say she is determined to show she is beyond committed to making sure Biden and the administration succeed.  

A senior administration official said Harris’s priorities “are the priorities of this administration.”

Harris, the official said, is “in all the meetings, she’s focused on all the issues. She is at the table involved. She is a key adviser on every issue that is confronting this administration.”

“There are various models of the vice presidency,” the official continued, adding that the Biden-Harris model is similar to what Biden had under Obama, where Harris is focused on many different issues.

Some Democrats have said the White House has been slow in developing a portfolio for Harris and have criticized the administration for bungling the announcement that Harris would oversee the administration’s outreach to Northern Triangle countries to address the flow of migrants at the U.S. southern border.

Harris and her staff have been focusing on her first foreign trip as vice president to Mexico and Guatemala, which is scheduled for June 7 and 8. 

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The announcement, one Democratic strategist said, wasn’t precise and left people confused over what Harris’s role on the issue was.

“I think it was portrayed as Kamala handling all issues immigration, and I don’t think they really intended for her to be the face of that. I mean it’s a ridiculous expectation to be put on her,” the strategist said.

Lawmakers have been impressed with Harris in her new role.

Rep. Judy ChuJudy May ChuOmar reflects on personal experiences with hate in making case for new envoy Omar leads lawmakers in calling for US envoy to combat Islamophobia OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Democrats lay out vision for Civilian Climate Corps | Manchin to back controversial public lands nominee | White House details environmental justice plan MORE (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, remarked that Harris during a recent meeting with the group sought input on coronavirus vaccine access in their particular districts.

“She made it clear that her door is open,” Chu said. “I think she sincerely wants our input as to what is going on in the grassroots across America.”

One source in Harris’s world noted that her events and appearances in recent weeks seem “more her flavor,” pointing to a tour she did last month of an electric school bus facility. Harris had spearheaded the Clean School Bus Act while she was a senator and has continued to push for the issue. 

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And some suspect that Harris will see her portfolio become more defined as the administration ages, and Democrats say she could be particularly influential in fundraising and turning out voters in the 2022 midterm elections. 

“I can see her being a very strong fundraiser and someone who can really galvanize a lot of Democrats, particularly when she is working for a guy who is viewed as more moderate,” said one Democratic strategist. 

Some Democrats, particularly the ones who know her personally, were patient in the early weeks and months of the presidency. But even those in Harris’s world say she needs to start making a name for herself in her own right. 

“She’s got to figure out what kind of VP she wants to be,” said one Democrat close to the White House. “But let’s get this going here. She’s the future of the party, and people want to see what she's going to do.”

Rafael Bernal and Brett Samuels contributed.