Harris rebounds after difficult trip
Vice President Harris looked on with a smile as President Biden got down on his knees Thursday to greet 94-year-old Opal Lee at a ceremony making Juneteenth a federal holiday.
“Looking out across this room, I see the advocates, the activists, the leaders who have been calling for this day for so long, including the one and only Ms. Opal Lee … who just received a very special recognition from the president of the United States,” Harris said, eliciting laughter and applause from lawmakers in the room.
At the event, Harris put her arm around Lee, an activist who pushed for years for recognition of the holiday, and held her hand as Biden officially signed the legislation.
For Harris, it was a moment of celebration, and a shift back to her political comfort zone following an uneven trip to Guatemala and Mexico last week, where she faced criticism from the left and the right over immigration and the border.
Since returning, Harris has turned her focus to domestic issues including voting rights and vaccinations.
On Friday, she traveled to Atlanta, where she urged Black residents who had just been vaccinated to help spread the word. President Biden has set a goal of having 70 percent of American adults vaccinated by July 4, a target the administration is in danger of missing.
Voting rights is also an issue she asked to lead on at the White House and she pivoted back to the issue this week, meeting in more personal settings with state officials. Those who met with Harris and those close to her say both vaccine equality and voting rights are issues she’s passionate about and provided her an opportunity after her first foreign trip — centered on immigration — drew tough reviews from even some inside the White House.
“It seems like these issues are more in her wheelhouse and definitely less controversial than immigration,” said one Biden ally.
“Harris seems more comfortable talking about voting rights and vaccines because these issues are easier to navigate. Every reasonable person supports voting and vaccines,” added one Democratic strategist. “Immigration is a more challenging issue with a variety of differing opinions in many communities, so that’s potentially where any discomfort comes from.”
Harris’s foreign trip was overshadowed by several comments from the vice president that angered some within the Democratic Party and gave fodder to critics of the administration.
After she told migrants pointedly “do not come” to the border, she drew backlash from the progressive wing of the party including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.). And in an interview with NBC News, even Democrats cringed at her answer to whether she was going to visit the border.
“We are going to the border, we’ve been to the border,” Harris told NBC’s Lester Holt. When Holt told her she had not visited the border, Harris responded, “And I haven’t been to Europe.”
Harris allies acknowledged that the trip could have gone smoother and Harris could “change the subject” as one source said by buckling down on other issues upon her return.
“I’m sure she was anxious to move on,” one Harris ally said. “She’s very aware of the coverage and the perception that it didn’t go well.”
William Galston, a senior fellow of governance studies at the Brookings Institution who served as a policy adviser in the Clinton White House, agreed that the trip “certainly didn’t go as smoothly as it could have.”
“I suspect that at the very least, people on her staff and on the president’s staff will be asking themselves how they need to prepare her to reduce the chances of difficulties cropping up and so they won’t be repeated,” Galston said.
Speaking about her comments about going to the border, Galston added that as vice president, Harris “has to learn to weigh her words more carefully.”
“She’s in the process of learning that being a senator from a blue state is one thing and it’s a very different thing from being vice president,” he said. “I’m not surprised there’s a learning curve.”
As part of her vaccine initiative, Harris is being deployed to southern states in particular to educate hard to reach communities and those with lagging vaccination rates to encourage them to get their coronavirus shots. The push comes as the Biden administration aims to administer at least one dose to 70 percent of adults by July Fourth, a number officials have acknowledged will be difficult to meet.
“When you get the vaccine for yourself that means that you will not possibly pass it on to somebody else in general because you’re unlikely to get covid,” she said while speaking at a predominantly Black church in Atlanta.
“Isn’t that an extension of love thy neighbor?,” she said, as several in the crowd responded “Amen!”
“We still have so many people who aren’t really saying ‘I don’t want to get it,’ but they’re just like trying to figure out how to make it work or ‘I’m not sure.’ So we’ve got to get the word out and one of the most important ways that we can get the word out is friend to friend,” she added. “Family member to family member. Neighbor to neighbor. And that’s why I wanted to talk to you, to say please help us get the word out.”
But perhaps Harris’s most daunting and high profile task is on voting rights. As federal legislation to overhaul elections stalls in the Senate, the vice president has turned to grassroots outreach in a bid to raise awareness of GOP-backed bills at the state level that would limit early voting, require voter ID and impose other measures that experts say will make it tougher for certain groups, including Black Americans, to vote.
Harris met in South Carolina and Atlanta with three community leaders and voting rights advocates, and she hosted more than a dozen Texas lawmakers who walked out of a legislative session to block the passage of the state’s proposed elections overhaul.
“This issue will remain a top priority of the administration led by the vice president. It was crystal clear on that,” Texas Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer (D) said in an interview. “Moreover, we’ve been inspired by her, and she has certainly been inspired by our actions in Texas and we have committed to ourselves in the room that we’re going to do everything we can to mobilize the rest of the country to stand up for voting rights.”
Harris is in a difficult spot in that her most high-profile portfolio items are somewhat out of her control. “In reality, I don’t know how much she can do on voting rights,” the Biden ally said. “What can the vice president really do about it? It’s an honest question.”
Voting rights legislation — which centers on two separate bills — has lost steam on Capitol Hill. And while Harris’s aim is to help set up coalitions with activists around the country to apply pressure on Congress, there likely won’t be tangible results.
Administration officials have acknowledged in recent days it’s possible the country won’t hit the 70 percent vaccination threshold.
But political observers say Harris and her team need to convey that the process on these substantive issues will take time while avoiding missteps along the way.
“The strategy for working on hard issues, like both immigration and voting rights, is to make clear to the press and the public what should be obvious, that they cannot be resolved in a single meeting or with a single declaration,” said Cal Jillson, a professor of political science at Southern Methodist University. “That makes the performative side of politics — how you frame the issue and immediate steps of dealing with it — just as important as the substantive side of politics.
“The substance has to be there in the end, but along the way, strong performances can keep the wolves from the door,” Jillson said.