The Memo

The Memo: Harris moves signal broad role as VP


Vice President-elect Kamala Harris garnered her own share of the news spotlight Thursday, announcing senior members of her White House team, including Tina Flournoy — currently a key aide to former President Clinton — as her chief of staff.

Harris’s first joint interview with President-elect Joe Biden since winning the election is also scheduled to be broadcast prime-time Thursday on CNN.

The contours of the role Harris will carve out for herself are still becoming clear.

She is a barrier-breaking figure, being both the first woman elected as vice president and the first Black person to hold the position. She is also the first vice president since Al Gore to enter office as the obvious favorite to succeed the person in the top job.

Gore, during his vice presidency, was particularly identified with specific issues, including the environment and government reform. So far, the signs are that Harris will seek a more wide-ranging role.

A transition official noted that Biden had spoken of Harris as having the same status as he did with then-President Obama: the last person in the room for the big decisions.

“She is going to be that person for him. This is a partnership, this is a team,” the transition official said. “She wants to model it very similarly to how [Biden] was a vice president to President Obama. They are working together, it’s a partnership, they are frequently in contact.”

People in and around the Biden-Harris camp also make clear that it is too early to put a particularly sharp definition on what Harris’s role will be.

The duo’s inauguration is more than six weeks away, and the political world continues to grapple with President Trump’s false but incessant claims that he won the election.

Once Biden and Harris take office, the fight against COVID-19 — and the efforts to ameliorate its negative effects on the economy — will be top of the agenda for president, vice president and pretty much everyone else in the administration.

In the recent past, events have dictated a vice president’s role in ways that would have been unimaginable at inauguration.

Vice President Pence has led the Trump administration’s coronavirus task force, though the virus literally did not exist when he took office. During former President George W. Bush’s administration, Vice President Dick Cheney became a far more important — and controversial — figure after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Harris also differs from the last few vice presidents because she is so well positioned to succeed her boss, whether that is after one or two terms. Biden is 78, and the question of whether he will even seek a second term is up in the air.

Such a scenario has the potential to breed tension, especially given that Harris had sought the 2020 Democratic nomination. Famously, there was a fiery moment between her and Biden at the first debate of the primary process when she took him to task for his prior position on school busing.

For the moment, at least, there is no sign of those tensions reasserting themselves. Biden and Harris have a friendly chemistry in their appearances together.

Bill Carrick, a veteran California-based Democratic strategist, said his experience with Biden was that the president-elect is disinclined toward holding onto enmity.

“I don’t see any sort of rivalry there,” Carrick said. “The president-elect is not very into rivalries. When I worked in the Senate, he didn’t really have rivalries, he got along with everybody.”

One of the key areas to watch will be whether Harris serves as an emissary to Capitol Hill or whether Biden chooses to keep that role for himself. Biden’s love for the Senate, where he spent 36 years, is legendary. On the other hand, Biden left that institution after he and Obama were elected in 2008.

Harris is in her first Senate term, having been elected in 2016. She is generally liked and respected among her colleagues — even Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a key Trump ally, was seen on camera giving her a friendly fist-bump on the Senate floor last month — and she has relationships with senators who arrived after Biden’s departure.

Beyond that, an obvious area where Harris could make her presence felt is on policing and criminal justice reform. Her status as the first Black vice president is salient in that regard, but so too is her experience as a two-term attorney general of California.

Even so, “I don’t think she is going to be a single-issue kind of vice-president,” said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. “I think she is going to be called on as a partner in this administration. Her experience ranges from criminal justice to health care to policing to foreign policy and intelligence. I don’t see any reason why Biden wouldn’t use her as a key ally and adviser in all these issues.”

Joel Goldstein, a professor emeritus at Saint Louis University and an expert on the vice presidency, noted that a vice president’s role is not solely self-defined. More often, he said, it is a function of the president’s blind spots, and where the vice president can be of most help.

Biden, he recalled, served as a “point person” on legislative matters for Obama. But he may not need Harris to play that role. Instead, he suggested, Harris could reach parts of the Democratic constituency — and the nation — that are not so easily accessible for Biden.

“I think there are going to be a lot of demands on her because she is the first woman elected to national office in our history, and the first woman of color,” he added.

“There may be a focus that she takes there, because of her own interests and also because of her credibility.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.

Tags Al Gore California Criminal justice Donald Trump Intelligence Joe Biden Lindsey Graham police reform vice president

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