Time will tell: Kamala Harris’s presidential prospects

Vice President Harris holds a joint press conference with Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei in Guatemala City
Getty Images

A head-turning cartoon in the Raleigh News & Observer pictures President Biden in the Oval Office with a big inbox marked “Voter Rights, Immigration and Broadband Expansion.” Next to it is a sign that says: “The Bucks Stops with Kamala.”

One television network sent its anchor to cover Vice President Harris’s trip last week to Central America, The Economist wrote that she “already looks like her party’s prospective nominee.”

Only a short while earlier, there was Washington buzz of an “invisible” vice president. Some Republicans and right-wing cable bloviators were in a tizzy because she hadn’t visited the U.S.-Mexican border.

Calm down folks, it’s early.

Any future political success for the California Democrat depends chiefly on the success of the Biden administration. Whether in 2024 or 2028 she can ride a wave of success, or — if the administration is seen as failing — it’ll drag her down. It further depends on her ability to grow, both in policy and political ways.

As captivating as the Kevin Siers cartoon may be, more important than any designated assignments is filling the “Mondale model” for the vice presidency. Crafted by the late Walter Mondale, vice president to Jimmy Carter, this entails a genuine partnership between the president and his number two. This is why we see Harris involved in every major decision and in the room for every important meeting.

Even given the inevitable spin, it appears the Biden-Harris relationship is going well in the first 20 weeks. With the COVID-19 travel limitations, they’ve probably spent more time together than usual. Her staff, headed by a veteran operative and Clintonite, Tina Flournoy, is said to be in sync with the president’s. Any residual resentments from a 2019 debate clash they had over school busing has been smoothed over. She’s cautious, giving interviews mainly to friendly journalists.

In voting rights and migration on the southern border, Harris has two exceedingly difficult charges. They are so big that — whatever role Harris plays — ultimately the buck will stop with Biden.

On voting rights, Harris intends to rally support from civil rights groups and the business community. That’s good, but ultimately success depends on a private deal engineered by the president, ideally with her assistance.

She made a verbal gaffe or two on the Central America trip; nothing big. Without even checking, I’m certain Joe Biden made more gaffes in the first five months of his vice presidency.

Looking back on the Biden model, he helped pass the 2009 stimulus bill when the economy was in a downward spiral and was in charge of its implementation. He succeeded; the bill passed quickly, and there were no major misuses of monies.

It gained Biden standing internally but was of little enduring political benefit for him. It was Obama’s program.

Another special assignment for Biden was Ukraine, specifically linking American support to that country to rooting out its pervasive corruption. By reliable accounts, he did a good job — though it became a political controversy when Trump & Co. unfairly accused him of trying to help his son who was working with a Ukrainian company. (It’s a safe bet that Harris’s step-children won’t be lobbying for a foreign company.)

What did matter was the popularity of the Obama administration, especially with Democrats, and Biden’s central role.

There are challenges for this vice president. To be a national candidate on her own, she needs to broaden her policy portfolio, a foreign policy area or two as well as domestic economic issues, working to retain support among key groups like suburban women and trying to make a dent with working class white voters.

A passionate champion of equal rights, she’s a bridge to some groups, but doesn’t want to be seen as the left wing of the Biden administration. Indeed, she probably is a beneficiary when Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez criticized her for telling struggling Guatemalans not to try to cross the border into the U.S. Very few people support an open borders posture.

Harris’s 2019 presidential campaign was marked by internal battles, leaks and a largely incoherent message from the candidate. Yet it wasn’t as bad as Joe Biden’s two ill-fated presidential quests. There’s time to learn and grow.

Joe Biden has been a harder target for the right-wing attack machine than Obama, the first Black president. Harris would not be spared. The race card will be deployed, subtly and directly. She’d have to be prepared.

My guess would be that Biden, who will turn 82 in 2024, won’t run again. As his vice president, with the promise of being the first woman president, Harris would be a formidable front-runner if — and it’s a big if — the economy is strong and there are no real scandals or foreign conflicts.

Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then The International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.

Tags Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Jimmy Carter Joe Biden Tina Flournoy

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