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Kamala Harris gambles with history

Vice President Harris listens as President Biden speaks on the COVID-19 vaccine efforts in the South Court Auditorium of the White House
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Six months into her young vice presidency, Kamala Harris has settled into the job. Taking her oath of office last January, the coronavirus was raging, travel was restricted and few were allowed to work in the White House. This allowed Vice President Harris to spend far more time with President Biden than is usually the case for new administrations. In addition, the months-long renovation of the vice-presidential mansion meant that Harris and Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff were temporary residents of Blair House, making them across-the-street neighbors to the Bidens.

Historically, vice presidents often found the job frustrating. John Nance Garner famously likened it to a “pitcher of warm spit.” Presidential maltreatment left many vice presidents, like Garner, embittered. One source of friction is the election-year imperative to choose someone whose ideology and electoral strengths differ from the presidential nominee. Once victory was secured, vice presidents were dispatched to a do-nothing job in the Senate, only voting whenever a tie needed to be broken. 

Even presidents who had formerly been vice president often treated their number twos badly. Harry Truman once asked a close aide, “What is Alben up to?” a reference to his vice president, Alben Barkley. Lyndon B. Johnson, once ridiculed by the Kennedys as “Uncle Corn Pone,” frequently left Hubert H. Humphrey waiting outside the Oval Office as aides scurried in and out. Richard M. Nixon had little regard for Spiro Agnew, and privately referred to him as his “insurance policy” as he fought impeachment during the Watergate affair.

Walter F. Mondale’s revamping of the vice presidency in the 1970s changed things. Relationships between presidents and vice presidents substantially improved. Joe Biden and Barack Obama provide one illustration. At the start of Barack Obama’s presidency, the two men did not know one another well. Although Obama had been in the Senate for four years, he spent his final two running for president. But a close relationship developed, one strengthened when Biden’s son, Beau, became terminally ill. At Beau’s funeral, Obama memorably referred to himself as an “honorary” Biden. 

President Biden seems determined to replicate his powerful vice presidency with Kamala Harris. At first, the signs were not promising. For one thing, the two did not know each other well. Like Obama, Harris spent four years in the Senate, the last two running unsuccessfully for president. Add to this the infamous clash between Harris and Biden during the first presidential debate on the issue of school busing, which infuriated Biden and his supporters. 

But fate and political calculation brought them together. Now in office, their extended face time has given Vice President Harris a unique opportunity to develop a rapport and immerse herself in the mechanicians of government. As Harris recently acknowledged, their mutual trust makes her “the last person in the room” when key decisions are made.

President Biden has given Vice President Harris two high-risk, high-reward assignments. Harris has been placed in charge of stemming the flow of immigrants from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador — countries plagued for decades by corruption, violence and the devastating effects of climate change. According to a May poll, 51 percent of registered voters disapprove of his handling of immigration. Thus, Harris’s foray into Mexico and Guatemala is an enormous political gamble. Prospects of immediate success are dim, and it is unlikely that the flow of refugees will diminish. Donald Trump and his fellow Republicans will surely exploit the issue in the upcoming midterm elections. 

Biden has also put Harris in charge of securing congressional passage of the For the People Act. Prospects of getting 60 votes in the Senate (much less 51 should the filibuster either be modified or eliminated) are extremely remote given West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin’s announced opposition. As Biden admitted in giving his vice president this task, “It’s going to take a hell of a lot of work.”Republican intransigence to voting reforms is driven in part by a Trump-controlled Republican party wrapped around the illusion that the 2020 election was “stolen.” Further animating GOP opposition is a rapidly changing demography that will erode the power of blue-collar voters and make Republican victories far more difficult. Having wildly succeeded with congressional gerrymandering after the 2010 midterms, Republicans are now busily engaged in perfecting their game of choosing their voters.

Kamala Harris’s assignments are a high wire act. Unlike anyone else in the executive branch, presidents cannot fire their vice presidents. In the past, this made most chief executives reluctant to give their number twos any significant responsibilities. But today vice presidents can hardly turn down assignments given to them (even the difficult ones). For Harris, accepting her new responsibilities is a high-risk, high reward proposition. Adding to the pressure is Harris’s historic role as the first female vice president, which is certain to draw intense media scrutiny.

Going from the vice presidency into the presidency via an election is a rare historical occurrence. Only Martin Van Buren and George H. W. Bush managed to do it, thanks to the popularity of their bosses. Modern vice presidents are major contenders for their party’s presidential nomination, and come 2024 or 2028, Vice President Harris is likely to be a strong competitor. But her political fortunes will depend largely on how voters view the Biden presidency. Accepting these high-profile assignments, ones fraught with a likelihood of failure, puts Harris’s political ambitions at significant risk. It’s a huge gamble. 

John Kenneth White is a politics professor at The Catholic University of America and author of “What Happened to the Republican Party?”

Tags American immigration crisis Barack Obama Donald Trump Doug Emhoff Joe Biden Joe Biden 2020 presidential campaign Joe Manchin Political positions of Joe Biden Vice President of the United States

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