Building back a better vice presidency
A small but significant piece of history was made on Nov. 19 when Vice President Kamala Harris assumed the powers of the presidency for just under 90 minutes while President Biden was sedated for a routine colonoscopy. It was another first for Harris; no woman in American history had assumed presidential power before. The milestone, however, is overshadowed by recent weeks that have seen Harris’s approval rating nosedive to anemic levels.
Indeed, Harris appears to be at a crossroad in her political life and, as the first Black, Asian American, female U.S. vice president, her success is paramount to the women who will follow — and to Biden’s success and legacy. In order to ensure that success, she must “build back better.”
Harris is not the first to find the vice presidency a difficult, thankless post. John Adams, the nation’s first vice president, called it “the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived, or his imagination conceived.” Successive vice presidents have been just as dismissive, including Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first VP, John Nance Garner, who described the role colorfully as a “not worth a bucket of warm spit.” Actress Julia Louis Dreyfus won a mantel full of Emmys playing the “Veep” in the eponymous HBO comedy, showing the sometimes absurdity of the role as No. 2.
But Harris surely finds little humor in the intense scrutiny, withering criticism and diminishing poll numbers she faces. Loaded with dark and discriminatory overtones, amped up by the relentless right-wing smear machine targeting everything from her nationality to her dating life, her mostly minor mistakes and missteps have been amplified and exaggerated. The punches have landed and the damage is ominous. Dismal press and a tainted public image have translated into Harris’s historically low approval rating of 28 percent. Compare that to Biden’s average of 46 percent when he was Barack Obama’s vice president, and the 42 percent average that Mike Pence yielded as Donald Trump’s No. 2.
The White House has been quick to point out double standards. Women leaders, especially those of color, face bias that clearly has been a factor for Harris. A recent poll by YouGov shows men are far more likely to have negative opinions of her, even among Democrats. But pointing out bias is not a strategy and likely won’t substantively help the huge challenge at hand.
Clearly, Harris has made mistakes. Since running for president, she has been dogged by rumors of poor management and a difficult temperament. It hasn’t helped that she has stumbled in her assigned high-profile portfolio assignments — the southern border and voting rights, two of the most formidable challenges the nation faces.
In the dog-eat-dog world of Washington, knives are out. Rumors are swirling within the Beltway that Harris will be purged from the Biden ticket in 2024, or, if Biden chooses not to run, that a spate of Democrats are waiting in the wings to take her on in the presidential primaries. While that all may be premature, it’s also impossible to ignore and an unacceptable outcome for Harris and the White House.
Harris needs a reset. But she can come back from the adversity she faces because she has done it before. As she told Mika Brezinzki, she “eats no for breakfast.” On the 2020 presidential ticket, Harris was an asset. Radiating her own personal political brand in Chuck Taylors and blue jeans, her ebullience and authenticity as surrogate for the Biden agenda engaged audiences around the country. Many voters saw her as a good choice and viewed her as likable and competent. That’s the kind of vice presidency that needs to be built back better.
Rather than just shooting down rumors about Harris that have taken on a life of their own, the White House should take a page from the campaign playbook and retake the narrative by letting Kamala be Kamala. The Biden social spending plan that passed in the House must be sold to the American people. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) is planning thousands of events around the country to do just that. Harris should be right there at most of them — campaigning for the Biden agenda as she did so effectively last year, especially in the underserved communities who would most benefit from it.
Chucks and jeans may not make the difference, but personal engagement with local communities around the country certainly could. More Americans should get to see and know Harris — not just as the woman smiling alongside the president but as a leader in her own right. That kind of public engagement won’t undermine Biden; it will enhance his presidency.
This vice president has been an asset in the past. If she and Biden are smart, she will be an asset again. By returning to retail politics and connecting directly with the American people, Kamala Harris herself can build back better. In so doing, she benefits the Democratic Party, the White House, and her own future political prospects in the process.
Lauren Leader is co-founder and CEO of All In Together, a nonpartisan, nonprofit women’s civic education organization. She is the author of “Crossing the Thinnest Line.” Follow her on Twitter @laurenleaderAIT.
Mark K. Updegrove is president and CEO of the LBJ Foundation. He is the presidential historian for ABC News and author of “The Last Republicans” and “Indomitable Will.” He hosts the podcast “With the Bark Off” and tweets @MarkKUpdegrove.