Kamala Harris takes center stage

Vice President Harris speaks during an event with President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris to sign an executive order regarding project labor agreements at Irownworks Local 5 in Upper Marlboro, Md., on Friday, February 4, 2022.
Greg Nash

Over the past few months, there has been a spate of negative news stories about Kamala Harris’s first year as vice president. The coverage has ranged from highlighting prominent staff departures; to the “managed chaos” within her office; to being handed a portfolio of difficult, if not impossible, issues to manage; to negative poll numbers; to being nearly invisible to the public.

At his January press conference, President Biden was asked if he was satisfied with Harris’s work on voting rights and if he would commit to keeping her on the Democratic ticket. Biden succinctly replied, “Yes and yes.” Asked to elaborate, the president said, “I think she is doing a good job.”

The proliferation of news stories about Harris should surprise no one. As the first woman and person of color to serve as vice president, there is a laser-like focus on Harris. Unlike her predecessors, no vice-presidential report cards were issued during their first years in office. But like every other vice president, Harris’s fate is tied to her boss. 

George H. W. Bush directly ascended to the presidency through a popular election, becoming the first incumbent vice president since Martin Van Buren to do so. Both won because their bosses were popular. But Al Gore was dragged down by the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. And at the one-year mark of the Obama presidency, Joe Biden’s favorable ratings were 10 points lower than his boss’s.

Currently, Biden is at a low point. His favorable rating stands at a paltry 42 percent. Harris’s favorability is even lower, at 38 percent. In his news conference, Biden signaled that he was pushing the reset button — no longer acting as a “president-senator,” someone deeply engaged in behind-the-scenes negotiations on Capitol Hill, but acting as president “and letting senators be senators.” For Biden, a reset means telling the public where he stands while asking Republicans, “What are you for?”

Together, Biden and Harris are tying their political fates to being effective communicators and interlocutors. Harris in particular can be a very effective inquisitor, as William Barr ruefully discovered. In 2019, the then-attorney general appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee as news stories swirled about Trump scandals involving his personal attorney, Michael Cohen; publication of the Mueller report; and investigations into Trump’s tax returns.

Harris asked Barr a simple question, “Has the president or anyone at the White House ever asked or suggested that you open an investigation of anyone?” After asking Harris to repeat the question, Barr quibbled at the word “suggest.” When Harris helpfully substituted the verbs “hinted” or “inferred,” the hapless Barr, knowing he was under oath, responded, “I don’t know.” It was a made for television moment.

During the vice-presidential debate, Harris proved once again that she was someone to be reckoned with. When Mike Pence interrupted Harris, she admonished the then-vice president, saying, “Mr. Vice President, I’m speaking.” Harris persisted with her answer as Pence kept silent. Harris’s response was turned into a very effective meme. As one writer noted, Harris’s take-no-guff rebuttal was cheered by “every woman in a meeting” who was told to be quiet. When the klieg lights were turned off, Harris’s “I’m speaking” generated more than 44,000 tweets.

This was a far different approach from the one Hillary Clinton took when Donald Trump hovered behind her as she answered a debate question. Recalling the moment, Clinton later lamented that she should have told Trump: “Back up, you creep, get away from me, I know you love to intimidate women but you can’t intimidate me, so back up.” Harris has no such hesitation in engaging her rivals.

Kamala Harris will be very involved in selecting a new Supreme Court justice. Important meetings with foreign leaders are on the horizon. And as the COVID-19 pandemic eases, Harris will be eager to hit the campaign trail. Already, her visibility is rising given the numerous media appearances she has made in recent months. As November draws near, Harris will have a prominent role energizing the Democratic base, particularly African Americans and young voters.

Polling by HIT Strategies shows Harris with consistently high job approval ratings among Blacks, hovering around the 80 percent mark. A Morning Consult poll found Harris far ahead of other potential 2024 Democratic candidates should President Biden not seek reelection. Among Black primary voters, Harris received 52 percent support, while the next highest name was Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (D-N.Y.) with 7 percent. The same poll found Harris leading other possible contenders among young voters, with 43 percent support.

In the lead up to the midterm elections, Harris will reprise her role of prosecutor, making the Democrats’ case while putting Republicans on the spot. Biden recently warned Republicans, “Here I come.” But this is a tag team effort. Republicans should be wary, especially when facing such a fierce interlocutor in the vice president. 

John Kenneth White is a professor of politics at the Catholic University of America. His latest book is titled “What Happened to the Republican Party?”

Tags 2020 vice presidential debate 2022 midterm elections Al Gore Donald Trump Hillary Clinton Joe Biden Joe Biden 2020 presidential campaign Michael Cohen Mike Pence Mike Pence William Barr

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