A Painful Portrait of Kamala Harris’ Vice Presidency

A new CNN report details displeasure both from the White House and Harris’ supporters

From the summer of 2020, when she emerged as Joe Biden’s running mate, up through her inauguration this past January as vice president, the future seemed limitless for Kamala Harris. As both the first woman VP and the first person of color in the office, she was heralded for smashing glass ceilings.

In recent months, however, things haven’t been quite as sunny as Harris’ ardent supporters would have hoped. The former U.S. Senator, California Attorney General and San Francisco District Attorney has struggled to adjust to the world of cutthroat White House politics. Her troubles are detailed in a deeply reported story that hit CNN.com yesterday. The article, titled “Exasperation and dysfunction: Inside Kamala Harris’ frustrating start as vice president” has reverberated throughout California political circles.

The 4,900-word story by Edward-Isaac Dovere and Jasmine Wright is built on nearly three dozen interviews with political aides, operatives and insiders. While it provides plenty of space to Harris backers, it launches with a withering assessment of her efforts to transition to the vice presidency.

The story opens, “Worn out with what they see as entrenched dysfunction and lack of focus, key West Wing aides have largely thrown up their hands at Vice President Kamala Harris and her staff—deciding there simply isn’t time to deal with them right now, especially at a moment when President Joe Biden faces quickly multiplying legislative and political concerns.”

The article digs into frustration both with Harris, and from her, as supporters question the tasks she has been assigned and how she has been used from a strategic perspective. The second paragraph includes the line, “The vice president herself has told several confidantes she feels constrained in what she’s able to do politically.”

Dovere and Wright’s story is an examination of the present, but is set against the context of the future. It notes that Harris could be launching her own bid for the White House a year from now if Biden chooses not to run for a second term in 2024. It also mentions the positioning of other politicians who, the article states, “have started privately acknowledging that they are trying to figure out how to quietly lay the groundwork to run if and when Harris falters, as they think she might.”

The identity of the next Democratic presidential candidate—whether in 2024 or 2028—is also touched on in a Washington Post article from Saturday. The piece focuses on the performance of Harris and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, and, beyond that, how each could fare on the biggest stage possible. “The prospect of former president Donald Trump making another White House bid has put Democrats increasingly on edge, sharpening their scrutiny of Buttigieg and Harris,” the story says.

Harris is not the first person to struggle with what it means to be vice president. By its very nature the post assigns secondary status to someone who is usually habituated to being a political alpha. An old line in Washington, D.C. is that a vice president’s main job is to attend the funerals of foreign heads of state. The CNN.com story notes that Biden himself stumbled early on when he served as vice president to Barack Obama.

The article presents some of the additional hurdles facing Harris. It mentions that she had only spent four years in Washington before becoming vice president, and that right-wing media have lambasted her from the moment Biden tapped her as a running mate. “And implicit racism and sexism have been constant,” the story adds.

Still, the greater picture is of someone who has stumbled and has been somewhat sidelined. The article says that Harris appears less frequently with Biden at big events than she did early on. Her role in helping secure Congressional approval of the landmark $1 trillion infrastructure bill is questioned; while the story says her aides point to 150 “engagements” with House and Senate members as the bill progressed, others describe her having far less impact. (The Post story also details differing views of Harris’ role in getting the legislation passed.)

The image of a bumpy relationship at the top comes across. “The list of complaints between the West Wing and the vice president’s office keep growing,” the CNN.com story says. “The situation has become a back and forth of irritations—some real, some perceived.”

There are references to Harris’ challenges in tasks Biden assigned her, including addressing migration and the southern border of the United States. Some Biden aides complain that Harris’ office fails to exhibit enough follow-through. Others say the vice president leans too much on family members, and lists her sister Maya Harris, her brother-in-law Tony West and her niece, Meena Harris.

It’s not the first time family has become a turbulent matter for Harris. When her presidential campaign unraveled, reports touched on disputes between campaign staff and Maya Harris, who was serving as the campaign chairwoman, and who was accused of laying off staff with no notice. Reports of high staff turnover have also dogged Harris in some of her previous positions.

Political positioning also complicates her current situation, with the CNN.com article saying the vice president does not want to appear disloyal to Biden.
“Harris loyalists themselves worry that she’ll pay the price for her own loyalty to the president and her willingness to take on what they view as thankless assignments,” the story states.

Also explored is how Harris is deployed, with numerous supporters saying opportunities are being missed. California Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis pointed to an underuse of her talents, stating, “It is natural that those of us who know her know how much more helpful she can be than she is currently being asked to be. That’s where the frustration is coming from.” Near the end of the article, Rev. Al Sharpton pointed to her rousing appearance at a Carnegie Hall event in October. While discussing voting rights, she lambasted Republican governors Greg Abbott of Texas and Ron DeSantis of Florida.

“The administration ought to be using her more as the face in the voting rights fight,” Sharpton said.

Ultimately, Devore and Wright’s story paints a portrait of displeasure from multiple perspectives; a West Wing unhappy with Harris’ performance, and Harris and her backers unhappy with her assignments and a perceived lack of support from the top.

It’s a scenario that, some fear, could hurt the future of the party. One anonymous top Democratic donor was particularly pointed.

“Kamala Harris is a leader but is not being put in a position to lead,” the donors says, and a moment later adds, “You should be putting her in positions to succeed, as opposed to putting weights on her. If you did give her the ability to step up and help her lead, it would strengthen you and strengthen the party.”

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