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22 January 2024

Is a Kamalaissance possible?

The vice president has neutralised her critics while making a case for Biden with young, Black and female voters.

By Sarah Baxter

Kamala Harris has a surprising admirer. Speaking on Fox News, Kayleigh McEnany, Trump’s savvy former White House press secretary, praised the US vice-president’s 17 January performance on The View, ABC’s female-friendly morning television talk show. “What Kamala Harris is doing, right or wrong, is enormously powerful among young women,” McEnany said.

Harris had clearly benefited from media training, she suggested, and was being deployed to hit “three buckets”. First, progressives (on The View, Harris “talked about Israel and Gaza”, McEnany observed); second, young people (“she literally said, ‘I love Gen Z’”) and, not least, women. “Even when she was given low-hanging fruit – she was asked about January 6 and the 91 indictments against Trump – she pivoted right back to abortion,” McEnany added.

Hallelujah! Could Harris, formerly on political life support, be on the verge of a Kamalaissance? There have been periodic attempts to revive her image in the New York Times and other liberal publications, but McEnany’s comments marked the first time I have heard her praised by a former Trump official. It was an auspicious start to Harris’s so-called reproductive rights tour, launched on 22 January, the 51st anniversary of the Roe vs Wade Supreme Court decision that effectively legalised abortion – before the court reversed its decision in 2022.  

Harris’s national tour is kicking off in Wisconsin, a must-win state for Joe Biden, where support for abortion rights led to a double-digit triumph in April for the Democrats’ candidate for election to the state supreme court. Measures affecting access to abortion will be on the ballot in at least ten states on 4 November at the same time as the presidential contest, driving women and young people to the polls. As McEnany went on to warn Republicans, Harris “knows what is true, which is that the GOP has lost every single [abortion] ballot initiative since Roe”.

Before we get carried away, Harris remains a drag on the Democratic ticket. Her approval ratings are as bad as ever: 54 per cent of voters disapprove of her performance compared to 38 per cent who approve, according to the FiveThirtyEight polling website. Biden’s “disapprove” ratings are only two points higher but nobody is in a hurry for “President” Harris (as he has absent-mindedly called her) to take over.

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Former staffers have not been kind in The Truce, a new book about the Democrats by Hunter Walker and Luppe B Luppen out on 24 January. In it an anonymous aide denounces Harris as “rotten from the start”, according to pre-publication reviews. “A lot of us, at least folks that I was friends with on the campaign, all realised that: ‘Yeah, this person should not be president of the United States,’” the aide added.

I was almost as brutal about the “Kamala problem” in a previous piece in the New Statesman about her first year as America’s ground-breaking first woman, first black and first South Asian vice-president. Then, top aides described her office as a “s**tshow” and were leaving in droves. Harris was chafing about having been dumped with responsibility for the immigration crisis on the southern border and spoke in “word salads” without connection or real warmth. Biden advisers were slyly piling on the criticism, shoring up their boss at her expense in readiness for a second White House run.

Her career momentum appeared to be finished, while power-hungry sharks like Gavin Newsom, the Democratic governor of California, circled the looming vacancy at the top. But now that Harris is no longer perceived as presidential material, she has emerged as Biden’s most useful proxy, leaving her 81-year-old boss to oversee the big economic and foreign picture, while she tries to bridge the enthusiasm gap at ground level with young, black and female voters. She has been making the most of her campaigning freedom and winning new friends. “All of us knew we were looking for something,” the Reverend Al Sharpton told Bloomberg in May. “She’s become that something.”

At the Cop28 Dubai summit in December, Harris called for a humanitarian response to Israel’s bombing of Gaza. “Too many innocent Palestinians have been killed,” she said during a press conference. “Frankly, the scale of civilian suffering and the images and videos coming from Gaza are devastating… It is truly heartbreaking.” Wa’el Alzayat, CEO of the Muslim group, Emgage, told Politico: “She’s a woman of colour who is attuned to various racial and social justice issues so this might be a reflection of that.” 

In January on Martin Luther King’s birthday, Harris was in South Carolina, where black voters propelled Biden to the Democratic nomination in 2020, and repeated his widow Coretta King’s words, “Freedom is never truly won. You earn it and win it in every generation.” She has been leading calls for a ban on assault weapons, touring university campuses touting relief for student loans, denouncing school-book bans and sparring with the Florida governor Ron DeSantis over his state’s school curriculum reforms, which teach the supposed “benefits” of slavery to black people.

In short, Harris has been in her element, while also sitting in on more than a dozen White House calls with the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, talking to the families of Israeli hostages and Palestinian victims, and meeting the leaders of Egypt, Jordan and the UAE in Dubai. It is all good training, should the worst happen to Biden. She has little involvement in the US economy, but at least it is on the rebound, with unemployment at historic lows of 3.7 per cent and inflation down to 3.4 per cent. In an all-too familiar narrative, by scaling back her outward ambition – a path travelled by Michelle Obama – she is no longer perceived as threatening by voters.

Whether she can take on a future Trump running mate is still unclear. Harris will never be as good a debater as one potential candidate Tucker Carlson, the broadcast star favoured by Donald Trump Jr, or as fiery a culture warrior as Kristi Noem, the South Dakota governor. She will not be as doggedly loyal to Biden as Elise Stefanik, the pro-Trump chair of the House Republicans, nor match GOP presidential contender Nikki Haley for confidence. But if Harris can continue to neutralise her critics, drive up turnout and win Biden a second term in office, she could well become America’s first woman president.

(Read more: What has Kamala Harris been doing?)

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