After less than a year in the job, the US vice-president, Kamala Harris, is flailing. Her chief spokesperson, Symone Sanders, who worked on Joe Biden’s presidential campaign, is reportedly leaving at the end of the year. So, too, is her communications director, Ashley Etienne. Rumours about the dysfunction of the Harris team have leaked, and there are reports that her office has tense relations with some factions of the Biden White House, though Harris has disputed that there is any difficulty between her and the president. Still, some are speculating that she will be dropped from the ticket if Biden runs in 2024. If he doesn’t run, there’s no guarantee that Harris, the so-called candidate of Silicon Valley, will be the Democrats’ candidate: according to one November poll, her approval rating is 28 per cent, 10 per cent lower than Biden’s.
Though Biden is renowned for his gaffes, Harris, too, has made unforced errors. Asked in an interview in June why she hadn’t yet been to the US-Mexico border, Harris – assigned the border as part of her portfolio – inanely responded, “And I haven’t been to Europe.” While campaigning for Terry McAuliffe during his failed gubernatorial campaign in Virginia in October, she spoke of draconian abortion laws in other states, asking that voters “Don’t Texas Virginia”. This was an odd remark for one who will need to campaign in Texas at some point in the future.
Harris was sent to France in November to smooth relations. Paris had recalled its ambassador from Washington, DC in September after a military agreement between the US, the UK, and Australia (Aukus) led to Australia scrapping a French submarine contract. The visit appeared to pass without a diplomatic hitch – and nevertheless controversy struck when the media seized on her purchasing a $375 pot in Paris.
While these mistakes are part of the picture, it’s not the whole view. To write off Harris now is to ignore both the context in which she’s working and the precedents of US history.
[see also: Joe Biden and the spectre of Donald Trump]
For one thing, the US has never before had a woman or a person of colour as vice-president. Harris, as a black woman of South Asian descent, is both. It is impossible to know the extent to which her polls and press coverage are shaped by this fact. It could be that as she is adjusting to the role, Americans – especially white Americans – are adjusting to her occupying it. Like all vice-presidents, she has the impossible task of needing to appear competent without seeming as though she’s vying for the top job – a task made more difficult by Biden turning 79 in November. As studies by the Pew Research Center and others show, Americans historically perceive ambition as a more desirable and positive trait in men than in women.
For another, if Harris is failing to meet her targets, then some fault lies with the man setting them. Biden, in addition to sending her to France to mend relations, announced that she would be the point person on both immigration at the southern border and on voting rights. These are two of the most politically fraught and significant issues in the US.
Historically, US vice-presidents often get off to a difficult start, particularly in respect of relationships with their bosses. This has been true since the country’s founding, when the vice-president was simply the runner-up for the top job. For more than a century after that, up until 1940, the party, not the presidential candidate, chose his running mate.
But even after the president began selecting his own VP, many presidents and vice-presidents clashed. Hubert Humphrey, vice-president in Lyndon B Johnson’s administration between 1965 and 1969, likened the experience to “being naked in the middle of a blizzard with no one to even offer you a match to keep you warm”. Jimmy Carter treated his vice-president, Walter Mondale, as more of a partner, but his administration in the late 1970s didn’t mark a shift towards warm presidential-vice-presidential relations.
There were tensions between Ronald Reagan and his number two, George HW Bush. Even Biden’s relationship with Barack Obama was more complicated than their public best-friends routine would lead one to believe, as Obama aides privately mocked Biden. Donald Trump arguably endangered the life of his vice-president, Mike Pence, who was at the Capitol during the 6 January riot. In some ways, it would be more notable if there weren’t reports of difficulty between Harris’s office and the president’s.
She is also not the first vice-president to draw embarrassing press coverage – and compared to the experience of some VPs, Harris’s headlines are benign. Richard Nixon’s vice-president, Spiro Agnew, resigned in 1973 and pleaded no contest to a charge of tax evasion (Nixon resigned less than a year later over Watergate, leaving Agnew’s replacement, Gerald Ford, in the Oval Office). George W Bush’s vice-president, Dick Cheney, who headed up Bush’s vice-presidential selection committee only to end up with the job himself, shot someone in the face on a hunting trip (somewhat inexplicably, the victim apologised to Cheney for any trouble caused).
The next presidential election is in 2024. Kamala Harris has time enough to transform her ratings. She, and Biden, just need to figure out exactly what she is meant to be doing.
[see also: The making of Kamala Harris]
This article appears in the 09 Dec 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special