In the past year, the Vice President has mostly appeared as a bystander to the most important decisions made by President Biden. Will she be able to take a more active role in 2022?
Kamala Harris’ first term in office has been a subdued affair so far. Especially when compared to the previous year, which saw her historic election to Vice President of the United States.
The first year has been challenging. Her approval ratings have dropped, the president has given her some of the administration’s most intractable issues to manage, her office has suffered many resignations, and she’s seldom in the public eye. Leading many to ask – where is Kamala Harris?
To have the defining moment of your vice-presidency as telling migrants to “Do not come” is less than desirable. This earned her a lot of criticism, including from that of progressive New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and felt jarring to Democratic voters hoping for a departure from Trump’s rhetoric around migration.
Joel K. Goldstein, an expert on the vice-presidency and law professor at St. Louis University, argues that a slip-up from Harris garners inordinate attention.
“Vice President Harris is relatively new to the national stage, and so people don’t have a reservoir of information about her. So, when there’s a gaff, or something goes wrong, it tends to have a disproportionate impact on the perception of her.”
It’s worth remembering that vice presidents approval ratings tend to track that of the president’s (Kamala Harris’ rating slump mirrors that of Joe Biden’s), and these numbers are hard for the VP to move unless the administration’s pick up.
Much has been said about the difficult nature of the assignments Harris has been tasked with; leading democrats to pass legislation protecting voting rights, deterring migration to the southwestern border by working to improve conditions in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, encouraging women to remain in the workforce, space exploration, and much more.
But it’s not unusual for a vice president to be tasked with impossible issues, and Biden himself was given gun violence to grapple with by President Obama. Are we perhaps too focused on her caseload?
“I think there’s been too much emphasis on the portfolios that VP Harris has been given”, says Professor Goldstein.
“Portfolios really don’t define most Presidencies. People like Walter Mondale or Dick Cheney were very influential vice presidents, without having much or anything in the way of them.”
The focus on the assignments is understandable if unwise; most of a vice president’s work is behind the scenes, making it difficult to assess their performance. They advise the president, but this work is necessarily invisible, and they can’t take credit for achievements – that goes to the president and the administration.
“Vice Presidents can’t go out to the media and say ‘The President was about to drive the nation off a cliff but then I raced in and kept him from doing what he wanted to do, and saved us from a national disaster’. When the Vice President persuades the President, it’s got to remain between the two of them – in order to preserve the relationship”, says Goldstein.
But there’s another factor that accounts for Kamala Harris’ fade into the background, and that’s her position as the tie-breaking vote in the senate. The 50/50 split means that she has to be close enough to the senate whenever there is likely to be a vote, and that really inhibits her ability to not only travel internationally, but even to travel around the states.
So where has she been?
In the first months of her vice-presidency, she spent a considerable amount of time with Joe Biden, sitting in on briefings and getting up to speed on pressing matters. This shouldn’t be dismissed – access to the president gives the vice president influence, and there’s been little suggestion that Harris doesn’t enjoy it.
And whilst the pandemic has also certainly curtailed the trips Harris can take, she visited France in November 2021 (which was widely considered as successful), was recently in Honduras for the inauguration of its first female president, and increasingly has been doing more events across the US, talking up ‘Build Back Better’, infrastructure, and voting rights.
So what does 2022 hold for Kamala Harris?
Vice president Harris will continue to serve a heartbeat away from the presidency, and somewhat in the shadow of it, but she will presumably take on more of a public-facing role in the run-up to the mid-term elections in November.
The administration is struggling at the moment, the public is dissatisfied with the economy and inflation, and the President’s messaging on that and Ukraine is dismal. The American people are seeing a lot of Biden right now, perhaps seeing more of the Harris half of the 2020 ticket will energize the electorate more.
There has been chatter in Washington that Biden could make Harris his Supreme Court pick to replace Justice Stephen Breyer, but Goldstein dismisses this.
“It’s absolutely a fantasy. There’s no way that she will be President Biden’s supreme court nominee”, he says.
“Harris has gone down a path of elective politics, not judicial politics. Even if she did, it would be inconceivable that any President would subject them to the hearings – it presents too much of a political opportunity with the opposition.”
The speculation is unimaginative and tokenistic, and highlights a failing on the part of those who seriously consider her an option – that there can only be one Black woman in Washington. But this reflects the discussion around Kamala Harris’ vice presidency as a whole; the exceptionalism as a historic first, leads many to view her tenure as unexceptional.
There has been so much interest around Kamala Harris in a way that isn’t true of her predecessors. It’s difficult to imagine this much analysis of Mike Pence’s time as President Trump’s No.2, and indeed all the other white men that went before him.
Her gender and ethnicity were not her only qualifications for the vice presidency, and they should not be prominent when determining the success of her tenure.
Joel K. Goldstein is a professor of law at St. Louis University. He regularly features in publications such as Bloomberg, The Washington Post, and The New York Times, and has written extensively on the vice presidency, including two books: The Modern American Vice Presidency: The Transformation of a Political Institution and The White House Vice Presidency: The Path to Significance, Mondale to Biden.