12 min read

Thinking through Kamala Harris’ vice presidency

A lot of you have asked for my thoughts on Kamala Harris as VP. So let’s talk about it.
Thinking through Kamala Harris’ vice presidency
(Lawrence Jackson / White House)

Good morning! It’s Wednesday, September 7, 2022. Election Day 2022 is 62 days away. Election Day 2024 is 790 days away.

Former President Obama will return to the Biden White House today for his official portrait unveiling — so I thought it would be a good time to turn our attention to presidents and vice presidents.

Specifically, I want to tackle one of the questions that lands most often in my inbox, about Kamala Harris’ role in the Biden administration and why it seems to many of you like she’s been a less visible vice president than her predecessors.

To answer it in full, I wanted to walk you through my thoughts, one by one, to let you in on the prism through which I’ve viewed Harris’ tenure so far — and how I’ll be looking at the rest of it, as she likely prepares for an eventual presidential run. Let’s dive in:

Ask Gabe: Thinking through Kamala Harris’ tenure as vice president

Dolores V. asks: “I am so disappointed with the way President Biden is making use of Kamala Harris’ talents. She always seems to be in the background and frequently your schedule notes that she has nothing on her public calendar. The items that do appear seem to be low level.

“I felt that Biden had much more exposure and input in the Obama administration as his Vice President. What is your take on this? Why isn’t she being groomed for a larger role? Why isn’t she there when he makes his groundbreaking speeches?”

This question, or some variation of it, has been one of those that I have gotten most frequently from readers since almost the very beginning of the Biden-Harris administration. Where’s Kamala? many of you have pinged me to ask, again and again. With so many people asking it, I wanted to give the question the fuller treatment it deserves:

I. Let’s remember something

To be honest, the question (and its frequency) have come as something of a surprise to me. I think part of this is people somewhat mentally inflating the role previous vice presidents had during their tenures. Maybe because of events that took place at the end or after their vice presidencies — e.g. becoming president (Joe Biden) or being targeted for hanging (Mike Pence) — it seems in retrospect like recent veeps had larger portfolios than they did.
But the truth to remember is: vice presidents have always been fairly awkward, minor players in presidential administrations. And I mean always: Our very first veep, John Adams, called the vice presidency “the most insignificant Office that ever the Invention of Man contrived or his Imagination conceived.”

There’s more: John Nance Garner, FDR’s first vice president, famously said the office wasn’t “worth a bucket of warm spit.” (Or was it “piss”?) Wilson-era VP Thomas Marshall liked to tell the story of the two brothers: “One ran away to sea; the other was elected vice president. And nothing was ever heard of either of them again.” I could go on.

II. Why you might all be asking this

So I think some level-setting is in order to remember that vice presidents before Harris have found themselves lingering in the White House background. Why, then, does it feel to so many of you that she has been uniquely removed from the action?

The elephant in the room here is her identity. There are two ways to look at this: many Harris allies say her media coverage — which quickly turned from fawning to harsh once she took office — is tinged with racism and sexism. The slightly more benign explanation is that Harris, like many “firsts,” is struggling with the reality of the sky-high expectations put in place for trailblazing officeholders.

I think some combination of these two narratives is probably correct: it’s been empirically proven that minority female politicians have often faced less favorable media coverage, and no matter what the media does, it’s probably true that voters would (perhaps unfairly) have expected a larger-than-usual role from her simply because she is a historic figure (and one people were familiar with from her many years being hyped as possible presidential timber and then as a presidential candidate).

But I don’t think this narrative — the one favored by those surrounding Harris — tells the whole story. Because the other elephant (donkey?) in the room is the fact that Harris isn’t just the first Black female vice president: she’s also the first vice president to serve under a 79-year-old president.

There’s really no parallel in modern political history for a president facing so many questions (including from his own party) about whether he will run for re-election. And that uncertainty has naturally led eyes to turn towards his No. 2, as her every move is monitored for possible signs of her future plans. You could argue that Harris invited this just by signing up to be a near-octogenarian’s VP: it was always clear that she might end up in a position to seek the White House four, not the usual eight, years later. That makes her even more of a presidential candidate-in-waiting than the usual VP, which I think has been a big part of the intense attention on her.

All of this to say: You not seeing Harris so much makes her more like past vice presidents than you might think, but it is also worth parsing in light of her unique situation, since she could be a candidate for president quite soon. (Biden, of course, says he’s running in 2024; but another question I get almost as often as the Harris one is He’s not really running again, is he? These are, in my mind, related.)

III. How else Harris breaks the VP mold

There’s another way, though, that I think Harris was set up for awkwardness from the get-go.

Since Dolores mentioned Biden’s vice presidency in her question, I think it’s useful to consider him and some of Harris’ other recent predecessors. In modern presidential history, a clear trend has developed for picking VPs: presidents have tended to select someone with more Washington experience than them. Walter Mondale (Carter), George H.W. Bush (Reagan), Al Gore (Clinton), Dick Cheney (Bush II), Joe Biden (Obama), and Mike Pence (Trump) all fit this basic pattern.

Interestingly, the “modern vice presidency” — the era in which the office has become at least slightly more relevant than its “warm spit” days — is seen as beginning with Mondale, who kickstarted this “Washington wiseman” trend. These two things are not disconnected. The post-Mondale trend has created a natural role for veeps to slot into, one that has generally enhanced vice presidential power and stuck in the public consciousness: of VPs as sage, experienced advisers, dispensing behind-the-scenes wisdom to the commander-in-chief.

Of course, that image doesn’t really hold up for the Biden-Harris relationship, considering this president has been a creature of in Washington since his VP was in elementary school. Biden doesn’t need Harris as his Beltway sherpa, a key role the public has come to expect from VPs and another reason why her tenure feels less consequential than her predecessors.

IV. But there’s one exception...

Astute observers of the vice presidency will note that one post-Mondale veep was left off of my list above (no, not Selina Meyer). That would be Dan Quayle, the vice president for George H.W. Bush.

Like Biden, Bush I entered the Oval Office with an uncommon amount of Washington experience, including time in Congress and eight years as vice president. And like Harris, Quayle was younger than the president he served under and had nothing but a comparatively brief spell at the Capitol to offer him.

Those of you who were around in the 1980s know where this is going: It’s not good news for Harris. Quayle’s vice presidency is best remembered for his struggles versus the word “potatoe” (sic); his later presidential adventures ended in failure.

Americans appear to prefer the Mondale-Biden model of the vice presidency to the Quayle-Harris model: the two less experienced VPs are also the two least popular occupants of the office of the last 30 years. A Washington Post article from back in 1999 reported that some observers thought Bush’s offer of the vice presidency to Quayle “ruined Quayle’s career.” One expert explained: “He had the best job in politics too early in his career,” noting that he was a rising star before the vice presidency but wasn’t yet ready for the big-time, which ended up dooming his ambitions in the long run. The possible Harris parallels are obvious

V. Avoiding the Quayle trap

To return to Dolores’ question, many of you seem to agree that Harris’ way out of Quayle-like obscurity (other than spending time with good ’ol Merriam-Webster) is to receive a more elevated role from Biden.

Looking at her portfolio, though, it’s not like Harris hasn’t been assigned her share of hot-button issues. It’s just that the issues she’s been given are some of the most intractable ones in American politics: abortion, voting rights, migration at the southern border. (Like most recent VPs, she’s also taken point on space policy.) It’s hard to gain traction when you’re focusing on such controversial issues that are unlikely to see much movement.

As chronicled in this newsletter daily, she has had a fair amount of days with no public schedule lately — but, again, I would note that it’s not as though past vice presidents were known for having busy schedules. Something that is notable about her schedule, though, has been the complete dearth of lunches between her and Biden. Although he promised to break bread with her weekly (just as Obama did with him; again, the tradition started with Mondale), RealClearPolitics noted that the duo lunched together only twice in the first half of 2022.

I think this scheduling choice is fairly revealing, and gets to the final set of problems facing Harris: it’s not her portfolio from Biden, it’s her relationship with him. Vice presidents are inherently dependent on the president they serve under. Without the full-throated support of the president and his White House message-shapers, VPs have little currency in Washington (and little hopes of pursuing a future political career).

One thing that Joel Goldstein, a Friend of the Newsletter and one of the nation’s leading experts on the vice presidency, told me that has always stuck with me is that, in recent history, almost every presidential-vice presidential relationship has ended more poorly than it began. Bush soured on Cheney, Clinton soured on Gore, and so on.

The one exception, he noted, was the Obama-Biden relationship, which started with Biden clumsily calling Obama “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean” and ended with tweeted pictures of friendship bracelets. Their bond will be on full display today, as Biden hosts Obama at the White House for the unveiling of the latter’s presidential portrait.

But, as a new book and a Washington Post article out this morning detail, the Obama-Biden bromance was never actually as strong as they made it seem. “Beneath that jovial atmosphere, however, is long-simmering tension, and even some jealousy, between the circles around Obama and Biden,” the Post reports.

Is that cycle repeating with Biden and Harris? It’s possible. It should be noted that their relationship has also had its ups and downs: he initially felt an affinity towards her because of her work with his son Beau, but First Lady Jill Biden reportedly viewed it as a “betrayal” when Harris attacked her future running mate at a 2019 primary debate.

According to the book “This Will Not Pass,” one reason the Biden-Harris lunches sputtered was that the early ones lacked “a real depth of personal and political intimacy.”

Harris’ political future will depend on whether her relationship with Biden follows the Cheney-Bush/Clinton-Gore trajectory or the Obama-Biden trajectory (even with its warts behind the scenes, it still is all roses publicly, as you’ll see today).

If Biden and those around him want her as his natural successor when he eventually leaves office, he’ll make it known. If he sends the opposite signal, it’s that much harder for a VP to gain traction, since they’re seen as having been spurned by the White House.

So as you’re watching Harris over the coming months and years: more than the pundits or the polling, pay close attention to the body language and words shared between Biden and Harris (and their lunch schedule). It can quietly tell you quite a bit whether a vice president is going places, or whether the president has little interest in seeing her promoted upward.

More news you should know

Massachusetts voters selected state attorney general Maura Healey (D) and former state Rep. Geoff Diehl (R) as their gubernatorial nominees on Tuesday. The race is seen as the likeliest governorship to flip this year; moderate Republican Gov. Charlie Baker is retiring. If Healey defeats the Trump-backed Diehl, she will be the state’s first female and first openly gay elected governor.

Some of the documents seized from Trump at Mar-a-Lago last month detailed U.S. top-secret operations “so closely guarded that many senior national security officials are kept in the dark about them,” the Washington Post reports. One of them even described a foreign government’s nuclear capabilities, according to the Post.

Former Trump strategist Steve Bannon is facing a new criminal indictment in New York, the Post also reports. The details of the indictment are unclear, although it will likely mirror the federal charges for which Trump pardoned him, over his private, $25 million “Build the Wall” effort which allegedly defrauded donors. Bannon is expected to surrender to prosecutors on Thursday.

➞ A New Mexico judge removed Couy Griffin, a county commissioner in the state’s Otero County, from office for his participation in the January 6th riot. Section 3 of the 14th Amendment disqualifies elected officials from office if they have “engaged in insurrection” against the country; it is the first time the provision has been invoked since 1869.

➞The recommended schedule for Covid vaccinations will soon mimic the annual cadence of flu shots, beginning with the upcoming Omicron-targeted booster shots, White House officials announced.  

E-cigarette maker Juul Labs has agreed to pay $438.5 million to 33 states and Puerto Rico. The settlement ends a two-year investigation, in which the states accused Juul of purposefully marketing its products to teenagers too young to legally buy them.

Juul Labs agreed to a multi-million dollar settlement. (Jordan Whitfield / Unsplash)

Numbers to know

More than 1 in 2 Americans will have candidates who deny the 2020 election results on their ballots this fall, FiveThirtyEight reports.

7.5 million children around the world have lost a parent or primary caregiver to a Covid-related cause since the pandemic began, according to a new study.

More than 140 Democratic legislators in eight states have voted for some of the nation’s most restrictive abortion laws, a CNN analysis found.

Zero of the UK’s four “Great Offices of State” will be held by white men for the first time in the nation’s history, newly-minted Prime Minister Liz Truss announced.

116°F temperatures were recorded in Sacramento on Tuesday, a new record for the city as all of California is battered by a heat wave.

Tuesday’s temperature forecasts across California. (National Weather Service)

Today at a glance

All times Eastern. Click on an event’s time to watch it.

Biden: Receives his daily intelligence briefing (9 am). Hosts former President Barack Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama for the unveiling of their official White House portraits (1:30 pm).

  • Context: Former presidents’ portraits are generally unveiled during the next administration after they leave office, but former President Donald Trump opted against hosting the Obamas. A president’s White House portrait is different than the likeness of them that hangs in the National Portrait Gallery.

Harris: Attends the Obama portrait unveiling (1:30 pm).

White House briefing: Press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre holds her daily press briefing (2:45 pm).

Senate: Convenes to consider the nomination of John Lee to be a U.S. Circuit Judge for the Seventh Circuit (10 am). Recesses for weekly caucus meetings (12:30 pm). Votes on Lee’s confirmation, followed by a cloture vote to advance the nomination of Andre Mathis to be a U.S. Circuit Judge for the Sixth Circuit (2:15 pm).

House: On recess until September 13.

Supreme Court: On recess until September 28.

Before I go...

Here’s a story to make you smile: As Japan’s population has aged, many senior citizens have reported struggles with loneliness and isolation. So one nursing home enlisted an unexpected new class of employees to help solve the problem: babies.

According to the New York Times, the young children — some as young as 2 months old, all under 4 years — come regularly to visit with the residents and offer them hugs. In exchange, the babies (and their parents) receive “diapers, baby formula, free baby photo shoots, and coupons for a nearby cafe.”

“I don’t get to see my grandkids very often, so the baby workers are a great treat,” one 85-year-old resident said, telling the Times that “she drops everything to spend time with the babies and toddlers when they arrive.”

Keep reading, via the New York Times.

➞ Thanks to reader Michael B. for sending this story in. If you come across a news story that lifted your day, feel free to send it my way and I might share it here.

“Baby workers” at a Japanese nursing home. (Ichoan Nursing Home / New York Times)

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If you have any questions or feedback, feel free to email me: my inbox is always open.

Thanks for waking up to politics! Have a great day.

— Gabe