WASHINGTON — When Kamala Harris is sworn in as vice president Wednesday, she will step into a role so often relegated to the background that John Nance Garner, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s number two, once described it as “not worth a bucket of warm spit.”
But beyond shattering glass ceilings, Harris, 56, will assume outsized responsibilities unlike any of her predecessors, as she helps lead a nation battling multiple crises.
She is likely to be frequently called to cast the tiebreaking vote in a 50-50 Senate. She could end up presiding over President Trump’s second impeachment trial for inciting the mob attack on the US Capitol. And at the White House, President-elect Joe Biden has said he wants her to be “the last voice in the room” on every major decision that he makes.
“There is the version of the vice president that is sort of marginalized and not a key player — someone pulled out for funerals and state dinners,” said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. But she and other analysts do not expect the same for Harris given Biden’s experience when he was vice president during the Barack Obama administration.
“What I think we will be seeing is a relationship that is in fact truly a partnership,” Walsh said.
The daughter of immigrants and the first woman, Black person, and Asian American person to hold the job, Harris will bring an unparalleled set of lived experiences that analysts said make her uniquely suited to help the nation navigate these perilous times. Already, according to those close to the presidential transition, she is working in strong partnership with Biden, as the two prepare to steer the country out of a pandemic, an economic crisis, and an era of toxic politics and racial strife.
The deadly insurrection at the Capitol by white supremacists and extremists — fueled by Trump and his allies — has only further shifted the political ground and marred what for many was supposed to be a profound celebration of a barrier-breaking moment.
“I am thrilled on the one hand,” Representative Maxine Waters, a California Democrat, said of seeing Harris reach such a historic milestone for women and Black women in politics just after Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. “But I am disgusted on the other hand by the invasion of the Capitol by domestic terrorists.”
Harris has chosen Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the first woman of color on the Supreme Court, to swear her in Wednesday, and in one of her first acts as vice president, she will administer the oath to three new Democratic senators: Alex Padilla, California’s first Latino senator and her replacement; the Rev. Raphael Warnock, Georgia’s first Black senator; and Jon Ossoff, Georgia’s first Jewish senator.
As she and Biden prepared for their inauguration, Washington was transformed into a military zone. But Harris remained steadfast in her belief that it is vital that they continue the tradition of taking the oath of office outside on the West front of the Capitol — the “People’s House.”
“I think that we cannot yield to those who would try to make us afraid of who we are,” she told NPR.
In resigning her Senate post Monday, she nodded to the weight of her new position. “As Senator-turned-Vice-President Walter Mondale once pointed out,” she said, “the vice presidency is the only office in our government that ‘belongs to both the executive branch and the legislative branch.’ A responsibility made greater with an equal number of Democrats and Republicans in the Senate.”
Nadia Brown, a political science professor at Purdue University, said the volatile backdrop for the inauguration hearkens to Reconstruction, the tumultuous era after the Civil War when white supremacists deployed fear tactics against more than a dozen Black men, many born into slavery, who were elected to Congress.
“I am fearful for her safety and her family,” said Brown, pointing to the intimidation, lynching, and violence against Black people of the period that paved the way for segregation under Jim Crow and thwarted other Black leaders from pursuing elected office. “We talk a lot about the violence Black people faced to gain suffrage. We don’t talk nearly enough about the violence they faced once they were elected.”
Through the turbulence, Biden has sought to keep his attention squarely focused on his policy priorities. In recent days, he has unveiled a $1.9 trillion spending package and dozens of executive actions and legislative proposals — some symbolic, some substantive — to curb the impact of the coronavirus outbreak and its economic fallout, reverse Trump’s hardline approach to immigration, tackle climate change, and boost union jobs.
Harris has been present at every major announcement by Biden, and those close to the transition say she has been by his side at every step behind the scenes as he has crafted that agenda.
Some vice presidents have played a subservient role, like George H.W. Bush under Ronald Reagan and Mike Pence under Trump. Other relationships — like that of Al Gore and Bill Clinton — have been testy. Dick Cheney wielded more power behind the scenes in the George W. Bush administration than any other vice president before him.
But longtime Democratic pollster Paul Maslin said the relationship between Harris and Biden “is going to be perhaps the most fascinating” in recent memory. The two are different in age, race, and gender, and the public knows little of their bond, except that it was strong enough to withstand her attack on him when they were rivals during the Democratic primaries.
“The most important thing is still the relationship between the two of them — and how much trust and responsibility that Biden is able to give and Harris is able to earn in an evolving White House,” Maslin said.
Many see Harris as distinctively prepared for this moment, as the country grapples with police brutality, racial inequities, and a pandemic that has disproportionately hurt Black, brown, and immigrant communities.
The daughter of immigrants from India and Jamaica, Harris is a graduate of Howard University and a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority. She was a prosecutor in the Bay Area for 13 years before she became the first Black person and woman to serve as California’s attorney general, in 2011. She was elected as California’s first Black senator in 2016.
“She is obviously very smart, very confident, and very capable, and oftentimes we have very competent, very capable people who don’t get in touch with their power and influence at an early age — and I think she did,” said Waters, who herself made history as the first Black person and the first woman to oversee the powerful House Financial Services Committee.
Representative Jim Clyburn of South Carolina recalled advising Biden that Harris would be “a great asset” as he pushed Biden to pick a Black woman as his running mate because of the important role Black voters — and Black women in particular — played in powering Democratic victories.
“Her experiences, her background is one that has never been in the vice presidency before, and we are in an inflection point in this country where we have never been before as well,” said Clyburn, a close Biden adviser. “Looking at the challenges that this administration is going to have to face, she is uniquely qualified.”
Those on her transition team say Harris is in sync with Biden, as both govern through shared values, rather than political ideology, and understand that Americans are tired of the political gridlock. Like Biden, her allies say, she has a track record of working across the aisle: As a senator, she worked with Republicans on election security, anti-lynching, and bail reform legislation. And she and Biden could see an opening to unify a fractured nation if the Capitol insurrection spurs at least some Republicans to work with their administration.
But, in another lesson from Reconstruction, national unity and healing should not come without first holding white supremacists who stormed the Capitol and their political allies accountable, historians said.
Harris will likely have a more difficult political needle to thread than any of her predecessors. As vice president, she’ll be called on to help ensure Trump and Republicans are held responsible for their roles in inciting the mob — while simultaneously working with Republicans to pass the ambitious legislation that she and Biden campaigned on.
“I am anticipating a very negative response to everything that she does,” said Brown, who studies the rise of Black women in politics. “I think about it as, ‘She is damned if she does and damned if she doesn’t.’ ”
Political analysts and historians said Harris also is likely to have more visibility, and face more scrutiny, as a woman and Black woman in politics, and as an heir apparent to Biden. The president-elect has hinted — but not committed — to being a one-term president, and in elevating Harris to the top of the ticket, he said he was looking for someone who could be a “bridge” to the next generation of Democratic leaders.
A moderate Democrat with some progressive leanings, Harris is no stranger to criticism. Her law enforcement background and pledges to work across the aisle have caused her to be viewed with skepticism by her party’s more liberal wing. And she has been the target of racist, misogynistic, and gender-based attacks from Trump, his allies, and a right-wing online media machine.
But some say Harris won’t be alone to fight her battles. Democratic political operatives, women’s advocacy and civil rights groups, and digital activists have assembled to push back against online attacks and counter misinformation about her record.
As Inauguration Day approached, women and Black women in politics said they would not let white supremacists rob them of their joy in cheering Harris on.
Glynda Carr, cofounder of Higher Heights for America, which works to build Black women’s political power, said she plans “to put on her green and pink” — the colors of their shared Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority — her Chuck Taylors, and pearls, and watch the ceremony from the safety of her home.
“I am going to find joy in celebrating this moment of moving women’s political leadership and Black women leadership forward to make sure that we have women and Black women’s voices at every decision-making table,” Carr said.