WASHINGTON — Six months into her barrier-breaking vice presidency, Kamala Harris has doggedly played the part of a trusted lieutenant to Joe Biden, uncomplainingly taking on politically unsavory tasks and subduing any signs of personal political ambition as she touts the president’s agenda.
But despite firmly locating herself in the No. 2 spot, Harris continues to be caught in the harsh glare of the spotlight.
Republican candidates are running ads knocking her, instead of Biden. Since Biden assigned her the task of addressing the “root causes” of migration from Central America, GOP lawmakers have been relentlessly blaming her for the situation at the border. She’s also found herself the target of progressive ire, after repeating the same “stay home” message to migrants Biden has delivered several times before.
“It is an unprecedented level of vitriol,” said Rodney Ellis, a Harris County commissioner and former Texas state senator who is a longtime friend of Harris. “But I am proud of the way she has held her head high.”
Criticism of vice presidents has long come with the territory. Take Dan Quayle, who was skewered from the start during the 1988 Democratic National Convention and provided more ammunition to critics when he erroneously corrected a 12-year-old on the spelling of the word “potato.”
But the honeymoon for the first Black and Asian woman to ever hold the nation’s second-highest office has been short-lived — if there was ever one at all. And it’s left Harris’s allies annoyed.
“The expectations of her have been so exceedingly high that I don’t think that anyone can meet them, and I don’t know why they do it, but maybe they do it because she is good at what she does,” said US Housing Secretary Marcia Fudge.
Harris was likely always in for a rougher ride than many past vice presidents, given her race and gender. Unlike male politicians, women in executive-level offices must be able to continually cite specific policy results and respond to attacks with calm and confidence in order to resonate with voters and be seen as effective leaders, according to new research from the Barbara Lee Family Foundation.
Even before she was sworn in as vice president, political opponents used Harris’s identity to launch uglier forms of attack, such as intentionally mispronouncing her first name.
“When she does something that she should be critiqued for, she should be critiqued, but the way she gets talked about — and the language — that is what can be troublesome,” said Tammy Vigil, a senior associate dean and associate professor of media science at Boston University’s College of Communication.
The vice president faces particular pressure because she is seen as Biden’s heir apparent, even though the 78-year-old president said he would seek reelection and she has firmly cast herself as his loyal aide. Since much of Washington considers her a likely Democratic nominee for president in the future, any missteps are amplified and scrutinized. At times, she’s attracted greater blame for White House policies than Biden himself.
Six months in, Harris has received praise for securing an increase in federal funding for historically Black colleges and universities and for championing the administration’s plans to expand child care and financial assistance for families as part of its broader pandemic relief efforts. In March, she was lauded for using a United Nations speech to underscore the rise of violence against women.
But Biden also has tasked Harris with two of the administration’s thorniest assignments — immigration and beating back a wave of GOP-led voting restrictions in the states. Civil rights advocates have expressed frustration Biden has not done more on the latter issue, and a narrow Democratic majority in Congress makes it unlikely Harris will be able to deliver a win. Both tasks open her up to attacks from the right and disappointment from the left, fueling the judgment she faces.
Criticism ramped up last month over her trip to Guatemala. When meeting with Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei to discuss the root causes of recent spikes in migration to the southern border, she urged migrants not to make the journey north.
“Do not come. Do not come,” she said in a news conference with Giammattei. “The United States will continue to enforce our laws and secure our borders.”
Biden himself had uttered those words before, but it was Harris who became the face of the tough position as videos of her delivering the brusque message spread across the Internet. She got pushback from progressive Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and some human rights groups. Some young immigrants pointed out that it hurt more to hear the same stance from Harris, the daughter of immigrants from India and Jamaica, than from Biden.
She got more flak when she dismissed questions from NBC News anchor Lester Holt about why she had not yet visited the US-Mexico border as part of her migration assignment. Republican lawmakers had been asking these questions for weeks, and it was not lost on Harris supporters that Biden largely avoided similar criticism when he was handed the same task by then-President Barack Obama in 2014.
Biden’s team has been defending Harris and her chief of staff, Tina Flournoy, after reports of in-fighting in her office surfaced in news outlets. Although chronicling staff dynamics and drama is a staple of political coverage, that focus at times still struck some experts as perpetuating negative stereotypes of professional women, and particularly women of color.
“It has to go noted, the majority of the women in those articles were Black women, and they are in high-profile positions that women of color have not held before,” said Pearl Dowe, a professor of political science and African American studies at Oxford College of Emory University.
The vice president’s spokeswoman and adviser, Symone Sanders, said Harris is not focused on the criticism, and referenced the difficulty of her portfolio. “When you are doing hard things, all the coverage will not be glowing, but the work speaks for itself,” Sanders said.
To Harris’s allies and supporters, the attention has been unsurprising: A Black woman is helping lead the United States out of multiple major crises at a time of extreme political polarization and toxic racial strife, and that, they said, is clearly making some — particularly on the right side of the political aisle — uncomfortable.
“Those of us who are in the business of public service know it is a tough business, and she is in a place where we have never, never, never had a woman or woman of color before,” said Texas Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, a Democrat. “She has to show leadership, and that is what I see her doing every day.”
Harris also isn’t new to scrutiny or high expectations. She was the first Black person and woman to serve as California’s attorney general and the state’s first Black senator, and has long nodded to the difficulty of breaking barriers.
“And let me just tell you, I eat ‘no’ for breakfast,” she once told an MSNBC host.
Historical comparisons between Harris’s early days and those of prior vice presidents are difficult to make, historians and political scientists said. There’s the obvious: All her predecessors have largely been white and they all have been men. The office of the vice president within the White House has only recently been elevated, most notably with Dick Cheney assuming a highly active role in the Bush administration.
“Vice president is not a constitutional position,” said Nadia Brown, an author and political science professor at Purdue University. “It is this made-up job, so each person who occupies the office does so with their own individual flair.”
For centuries, historians said, the vice president was largely irrelevant, the butt of jokes and subject of derision. The founders designed the position as a so-called president-in-waiting, for when the nation’s commander in chief dies or became incapacitated; its most important role was casting the tie-breaking vote in the Senate.
The position was so relegated to the background that John Adams, the first man to ever hold the post, bemoaned its inconsequentiality to his wife, Abigail, calling it “the most insignificant Office that ever the Invention of Man contrived or his Imagination conceived.” John Nance Garner, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s number two, would later describe it as “not worth a bucket of warm spit.”
Biden, though, had a very different view when he became vice president.
“The way the world has changed, the breadth and the scope of the responsibility an American president has virtually requires a vice president to handle serious assignments, just because the president’s plate is so very full,” Biden told longtime political journalist Jules Witcover in the encyclopedic tome “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power.”
Yet Biden, despite some high-profile gaffes and obvious presidential ambitions, faced far less heat from the right while vice president than did Obama, who as the first Black man to hold the nation’s highest office also made history.
Historians compare the attention on Harris to that on George H.W. Bush, who served under President Ronald Reagan, at the time the nation’s oldest president, and to Al Gore, who was tasked with modernizing the government bureaucracy under President Bill Clinton. Some see parallels to Hillary Clinton, who as an experienced politician and policy wonk seemed at times to act both as first lady and vice president while her husband was president and whom the right enthusiastically painted as a villain from that point on.
“Republicans have a vested interest in trying to discredit [Harris] as early as possible,” said Nancy Hirschmann, a politics professor at the University of Pennsylvania. “That was a strategy with Clinton ... strike early and strike often.”
The scrutiny could be more damaging to someone like Harris, who has less time on the national and global stage and is still forming her own vision of the office, political scientists said.
“Biden represents stability, and Harris represents energizing of something new, but she hasn’t really been given the opportunities to do things that are new,” said Karthick Ramakrishnan, a professor of public policy at the University of California Riverside.
That seems to be reflected in Harris’s approval ratings, which at 44 percent significantly lag Biden’s. Still, friends and allies of Harris say Biden has been true to his words when he spoke of wanting an equal partner when he selected Harris for the Democratic ticket. “She is the first and last person in the room,” with Biden, Ellis said.
Harris has an opportunity to prove her critics wrong if she scores victories on the difficult tasks she’s been handed, including voting rights. And she stuck to the task on Thursday, when she visited the friendly grounds of her alma mater, Howard University, to unveil a $25 million campaign by the Democratic National Committee to register, educate, and mobilize voters ahead of the 2022 midterm elections. Students warmly greeted her with the traditional call. “H-U,” as the vice president answered back, “You know.”
She pledged to “assemble the largest voter protection team we have ever had,” addressing concerns from civil rights leaders that the Biden administration wasn’t doing enough on the issue.
“People say, ‘What’s the strategy?’” Harris said, in what also sounded like a nod to her critics. “Well, I just outlined it.”