It was never going to be easy for Kamala Harris.
From the moment Joe Biden chose her as his Democratic running mate in 2020, the spotlight that greets vice presidential picks cranked up to an unforgiving glare. Harris would be laden with the ungodly weight of being a first — the first woman, Black person, and Asian American to be vice president. When Biden won, Harris was not just America’s number two. She became a symbol of both progress for people of color and women and a target of those resentful that a woman of color would think herself fit for the job.
With the 2024 presidential campaign looming and Biden expected to soon announce his bid for a second term, the vice president’s critics are sharpening their knives again — not that they ever put them away.
A highly critical New York Times story this week claimed “dozens of Democrats in the White House, on Capitol Hill, and around the nation … said [Harris] had not risen to the challenge of proving herself as a future leader of the party, much less the country.” John Morgan, a notable Democratic fund-raiser, said, “I can’t think of one thing she’s done except stay out of the way and stand beside [Biden] at certain ceremonies.”
Except staying out of the way and standing behind the president literally and figuratively is exactly what vice presidents are expected to do. There’s a reason why John Adams, the nation’s second president who first served under George Washington, described the vice presidency as “the most insignificant office that ever the Invention of man contrived or his Imagination conceived.”
That’s not to imply that Harris hasn’t made her mark, most notably before last year’s midterm elections. When experts told the Biden administration to concentrate on the economy, Harris spent months on the road talking about Roe v. Wade’s end. And reproductive rights was the issue that helped Democrats hold onto the Senate and lose the House by a much smaller margin than predicted.
Harris’s efforts helped make that happen. Her critics seem to have forgotten that.
But put aside for a moment the misogynoir that often fuels the most strident opinions about Harris. Attention on her is also very much about the man she works for. At 80, Biden is the oldest president ever, heightening concerns over whether Harris could become the first vice president since Gerald Ford in 1974 to replace a sitting president.
It’s a morbid conversation, but discussions about power usually are. Biden himself must think about the ageist perceptions, especially with recent polls indicating that Democrats would prefer another — meaning younger — standard bearer. Such sentiments have shadowed the Biden administration from the start.
Clearly, Biden and Harris’s relationship does not mirror the close partnership Biden shared with Barack Obama during the latter’s eight years as president when the two had lunch together every week.
And Biden doesn’t want to look like he’s leaning too much on Harris or delegating too much responsibility lest he feed ugly rumors that he is not physically or mentally up to the job. But Harris has done what this administration has asked of her while staying mindful that being a vice president means she doesn’t get to go rogue and set her own course.
In a tweet thread Monday, Kirsten Allen, Harris’s press secretary, said, “There’s no shortage of people willing to throw shade anonymously and seemingly no shortage of publications willing to write it up and recycle beltway gossip. Those still questioning the VP’s role and impact are choosing not to see what is right in front of them.”
Last week Harris attended the funeral of Tyre Nichols, the young Black father who died in January days after he was brutally beaten, kicked, and clubbed by Memphis police officers. The Rev. Al Sharpton, who helped officiate the service, invited Harris to speak to mourners: “Come on up here so they can see you,” he said.
Harris was not expected to speak. But in her brief comments, she excoriated the cops who were fired and charged with second-degree murder in Nichols’s death. She spoke of mothers who pray for the safety of their children. She quoted Scriptures. She pushed for a revived effort to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which she originally cosponsored as a senator in 2020.
Far from the bellicose Beltway banter, Harris was seen and heard and appreciated. Now the woman who stands a heartbeat from the presidency needs her critics inside and outside the White House to give her an opportunity do the same in Washington’s most thankless job.
Renée Graham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.