Vice President Kamala Harris is in the spotlight as she navigates her job – and the potential of becoming the leader of the free world.
She chats up world leaders and delivered the tie-breaking vote to advance the first major piece of legislation of the new administration. She swears in Cabinet members, makes speeches of her own and is there, right next to the president, at virtually every White House event.
Vice President Kamala Harris is enjoying an unusually high profile as second-in-command, in part because of the groundbreaking nature of her election and in part because of the front-and-center role President Joe Biden has given her.
With widespread speculation about whether the 78-year-old Biden will seek another term in 2024, Harris is undergoing a very public tryout for the presidency, though she has given no indication of whether or not she will seek the top job.
That is a critical advantage for a woman of color, experts say, since it helps get America accustomed to seeing her in the role. It also makes her an early target of Republicans as well as those who do not want a woman – particularly a Black and South Asian woman – to become the leader of the free world.
“Seeing her effectively do the job already in the first month is normalizing this” idea of a female and racial minority in a position of great power, says Moe Vela, a political consultant who was an adviser to Biden when he was vice president. “It makes more and more Americans more comfortable with it. And the longer that transpires, the more the Republicans are going to get nervous and get really concerned.”
As a former vice president himself, Biden understands the potential frustrations and contributions of the person whose main job is to be there in case something happens to the commander in chief, says St. Louis University professor Joel Goldstein, the nation’s preeminent expert on the vice presidency. Making Harris the woman right beside the powerful man – instead of the 21st century cliche of the woman behind the powerful man – has enormous implications, he says.
“It’s a big deal and a big problem that women at this level have,” Goldstein says. “She really is very much of a pioneer,” with all the opportunities and risks that brings.
Harris’s much-ballyhooed bid for president last cycle fizzled quickly: A campaign that kicked off with a January, 2019 rally that attracted 20,000 people was over by the end of that year, with the then-senator from California withdrawing from the race even before a single nominating contest had been held.
But since then, Harris has upped her game and her approval ratings, which have improved as more Americans have gotten to know her, says Karlyn Bowman, senior fellow at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute.
Harris’ favorability rating grew from 29% in February 2019 to 53% earlier this year, according to polling by Gallup, largely due to an increase in her name recognition, Bowman notes.
Rise in electoral politics has been about as meteoric as anyone … The flip side of that is you have to learn on the job very quickly.Kamala Harris’
The vice president had a minor controversy in January. Harris did a radio interview in West Virginia touting the American Rescue Plan, irritating Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, whose support for the package was pivotal and who said he was not notified of Harris’ plans. But aside from that misstep – long forgotten by the time Manchin voted for the COVID-19 relief plan last weekend – Harris is doing precisely what she should be doing to balance the dual positions as right-hand woman to Biden and would-be successor to him, Bowman says.
“She’s done much better – no comparison” to how Harris ran her failed campaign for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, Bowman says. “There’s a steep learning curve when you get into the cauldron of running for the White House. It’s really difficult for anyone who hasn’t done it before.
“Her rollout has been really good so far. She’s doing what she needs to do,” Bowman adds.
“I think her performance follows a similar trajectory as I’ve seen throughout her career. She’s somebody whose rise in electoral politics has been about as meteoric as anyone, with the exception of Barack Obama, in recent memory,” says Brian Brokaw, who managed Harris’s campaign for state attorney general and advised her Senate and presidential campaigns. “The flip side of that is you have to learn on the job very quickly.”
The mention of Obama goes deeper than just a coupling of two fast-moving political careers. With Obama out of office – and the current president a very demographically conventional septuagenarian white man – Harris has become a very convenient stand-in for those who don’t like the idea of another person of color, let alone a female, leading the country, analysts say.
Republicans did their own brutal self-examination after their loss to Obama in 2008 and determined that the party needed to reach out more to minority and female voters to reflect the changing population and power demographics of the country. But the impact of Donald Trump on the party has put that effort in reverse – and the result is an attack on Harris.
“The modern Trump Republican Party defines itself by defining who they’re not, and race is a big motivating factor,” says Democratic consultant Jenny Backus. “They want to directly define themselves as not being the party of diversity, not being the party of women. It’s a strategic mistake – they’re fighting last year’s war.”
Harris is a more appealing target for Republicans, Backus says, since “it’s very hard for them to define Joe Biden, and Joe Biden is popular. He’s a white man, so they can’t change the subject to the culture wars.” But Harris, as a woman of color and the daughter of immigrants, feeds that part of the GOP playbook, Backus says.
Republicans have labeled Harris a “socialist” and “radical,” and have cast her support of the Black Lives Matter movement as an endorsement of violence.
Amid Trump’s second impeachment trial, Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican and Trump loyalist, speculated that Harris could suffer the same fate because she urged people to donate to a fund to help pay bail for activists arrested at Black Lives Matter protests in Minneapolis after the death of George Floyd.
“If you use this model, I don’t know how Kamala Harris doesn’t get impeached if the Republicans take over the House, because she actually bailed out rioters, and one of the rioters went back to the streets and broke somebody’s head open,” Graham told “Fox News Sunday,” providing no evidence for his claims.
Days after Harris’ swearing in, some pastors in the Southern Baptist Convention compared the vice president to Jezebel, an evil biblical figure who in modern colloquial parlance is used to describe a scheming, power-hungry woman.
“I can’t imagine any truly God-fearing Israelite who would’ve wanted their daughters to view Jezebel as an inspirational role model because she was a woman in power,” tweeted Tom Buck, pastor of First Baptist Church of Lindale, Texas, on Jan. 22.
Later, he followed up with another tweet: “I 100% stand by it,” he wrote. “Should Jezebel, who governed in godless ways, have been a role model simply because she was a woman in power? If not, why should Kamala, who’s governed in godless ways, be a role model just because she’s a woman in power?”
Trump, notes Tamura Lomax, associate professor of African American and African Studies at Michigan State University, told his supporters during the 2020 campaign that Americans “can’t let” Harris become the first female president, stoking the prospect of her potential succession to the role even before Biden won the election.
“There’s so much fear around it,” says Lomax, author of the 2018 book “Jezebel Unhinged: Loosing the Black Female Body in Religion and Culture.” “The position that she’s in – she’s already there. There’s one more position, and that’s the presidency. People are losing their minds over the possibility of her being president.”
As for the “Jezebel” attacks from the Southern Baptist pastors, “that is not incoherent banter,” Lomax adds. “It is meant to ‘other’ her.”
Less than two months into office as vice president, Harris has years to counter such attacks and build a record of her own. “She’s in a position of really defining herself now,” Goldstein says. “It strikes me that she’s a powerful operator, potentially diplomatically as well as domestically – whether you can see a woman as a natural leader.
“It sends a message not just to little girls, but to little boys. Not just to women but to men,” Goldstein adds. “In a sense, the election of the vice president was more important than the election of the president.” A role, experts say, Harris could one day hold.