The Kamala Harris Problem (2024)

The Kamala Harris Problem (1)

Politics

Few people seem to think she’s ready to be president. Why?

By Elaina Plott Calabro

The Kamala Harris Problem (2)

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On a Thursday morning in April, I met with Vice President Kamala Harris at Number One Observatory Circle, the Victorian mansion that, for the past two and a half years, she and the second gentleman, Doug Emhoff, have called home. She can be a striking presence when she walks into a room, with a long stride and an implacable posture that make her seem taller than she is (about 5 foot 2). By the time I saw Harris at the residence, I had already traveled with her to Atlanta, New York, Los Angeles, and Reno, Nevada, as well as to Africa, trips on which she had carried herself with ease and confidence.

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Ease and confidence have not been the prevailing themes of Harris’s vice presidency. Her first year on the job was defined by rhetorical blunders, staff turnover, political missteps, and a poor sense among even her allies of what, exactly, constituted her portfolio. Within months of taking office, President Joe Biden was forced to confront a public perception that Harris didn’t measure up; ultimately, the White House issued a statement insisting that Biden did, in fact, rely on his vice president as a governing partner. But Harris’s reputation has never quite recovered.

Harris is intensely private, so I was somewhat surprised to be invited to her home. The residence had been redecorated, and in keeping with past practice the work was done without fanfare. There have been no photo spreads, and the designer, Sheila Bridges, signed a nondisclosure agreement. But Harris seemed to enjoy showing me around. In the turret room, she pointed to the banquette seating built along the curve. (“I just love circles,” she said.) She gestured at some of the art she’d brought in, on loan from various galleries and collections, describing each piece in terms of the artist’s background rather than its aesthetic qualities—Indian American woman, African American gay man, Japanese American. “So you get the idea,” she said. We moved into the library, with its collection of books devoted to the vice presidency. (Who knew there were so many?) The green-striped wallpaper pattern that the Bidens had favored when they lived here was gone. Now there was bright, punch-colored wallpaper—chosen, Harris explained, in order to “redefine what power looks like.”

She said this with a laugh, but it was a studied phrase. Redefining what power looks like has been the theme of every chapter of Kamala Harris’s political career. She is the U.S.-born daughter of immigrants—her mother a cancer researcher from India, her father an economist from Jamaica. As Biden’s running mate, she became the first woman, first Black American, and first South Asian American to be elected vice president. Before that, she was the first South Asian American and only the second Black woman to serve in the U.S. Senate. Before that, she was the first woman, Black American, and South Asian American to serve as attorney general of her native California. Before that, she was the first Black woman in California to be elected as a district attorney.

Jemele Hill: Kamala Harris makes history

When Biden underwent a colonoscopy in November 2021, Harris served as acting president, becoming the first woman (and first South Asian American) to officially wield presidential authority. If vice presidents have historically been tormented by the question of legacy—compelled to wonder not how they will be remembered but whether they will be remembered at all—Harris was assured of a mandatory nod in the history books the moment she was sworn in.

But after nearly three years in office, the symbolic fact of Harris’s position has proved more resonant than anything she has actually done with it. From almost the beginning, Harris’s vice presidency has unfolded in a series of brutal headlines: “Exasperation and Dysfunction: Inside Kamala Harris’ Frustrating Start as Vice President” (CNN, November 2021). “A Kamala Harris Staff Exodus Reignites Questions About Her Leadership Style—And Her Future Ambitions” (The Washington Post, December 2021). “New Book Says Biden Called Harris a ‘Work in Progress’ ” (Politico, December 2022). “Kamala Harris Is Trying to Define Her Vice Presidency. Even Her Allies Are Tired of Waiting” (The New York Times, February 2023).

The hazy nature of Harris’s responsibilities has made for easy satire—“White House Urges Kamala Harris to Sit at Computer All Day in Case Emails Come Through,” read an early Onion headline. Clips of Harris sound bites gone wrong have ricocheted across social media, and not just right-wing sites. A Daily Show feature in October 2022 paired clips from various Harris speeches (“When we talk about the children of the community, they are a children of the community …”) with clips from the fictional vice president Selina Meyer, played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, on Veep (“Well, we are the United States of America because we are united … and we are states”).

In June 2023, an NBC News poll put Harris’s approval rating at 32 percent. While Biden’s own approval numbers, in the low 40s, are hardly inspiring, the percentage of those who disapprove of Harris’s performance is higher than for any other vice president in the history of the poll.

Ordinarily, as people around Harris like to remind reporters, a vice president’s approval rating does not warrant notice. But if Biden—already the country’s oldest president—wins reelection, he would begin a second term at age 82. And although Democrats recoil at any mention of Biden’s mortality, it’s hardly a coincidence that, as the 2024 campaign gathers pace, people have begun to contemplate the possibility that Harris could become president. In the campaign’s announcement video and at events across the country for the past few months, Harris has been enlisted more prominently as a spokesperson for the administration’s accomplishments—more visible, often, than the president himself. But unlike Biden, Harris does not simply need Americans to agree that she deserves four more years in her current job. She needs them to trust that she is ready, should the moment require it, to step into his.

Republicans may offer a mandatory “God forbid” when raising the prospect of some presidential health crisis, but they are already pushing the idea that “a vote for President Biden is a vote for President Harris.” They are doing so in large part because they see her as a more inviting target than the president himself: a woman of color whose word-salad locutions turn themselves into campaign ads, and whose outspoken advocacy on social issues makes her easier to paint as an ideologue lying in wait.

Harris and I talked at the residence for an hour. Toward the end of the conversation, she patted the cushion between us. “No reporter has sat here ever,” she said. It was a small moment, but it seemed to represent a recognition that something had to change—if not about the way Harris actually does her job, then about the way she presents herself, and her role, in public.

Even today, people who have worked for Harris make a point of telling you where they were during the Lester Holt interview. Usually, it is because they want to make clear that they were not involved.

In June 2021, at the end of a two-day trip to Guatemala, the vice president sat down with the NBC anchor to discuss Biden’s immigration agenda. Harris had recently become the administration’s lead on the so-called root-causes element of border policy, working with Central American countries to alleviate the violent and impoverished conditions that lead many migrants to flee north to the U.S. in the first place. The questions should have been easily anticipated—such as whether Harris had any plans to visit the border itself, where crossings had surged. Yet when Holt did ask that question, Harris threw up her hands in evident frustration. “At some point, you know, I—we are going to the border. We’ve been to the border. So this whole, this whole—this whole thing about the border. We’ve been to the border. We’ve been to the border.” Holt corrected her: “You haven’t been to the border.” Harris became defensive. “And I haven’t been to Europe,” she snapped. “I don’t understand the point you’re making.”

The exchange became the subject of headlines and late-night monologues. (“Well, that escalated quickly,” Jimmy Fallon said on his show the same night.) Afterward, Harris shied away from the camera for months.

For many Americans, the Holt interview was the first real exposure to Harris as vice president. She had spent the better part of her career as a “smart on crime” prosecutor who won her first election—district attorney of San Francisco, in 2003—by positioning herself as a pragmatic reformer. As California’s attorney general, she targeted transnational gangs and cartels and won billions in extra relief from big banks at the center of the foreclosure crisis. She had been the state’s junior senator for just over two years when she launched a bid for the presidency, in 2019, buoyed by the brief but bright flashes of stardom she’d earned from her tough, courtroom-style questioning of Trump-administration officials, including Attorney General Jeff Sessions (“I’m not able to be rushed this fast; it makes me nervous,” Sessions complained to her at one point), and of the Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. And although she was an early favorite for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, raising millions in donations as she promised to “prosecute the case against Donald Trump,” her campaign fell apart before the Iowa caucus, beset by uneven messaging, disorganization, and low morale.

Throughout her time in national politics, Harris has repeated some advice imparted to her by her mother: “You don’t let people tell you who you are. You tell them who you are.” Yet a consistent theme of Harris’s career has been her struggle to tell her own story—to define herself and her political vision for voters in clear, memorable terms. The result, in Harris’s first months as vice president, was that high-profile mistakes assumed the devastating weight of first impressions. Verbal fumbles (“It is time for us to do what we have been doing. And that time is every day”) became memes and were anthologized online. Shortly after the Holt interview, White House aides began leaking to various news outlets about top-to-bottom dysfunction in Harris’s office and Biden’s apparent concern about her performance. In her first year and a half as vice president, Harris saw the departure of her chief of staff, communications director, domestic-policy adviser, national security adviser, and other aides. Her current chief of staff, Lorraine Voles—formerly Al Gore’s communications director, who has expertise in crisis management—was brought on initially to help with, as Voles put it, “organizational” issues with the team still in place.

Read: The woman who led Kamala Harris to this moment

Ron Klain, Biden’s first chief of staff, told me that after her initial missteps, Harris became highly risk-averse: “She’s always nervous that if she does something that doesn’t go well, she’s setting us back.” David Axelrod, a former senior strategist for President Barack Obama, noticed the same trait. “I think it’s one of the things that plagued her in the presidential race,” he told me. “It looked as if she didn’t know where to plant her feet. That she wasn’t sort of grounded, that she didn’t know exactly who she was.” He went on: “People can read that. When you’re playing at that level, people can read that.”

Those closest to Harris have tried to make sense of why the vice president’s positive qualities—her intelligence, her diligence, her integrity—have failed to register with Americans. It is impossible, of course, to talk about perceptions of Harris without laying some of the blame on racism and sexism. The briefest glance at the toxic comments about Harris on social media reveals the bigotry that motivates some of her most fervent detractors. But the vice president’s allies also acknowledge that she has struggled to make an affirmative case for herself. Judging from what has gone viral online, she is better known for her passion for Venn diagrams than for any nugget of biography; right-wing personalities enjoy mocking this predilection almost as much as they enjoy mocking the way she laughs.

Harris may understand intellectually the imperative to seem “relatable” to a broad audience—to condense her background to a set of compelling SparkNotes to be recited on cue—but she hasn’t made a habit of doing so. In smaller settings, she can be funny at her own expense. When I asked her what advice she would give to a successor, she referred back to some of those social-media reviews: “Don’t read the comments.” In our conversation at the residence, she touched briefly on how her “first woman” status shapes even the most workaday elements of the job: “I’m not going to tell you who said to me—it’s a previous president of the United States. He said, ‘Wow, women—I get up, I go work out, I jump in the shower, and I’m out the door. You guys …’ ” (I suspect she was quoting Obama, a friend of hers who has spoken about his efficient morning routine.) Harris told me that she has to let the Secret Service know a day in advance if she is going to be wearing a dress instead of a pantsuit, because agents have to pick her up in a different kind of car.

But she prefers a discreet distance from topics like these. A friend of Harris’s advised me before our first interview to avoid “small talk” or “diving immediately into personal matters.” The friend explained: “She appreciates the respect in that way.” Minyon Moore, a Democratic strategist with long-standing ties to Harris, made a related point: “She’s not a person—which I kind of like, but it doesn’t do her any good—she’s not a person that’s going to brag on herself. In fact, she’s very uncomfortable, say, beating her own chest. She just wasn’t raised that way.” Lateefah Simon, a former MacArthur fellow and now a candidate for Congress, was in her mid-20s when Harris hired her to run a program for young people convicted of nonviolent felonies, mostly involving drugs. Simon remembers Harris telling her she could either stand outside with a bullhorn or come push for change from the inside. “If you know Kamala Harris, she’s stern—she was a stern 38-year-old,” Simon recalled. But she could also be more than that: Harris gave Simon her first suit after she showed up on day one in Puma sweats.

The Kamala Harris Problem (4)

Nearly three years after Harris’s swearing-in, her current and former staff still seem to be unearthing pertinent elements of her life story. Twice while I was reporting this article, aides highlighted an experience in Harris’s adolescence—one that had informed her decision to become a prosecutor—that they’d learned about only after joining her team. In high school, a friend confided in Harris that she was being molested by a family member, so Harris insisted that the friend move in with her own family (and she did). The outrage Harris felt in that moment would help define her path to the Alameda County district attorney’s office, where much of her work as a deputy involved prosecuting sex crimes against children.

I understood why her aides wanted me to hear that story, which is not widely known. I wondered why—when I’d asked about her decision to become a prosecutor—Harris hadn’t mentioned it herself. When we spoke at the residence, she did acknowledge the “request, sometimes the demand,” for personal revelation. “I guess it’s a bit outside of my comfort level,” Harris said, “because for me, it really is about the work. You know, I am who I am. I am who I am. And I think I’m a pretty open book, but I am who I am.” She went on a little longer, making clear that she understands that people want to know more. And then, in a softer tone, she said: “And I just, you know, yeah. I don’t know what to say about that.”

But what is “the work”? For the first time in her career, Harris holds a job devoid of any clear benchmarks of success. She was a transformational figure by the mere fact of her election, but the office to which she was elected doesn’t lend itself to transformational leadership.

After settling into Observatory Circle, Harris made a point of gathering historians for dinners—to discuss not just American democracy but also the history of the vice presidency itself. “You’re not supposed to be visible,” Heather Cox Richardson, who attended one dinner, told me, referring to the nature of the vice president’s job. “So there’s that really fine tightrope you walk, between how do you make people understand that you’re qualified without looking like you’re unqualified because you don’t understand your role.”

Neither Biden nor Harris arrived in Washington with a particular vision for Harris’s vice presidency. Harris had issues in which she was interested—racial justice, climate change, gun violence, maternal mortality—and as vice president she has explored these and others. But America imposed its own urgent agenda: Getting the pandemic under control absorbed much of everyone’s attention. With a 50–50 partisan split in the Senate, Harris was also compelled to spend much of her time in her old place of work, exercising the vice president’s constitutional duty to cast the deciding vote in the case of a tie. “We couldn’t make plans for me to be outside of D.C. for at least four days of the workweek,” she recalled.

More fundamentally, Biden and Harris came into office with few instructive models for their partnership, despite Biden having once held the job himself. For nearly half a century, with occasional exceptions, the vice president has been a creature of the capital. The president, in contrast, has been a relative outsider. Walter Mondale, the archetype of the modern American vice president, had 12 years in the Senate under his belt when he was sworn in. He became Jimmy Carter’s anchor to Washington. George H. W. Bush did the same for Ronald Reagan, as did Al Gore for Bill Clinton, Dick Cheney for George W. Bush, Joe Biden for Barack Obama, and Mike Pence for Donald Trump. But Harris and Biden flipped the script: a comparative newcomer serving as vice president to a man who’d launched his Senate career before she reached her tenth birthday.

Read: The long arc of Joe Biden

In our interviews, Harris spoke of her relationship with Biden largely in generalities. When I asked how she and the president complement each other, she said, “Well, first of all, let me just tell you, we really like each other,” and then went on to talk about shared values and principles. When I asked Harris what aspects of her skill set Biden depends on, she was more direct: “You’ll have to ask him.” (When I did, a spokesperson for Biden sent this statement: “Kamala Harris is an outstanding vice president because she’s an outstanding partner. She asks the hard questions, thinks creatively, stays laser-focused on what we’re fighting for, and works her heart out for the American people. She inspires Americans and people around the world who see her doing her job with skill and passion and dream bigger for themselves about what’s possible. I trust her, depend on her, admire her. And I’m proud and grateful to have her by my side.”)

Current and former aides to both say Harris and Biden have a good friendship. The president made the relationship a priority early on, setting up weekly lunches with Harris, like the ones he himself had valued with Obama. She still has lunch with him, she says, “when he’s not traveling, when I’m not traveling.” Given that Harris loves to cook—and regularly has friends and family over for meals—I asked whether she and her husband had hosted the Bidens for dinner. She said that they hadn’t, and seemed momentarily stuck in a feedback loop: “We have a plan to do it, but we have to get a date. But he and I have a plan, we have a plan to do it. And yeah, no, we actually have a plan to do it.”

As vice president, Harris has been unfailingly loyal to Biden. For West Wing staff, especially at the beginning, this was no small thing. During Harris’s vetting for the job, some of those close to Biden—reportedly including his wife, Jill—struggled with the memory of her sharp attacks on him during the presidential primary. In a televised debate, Harris had brought up the subject of Biden’s past opposition to busing, leading to one of the most withering exchanges of the race. “There was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools, and she was bused to school every day,” Harris told Biden. “And that little girl was me.”

Perhaps in recognition of this history, Harris has been an unswerving advocate of Biden and his policy priorities. Ultimately, she told me, that is what she sees as the core of her mandate as vice president. Building out the rest of the mandate has proved more complicated.

The path to the Lester Holt interview began with tension over Harris’s policy portfolio. During one of the administration’s early multiagency meetings about the surge of unlawful crossings at the Mexican border, Biden was impressed as Harris outlined ideas for engaging the Central American countries that many of the migrants were coming from. According to Ron Klain, the president turned to Harris and said, “Well, why don’t you do that?”—meaning, become the point person on the morass of root-cause elements. Harris approached the chief of staff after the meeting. “And she said,” as Klain recalled, “ ‘Well, I wasn’t really looking for that assignment—my idea was, this is what we should do, and someone else should do it.’ ” Klain told Harris he understood but, as vice president, Biden had worked on this aspect of immigration policy for Obama, and they needed her to take it on as well.

It wasn’t that Harris lacked relevant experience; as attorney general of California, she had worked extensively with law enforcement in Mexico on drug and human trafficking. But the politics of the issue were radioactive. Harris knew this, and so did Klain. “It was obviously a controversial assignment,” he acknowledged to me. “It wasn’t necessarily anyone’s idea of a glory assignment.” (Asked about this, the vice president’s office responded that Harris had “plunged into the issue with vigor.”) Harris broke the news of the task to her staff on a mordant note, opening a meeting with the announcement that she was “going to oversee the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” according to a person who was in the room, then dialing back to the slightly less grim reality.

As Klain saw it, Biden intended the appointment—to the same role he had once held—as a show of respect. But it also suggested obliviousness to Harris’s need, early in her term, for a measure of stability and success. Of course, as the Holt interview showed, Harris could make the task harder all on her own. Republican lawmakers and Fox News personalities relished the prospect of pinning the border crisis on Harris. She may have been responsible for just one sliver of U.S. policy, but they used her proximity to border issues to fuel the image of Harris as Biden’s “border czar.”

Read: Conflict between Kamala Harris and Joe Biden is inevitable

In the first year of his presidency, Biden did little to present Harris as essential to the administration; neither did the Democratic Party more broadly. Indeed, there was a sense that Harris might be a liability more than anything else. Less than two weeks into office, Harris appeared on a West Virginia news station to pitch the Biden administration’s coronavirus stimulus package—which Joe Manchin, the state’s conservative Democratic senator, was not yet sold on. In an interview on the same station the next day, Manchin said he was shocked that Harris had given him no notice of the appearance. “I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “That’s not a way of working together.” Later that year, as my colleague Franklin Foer has reported, Biden invited Manchin to the Oval Office to discuss the stimulus package; Harris was there initially, but after pleasantries was sent on her way. Biden had once said that Harris’s would be “the last voice in the room” during important conversations. Not this time.

The Kamala Harris Problem (5)

In June 2021, Biden asked Harris to take the lead on voting rights for the administration. The House had recently passed the For the People Act—a massive overhaul of election law that addressed voter access, gerrymandering, campaign finance, and other matters—and Democratic leaders were eager to see movement in the Senate. That was unlikely. Mitch McConnell, the Senate GOP leader, promised that no Republican would support the bill; not all Democrats were on board either. The legislation would likely die by filibuster—a procedure that Biden, despite calls from many in his party, was almost certainly not going to try to undermine.

Harris’s allies would later characterize voting rights as one of those impossible issues—intractable is the word they often use—that the president had saddled her with. Yet it was Harris herself who had lobbied for the assignment. Her personal background made her a natural spokesperson, and as attorney general of California, she had signed on to an amicus brief urging the Supreme Court to uphold the protections against discrimination in the Voting Rights Act—the protections eventually struck down in Shelby County v. Holder. But the bill’s death by filibuster was virtually inevitable. And Harris didn’t do much to stave it off.

Harris’s aides once described her to reporters as potentially a key emissary for the administration in Congress—helping corral votes by way of “quiet Hill diplomacy.” But she lacked the deep relationships needed to exert real influence. Congressional officials told me that Harris rarely engaged the more persuadable holdouts on either side of the aisle. At a key moment in the negotiations, Biden went to talk with the two resistant Democrats, Joe Manchin and Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema. Harris did not go with him. A White House official declined to get into details and said only that Harris was “interested and engaged” in conversations with Democratic lawmakers during this period. Harris shifted the terms of the discussion when I asked how her Senate background had proved useful in the administration’s push for legislation: “I mean, I think the work we have to do is really more in getting folks to speak loudly with their feet through the election cycle”—an unusual image, though the point was clear enough: Electing more Democrats might be more effective than trying to twist more arms.

For now, Senate Democrats are not fighting for time with Harris when she’s on the Hill. “You’d be hard-pressed to find a Democratic office that actually engages with her or her team on a regular basis,” one Democratic senator’s chief of staff told me. Traditionally, this person said, officials from the executive branch who visit the Capitol are cornered by lawmakers hoping to get their priorities before the president. But few people are “scrambling to make alliances” with Harris—not because of any dislike, as this person and other congressional officials told me, but simply because of uncertainty about the nature of her role. “In her case,” the chief of staff said, “it’s kind of like, ‘Hey, good to see you.’ And that’s kind of the end of it.”

This past spring, I traveled with Harris to Los Angeles, where she was scheduled to appear on Jennifer Hudson’s daytime talk show. When Hudson asked Harris what she missed most about her old life, before the White House, the vice president replied, “Have you watched The Godfather ?” I was in the greenroom with her staff as they looked apprehensively at the screen, wondering where their boss was going with this. Harris went on to describe the scene in which Michael Corleone is out for a quiet walk in Sicily with his fiancée, “and then the shot pans out, and the whole village is on the walk with them.”

There’s no escaping the reality that her every move is probed and dissected. During our conversation at the residence, Harris pointed to the veranda. “Sometimes in the summer, I’ll come and sit out with my binders and a cup of tea, and it’s just really nice and quiet,” she said. It wasn’t until later, when I listened again to the tape of the conversation, that I remembered what she’d said next: “You almost forget that there are 5,000 people around here.”

Having worked in politics and government for the better part of her life, Harris is accustomed to a certain amount of scrutiny. But in her past jobs—as a prosecutor, as attorney general—people were looking at her actual accomplishments. That was how it seemed to her, at least. A friend of Harris’s told me that her professional yardstick was “outcome driven.” Campaigning for district attorney of San Francisco, Harris criticized the incumbent’s low conviction rate for felonies; running later for reelection, she talked about how she had improved it by 15 percentage points. Communication wasn’t a matter of rhetoric. It was just laying out the facts.

This is still, in some ways, how Harris tends to perceive her job. She is always asking aides to get to the point: Show me the data; show me the metrics. And for some things, this works. But success in national politics involves gauzier, more emotional elements. It’s not an accident that the single utterance by Harris that most people can call to mind—“That little girl was me”—drew on searing personal experience.

Go to enough of Harris’s events and you’ll notice a pattern. Many of them—conversations with community leaders at, say, a college campus or a civic center—begin shakily. The moderator opens by asking Harris a sweeping question about the state of the country, or the administration’s approach to some major issue—the sort of question that a seasoned politician should be able to spin her way through on autopilot. And yet Harris often sounds like she’s hearing the question for the first time.

During a discussion at Georgia Tech focused on climate change, I listened as Harris was asked to speak about the administration’s progress over the past two years in addressing the crisis. Her baroque response began: “The way I think about this moment is that I do believe it to be a transformational moment. But in order for us to truly achieve that capacity, it’s going to require all to be involved … and I will say, on behalf of the administration, a whole-of-government approach to understanding the excitement that we should all feel about the opportunity of this moment, and then also thinking of it in a way that we understand the intersection between so many movements that have been about a fight for justice and how we should see that intersection, then, in the context of this moment … And so I’m very excited about this moment.”

This is not Churchill. It’s not even Al Gore. Only when Harris assumed the role of interrogator herself did she seem to find her rhythm, pressing the moderators on the stage—two scientists—to discuss their personal journey toward an interest in climate issues. She then leveraged one moderator’s story to explain the administration’s plan to replace lead pipes across the country—using $15 billion from the bipartisan infrastructure deal, one of the Biden administration’s marquee victories. The communities that have been suffering from contamination “have been fighting for years and years and years,” Harris noted. “It didn’t take a science degree for them to know what was happening to their children.” The audience responded as if at a church service, with murmurs of affirmation.

Hillary Clinton told me that she has met with Harris at the White House and the vice president’s residence, and has talked with her numerous times by phone. “I’ve tried to be as helpful and available to her as possible,” Clinton said, adding, “It’s a tough role.” She noted that Harris isn’t a “performance” politician, a comment she intended not as a criticism but as an acknowledgment that Harris’s skills mainly lie elsewhere. (Clinton isn’t a performance politician either.) Harris doesn’t dispute the point: “My career was not measured by giving lovely speeches,” she told me.

Harris communicates most effectively when she can shift the focus away from herself. The first two conversations I had with the vice president, both while traveling with her, felt stilted and strained, as if I were tiptoeing around glass. But at the residence, alone, Harris was warm, inviting, at times even maternal. “You’re newly married,” she said. (“Yes,” I responded, though it wasn’t a question.) “Pay attention to your marriage,” she counseled. “Friendships, marriage require that you pay attention. Because life has a way of sweeping you up.”

Harris has configured many of her public events to resemble a back-and-forth conversation rather than a standard Q&A: She likes talking with people. The grassroots settings that Harris enjoys represent a mode of retail politics that rarely grabs national attention. But such events have given her a good read on what voters care about. They have also allowed her to inhabit her own space. As Klain observed, in Washington, you’re “just the vice president.” In the rest of the country, you’re “the vice president.”

In the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s 2022 decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which overturned the abortion protections embodied in Roe v. Wade, Harris had a strong sense of American public opinion on the issue. Amid a crush of headlines predicting a so-called red wave in the upcoming midterm elections—with the economy as the central issue—Harris was steadfast in her view that abortion rights would shape the contest. She spent much of 2022 on the road, hosting conversations on reproductive rights in red and blue states alike. Women, she told me, “won’t necessarily talk loudly” about an issue like abortion. “But they will vote on it.” In this respect, Harris understood the mood of the country, and the potential impact at the ballot box, better than most people in Washington. In the midterms, the Democrats did far better than expected, even winning a majority in the Senate; there was no red wave. Harris has continued to travel and talk about abortion rights ever since. It is a central issue for the Democratic base and one that Biden—a devout Catholic who, in his own words, isn’t “big on” abortion—has been reluctant to press himself.

The Kamala Harris Problem (6)

Fighting Dobbs will be a long battle. But it’s the kind Harris may be suited for. In one of our conversations, she spoke about “the significance of the passage of time”—a line that featured in one of her more unwieldy speeches as vice president. I remember steadying myself when the phrase surfaced. But what followed was a revealing commentary about the diligence and patience that are required to produce real change. Harris told me about a commencement speech she had given at the law school of UC Berkeley. She spoke to the new graduates about Brown v. Board of Education—about how, after the ruling, integration largely took place on a creeping, county-by-county basis, and only in response to continual pressure. Exerting that pressure meant building a legal foundation, erecting a structure brick by brick, and laboring over the details, all in return for progress that was often measured in inches. This is a truth, Harris noted, that Thurgood Marshall and Charles Hamilton Houston and Constance Baker Motley all knew. “And I just got up there and I was like, ‘You want to be a lawyer?’ ” she recalled. If you do, she told them, then you must learn to “embrace the mundane.”

She laughed at the memory of that line. “And the parents are like, Ooh, this is good,” she recalled. “And the kids are like, Oh, f*ck.”

Harris’s engagement with abortion rights has broken through to voters more than anything else in her vice presidency, according to the Democratic pollster Celinda Lake. But Harris has been effective in another arena—diplomacy—that to the public is hardly visible at all.

During his two terms as vice president, Joe Biden traveled to 57 countries—and before that, as a senator, he had decades to acquire experience abroad. In the past two years, Harris has traveled to 19 countries, including France, Germany, Poland, Guatemala, Mexico, Thailand, Singapore, Vietnam, the Philippines, Ghana, Tanzania, Zambia, and Indonesia. She has met with 100 or so foreign leaders. They have tended to appreciate, as more than one White House official told me, how fact-based and direct she is. She has “very little patience,” one of them said, for the euphemisms and platitudes of routine diplomacy. Harris’s risk aversion appears to stop at the water’s edge.

Her first major diplomatic test came during a five-day trip to France in November 2021. For some time, Harris had been considering an invitation to attend the Paris Peace Forum, whose purpose was to discuss global inequalities exacerbated by the pandemic. But in the weeks before the event, relations between Washington and Paris had been pitched into tumult after the announcement of a lucrative joint U.S.-British submarine deal with Australia that nullified France’s own submarine deal with Australia. French President Emmanuel Macron was furious, recalling his ambassador from Washington; Biden soon admitted that his handling had been “clumsy.” For Harris, the trip to Paris went from optional to crucial.

In front of the cameras, Harris and Macron both said what they were expected to say about a positive long-term bilateral future. The atmosphere was one of chilly civility. But behind the scenes, Harris was helping lay the groundwork for cooperation on the looming crisis in Ukraine. She used her nearly two-hour meeting with Macron at the Élysée Palace to present an array of U.S. intelligence. Harris urged the French president to take seriously the threat of a Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Three months later, Biden asked Harris to represent the administration at the high-visibility Munich Security Conference. It was a sign of Biden’s confidence—on a personal level (Biden had attended the conference many times) and also because of the timing. The U.S. now knew that a Russian invasion of Ukraine was imminent, and Harris was tasked with helping press allies and partners to develop a coordinated response. Five days before the invasion, Harris met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to share U.S. intelligence and plans for military support. Publicly, Zelensky still seemed uncertain about Russia’s intentions and the scale of the threat. “The vice president directly and very clearly conveyed to Zelensky and his team that this was going to happen,” an official on the trip told me, “and they should really be planning on that basis and not waste any time.”

Harris returned to the Munich Security Conference this past February. Speaking for the administration, she formally declared the U.S. view that Russia had committed “crimes against humanity” in Ukraine.

A month later, I joined Harris on a multicountry tour of Africa. China’s deepening presence on the continent provided the geopolitical backdrop. But Harris was bringing with her more than $7 billion in commitments, largely from the private sector, to promote climate-resilience initiatives, money she had raised herself through months of tree-shaking phone calls to companies and individuals. The trip was a seven-day sprint, and logistically taxing. On one occasion, the American advance team had to upgrade an entire road from dirt to gravel; the vice president’s Secret Service code name may be “Pioneer,” but there are limits to what her motorcade can handle.

In Cape Coast, Ghana, Harris walked through the Door of No Return, where enslaved people had taken their final steps in Africa before being forced onto ships. She discarded her prepared remarks—something she had almost never done before—and spoke powerfully about the legacy of the diaspora in the Americas. In Lusaka, Zambia, she was driven to the rural outskirts of the capital to visit Panuka Farm, powered entirely by renewable energy. The vice president had spent time on a farm as a child; wearing jeans and Timberlands, she seemed at home inside the netted enclosures of sweet peppers and iceberg lettuce. Washington felt very far away.

Harris’s allies touted the Africa trip as a historic effort to deepen ties with the fast-growing continent. But it hardly registered back home. Terrance Woodbury is a Democratic pollster who focuses on young and minority voters; he saw the Africa trip as a “pivot” in terms of Harris’s self-presentation. Yet when I asked whether the trip had made any difference politically, he said, simply, “No.”

The trip also offered a reminder of Harris’s ongoing struggle when it comes to telling her own story—and of the Veep comparison. The vice president’s visit to Zambia had been billed as a kind of homecoming. As a young girl, Harris spent time in Lusaka with her maternal grandfather, P. V. Gopalan, who had been dispatched there in the 1960s from India to advise Zambia’s first independent government on refugee resettlement. Now, decades later, she was returning to Zambia as one of the most prominent public figures in the world. Harris’s scheduled stop at her grandfather’s old home in the capital, where she was expected to speak about his work and how his career as a civil servant had shaped her own ambitions, promised to be a special moment.

Instead, dozens of reporters and others looked on as Harris laughed somewhat awkwardly in front of a concrete-and-stucco office building. Greeting her near the doorway was a U.S.-embassy official, who explained that, after a year of combing through public records, researchers had managed to locate the plot of land on which Gopalan’s house had stood. The house itself, however, had been replaced by the headquarters of a Zambian financial-services group. Seeming not to know what else to do, Harris accepted an offer to tour the building. Reporters and cameramen, who had been anticipating a press conference at the end of the event, were ushered away. When I asked why the press conference had been scrapped, an aide said, “She needed a private moment.” Life has a way of sweeping you up.

My conversation with Harris at the residence came three weeks after our return from Africa. She took me through her herb garden, just off the driveway, crouching to examine the state of her oregano, dill, rosemary, thyme, and sage. Washington’s springtime pollen was at its worst, and my eyes were red-rimmed and watery as we made our way inside. After finding a box of tissues, Harris sympathized, referring to D.C. as “a toxic swamp of pollen.” People from outside the area, she went on, “are not acclimated to this mix.” It was a botanical comment, but it reminded me of something one of Harris’s old friends had told me about the vice president’s seeming discomfort in the capital, and how much happier she appeared when traveling to other parts of the country.

Perceptions of Harris appear to be frozen in 2021. A recent op‑ed in The Hill, largely sympathetic to the vice president, urged the Biden campaign to get her “off the sidelines”—this during a week when she traveled to Indianapolis; Jacksonville, Florida; and Chicago. (Many weeks, she is on the road at least three days out of seven.) At one point during my conversation with David Axelrod, he wondered why Harris hadn’t become more of a champion for the administration’s most significant achievements, such as the infrastructure package. But much of her cross-country travel is focused exactly on that.

Of course, Harris is not alone in having trouble breaking through. “I mean, why do only a third of voters know what the president has done?” Celinda Lake, the pollster, asked when we spoke. “My God, they spent millions of dollars on it. They’ve got ads up now.” If voters don’t know what the president has done, Lake said, “they sure as heck aren’t going to know what the vice president has done.”

This summer, I asked Jeff Zients, the current White House chief of staff, if he could recall a moment when Biden had noticeably leaned on Harris for guidance, or when her input had meaningfully changed the administration’s approach to an issue. He had mentioned earlier in our interview that Harris had been instrumental in putting “equity” at the forefront of the administration’s COVID response—ensuring that public-health efforts reach the underserved. Other examples? “Let me think of a specific anecdote, and I’ll have somebody follow up,” he said. His spokesperson texted after the call to confirm that the office would get back to me. Despite my follow-ups, that was the last I heard.

Vice presidents are chosen mainly for political reasons—as Harris was—and not actuarial ones. In most of the presidential elections during the past half century, the possibility that the candidate at the top of the ticket might die in office was not a significant issue. (It was an issue for John McCain, in 2008, with his history of multiple melanomas, which was one more reason McCain’s selection of the erratic Sarah Palin as his running mate had such negative resonance.) This time around, given Biden’s age, the words heartbeat away connote a real possibility.

Read: Why Joe Biden picked Kamala Harris

When I asked Zients what he’s observed in Harris that makes him confident about her abilities as a potential chief executive, he at first started chuckling in what seemed to be discomfort at the subtext of the question. (“Well, I want to, you know, make sure we’re not talking about anything—but, you know, she’s prepared.”) But after that he went on thoughtfully: “You know, the first thing I go to is when you’re president, there are so many issues, and understanding what’s most important to the American people, what’s most important to America’s position in the world—it takes experience, which she has, and it takes a certain intuition as to what matters most, and she’s very good at quickly boiling it down to what matters most, and focusing on those issues, and then within those issues or opportunities, understanding what’s most important, and holding the team accountable.”

That’s a sharp assessment of what a vice president can bring to the table, and not a bad way to make important observations about Harris that seem matter-of-fact and not tied to the prospect of a sudden transition.

So I was surprised when another White House official, who knows both Harris and Biden well, treated the topic of readiness as if it were somehow illegitimate—a ploy by desperate Republican candidates. “People who are polling near the bottom do things and say things to try and be relevant and get oxygen.” Was it ridiculous to ask about Harris’s constitutional closeness to the presidency? “She is the closest to the presidency, as all of her predecessors have been.”

Nikki Haley, Tim Scott, Chris Christie, and Ron DeSantis, all of them presidential candidates, have explicitly raised the specter of a “President Harris.” So have other Republicans. The probable GOP nominee, Donald Trump, who habitually belittles women, will likely do so too. He has referred to Harris as “this monster” and has questioned her citizenship. On one occasion, he made fun of her name—“Kamala, Kamala, Kamala,” repeating it slowly with various pronunciations. Harris called him childish for that, but has largely declined to take the bait. Perhaps not surprisingly for a former prosecutor, she has become more publicly outspoken than anyone else in the White House about the indictments that Trump faces and the need to hold lawbreakers accountable.

The Biden administration has every incentive to embrace Harris. Why does addressing preparedness seem so difficult? Harris has affirmed that she is ready, if need be, but there’s a limit to what she herself can say. It’s not unusual for a president, any president, to take pains to demonstrate his vice president’s readiness for the top job, if only by regularly referencing their closeness—the notion that the person is briefed on everything and has an opportunity to weigh in on major decisions, even if the fingerprints aren’t always visible. And no president comes to the Oval Office with every necessary skill. Harris is an uncomfortable fit in the vice president’s role, whatever that is, and she cannot speak or act independently; the job makes every occupant a cipher. But she has been a successful public servant for more than three decades. She ran the second-largest justice system in America, in a state that is the world’s fifth-largest economy. By virtue of her position, she is among those who represent the future of her party, and she represents its mainstream, not its fringe. Of course Kamala Harris is ready for the presidency, to the extent that anyone can be ready. This should not be hard for her own colleagues to talk about. Not talking about it leaves the subject open for political exploitation—by opponents whose own likely candidate makes the idea of readiness absurd.

And yet the topic is treated as a trip wire. In a brief conversation after an abortion-rights rally in Charlotte, North Carolina, on the first anniversary of the Dobbs decision, I asked Harris herself: Had she and Biden discussed how to address questions about her readiness to step in as president, should circ*mstances ever require it? “No,” she said. And that was the end of the conversation.

This article appears in the November 2023 print edition with the headline “Her?” When you buy a book using a link on this page, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.

Elaina Plott Calabro is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

The Kamala Harris Problem (2024)
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