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Monday, April 19, 2021

Explained: The role and responsibilities of Kamala Harris, the new US Vice-President

According to a report in The New York Times, while Harris has not been assigned a specific portfolio as of now, she will serve as a governing partner to Biden on his top priorities.

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: January 27, 2021 8:50:25 am
Kamala Harris, US Vice PresidentKamala Harris is sworn in as vice president as her husband, Doug Emhoff, holds the Bible. (Andrew Harnik/Pool via The New York Times)

Kamala Harris made history when she was sworn in as the 49th Vice President of the US. She is the first woman to hold the country’s second-highest office. In her inaugural address, Harris referred to “American aspiration” and called on people to “do what is good, to unite, to believe in ourselves, believe in our country, believe in what we can do together.”

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The transition period is now over, which means that Harris and the 46th President of the US, Joe Biden can resume their responsibilities in what is being called the tensest moments in American history.

Where will Kamala Harris stay as Vice President?

As per media reports, Harris will not be moving into her official residence immediately since the house is in need of some repairs. But once the residence is ready, she will move into Number One Observatory Circle in northwestern Washington DC, a white 19th-century house that was built in 1893 and where Vice Presidents since Walter Mondale’s time (Mondale was Vice President from 1977-1981 in the administration of President Jimmy Carter) have stayed. The house, which overlooks Massachusetts Avenue is located on the grounds of the US Naval Observatory and was originally intended for the superintendent of the USNO.

Before Mondale however, Vice Presidents and their families stayed in their homes but because the cost of acquiring these private residences grew over time, in 1974, Congress agreed to refurbish the house at the Naval Observatory as a home for the Vice President.

Even so, it took three years after this for the first occupant of the house to move in since Vice President Gerald Ford acceded to the Presidency before he could use the home and Vice President Nelson Rockefeller used it only for entertaining. Since then, the house has been occupied by the families of Geroge Bush, Al Gore, Dan Quayle, Dick Cheney, Biden and most recently, Mike Pence.

What are the responsibilities of a US Vice President?

The Vice President is the president of the Senate and takes over the role of the President in case he dies, resigns, or is temporarily incapacitated. The office of the Vice President is often touted as the “least understood” and most often “ignored constitutional office” in the federal government.

According to a report in The New York Times, while Harris has not been assigned a specific portfolio as of now, she will serve as a governing partner to Biden on his top priorities. If she is able to fulfill these responsibilities, it could make her one of “the most influential vice presidents in history”, the report says.

The youngest Vice President till date is John Breckinridge who was 36 when he took over the post in 1857 and the oldest was Alben Barkley who was 71 when he took office in 1949. Overall, there have been five Vice Presidents who were later elected President, eight became President because the incumbent died and one became President because the incumbent resigned. Three Vice Presidents have also won Nobel Peace Prizes including Theodore Roosevelt (1906), Charles Dawes (1925) and Al Gore (2007). Significantly, there was one Vice President who ran against the President he served, this was Thomas Jefferson who defeated President John Adams in 1800.

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The relationship between Vice Presidents and Presidents

In the e-book “Picking the Vice President”, Elaine C Kamarck writes that historically Vice Presidents have been disliked by the Presidents they served and have only served the role of understudies. She mentions that while the 20th century had two models for the vice presidency–the balancing model and the partnership model, there may be an emergence of a new model based on competence, “which is the sign of a fundamental change in an office that has long been the butt of jokes.”

An article on a US government website says that while the role of the American Vice President was the “butt of jokes” in earlier times, the job has evolved to include more responsibilities and carry more importance. According to the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), throughout most of American history, the Vice President’s office was of little power and prestige.

But this changed under Carter’s administration, who was the first to grant his Vice President (Mondale) several privileges “including unfettered access to intelligence briefings, regular meetings, a private weekly lunch, and an office in the West Wing. He also invited Mondale to his Friday foreign policy breakfasts along with the national security advisor and the secretaries of state and defense,” CFR says. This meant that Mondale could play a greater role in the Carter administration’s foreign policy decisions.

The dynamic that formed between Biden and Barack Obama’s two terms as President is often referred to as a “bromance” because of the close bond that the two had formed. A Washington Post analysis said that Biden and Obama “adored each other” even though their aspirations and political hopes for America “have not always aligned”.

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