June 7, 2021 11:08:50 am
Written by Lisa Lerer
Is Kamala Harris drawing the shortest straws in the White House?
This week, President Joe Biden announced that Harris would lead the administration’s effort to protect voting rights, a task he immediately said would “take a hell of a lot of work.”
And Sunday, Harris leaves for her first trip abroad, visiting Mexico and Guatemala as part of her mandate to address the root causes of migration from Central America that are contributing to a surge of people trying to cross the U.S.’ southern border.
The central political question facing Harris has never been whether she will run for president again. It is when and how.
Yet for a history-making politician with big ambitions, Harris has adopted an early agenda that has left some Democrats fretting about the future of a politician who is already positioned as a presidential-nominee-in-waiting.
Both immigration and voting rights are politically fraught problems with no easy solutions. Democrats’ expansive election legislation has faltered in the Senate, with moderate party lawmakers like Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia expressing concerns about the bill.
And despite the best efforts of her team, Harris has become the administration’s face — sometimes quite literally — for the influx of migrants, including tens of thousands of unaccompanied children, at the southern border.
Allies point out that Harris’ portfolio extends beyond those two high-profile issues. She is also responsible for expanding broadband internet access, combating vaccine hesitancy, advocating the infrastructure plan, helping women reenter the workforce, highlighting the Black maternal mortality rate and aiding small businesses, among other issues.
The allies cite the challenges Biden took on during his first term as vice president — including leading the White House effort to draw down troops in Iraq and overseeing the implementation of the stimulus bill — and argue that voters reward politicians for tackling hard issues, even if they remain unresolved.
And many argue that there are no easy problems in a country still grappling with a devastating pandemic, continued economic uncertainty and a divisive racial reckoning.
“These are long-term, systemic issues,” said Donna Brazile, a former Democratic Party chair who speaks with Harris and her team. “She’s defined by what I call real big problems — and problems that require a different kind of leadership to solve.”
Of course, “real big problems” also carry a far greater risk of political missteps and policy failures, particularly for a politician who is more polarizing than the president she serves, polls show.
Even before she became the first Black female vice president, Harris emerged as an early target of Republicans, who found it easier to rile up their base with racist and sexist attacks against her than with condemnations of Biden. In the conservative media, she is relentlessly defined as an untrustworthy radical with an unpronounceable name and an anti-American agenda.
The false caricature may be having an impact on her image: Tracking polls find Harris’ approval rating hovering a few percentage points lower than Biden’s, with more voters expressing negative views of her performance.
Aides to Harris have quietly placed some of the blame for the politically damaging situation on Biden, according to some Democrats outside the White House. The president announced her new diplomatic assignment by telling reporters before a March meeting on immigration at the White House that the vice president would “lead our efforts with Mexico and the Northern Triangle, and the countries that can help, need help in stemming the movement of so many folks, stemming the migration to our southern border.”
Harris’ staff spent weeks explaining that her job was not to reform the country’s immigration system but a narrowly focused foreign policy mission. That distinction is difficult to draw, given the interconnected nature of global migration.
And it seems to have been lost on Republicans, who see the situation at the border as one of their most potent lines of attack against a relatively popular administration. They have spent weeks falsely calling her Biden’s “border czar,” releasing #BidenBorderCrisis videos and calling on the vice president to visit the southern border, which she will fly over this weekend on her way to meetings in Central America.
But there are some indications that behind the scenes, Harris pushed for leadership roles on these charged policy issues.
After the election, some allies of Harris urged her to take on immigration, according to people who have spoken with her team, even though the issue has long been so intractable that the last president to pass significant legislation addressing it was Ronald Reagan. And the vice president personally asked Biden if she could spearhead the administration’s fight against Republicans’ new voting restrictions as an extension of her past work as a senator and the attorney general of California on a problem she believes threatens the underpinnings of American democracy.
Yet in the Senate, Harris was not known for her close relationships with moderates like Manchin. It is unclear if she will be able to broker the kind of compromises within her party that will be necessary to pass a voting rights bill. And given the lack of Republican support, little is likely to happen on the bill unless Democrats agree to abolish the filibuster, which several moderates oppose.
Beyond legislation, her influence is limited. In the states, Republicans have made the passing of laws that restrict voting an early litmus test for their party. While the Justice Department can bring litigation against voter-suppression measures, Harris cannot been seen as pressuring the agency to do so. Filling judicial vacancies with pro-voting judges could help stop some of the state laws, but that is a role that falls to Congress and Biden.
Still, there may be political upsides for Harris in taking on voting rights. Voting rights advocates have expressed frustration at what they see as the administration’s tepid approach to countering voter suppression and the prospect that it could hamper Democrats’ ability to win elections in 2022 and beyond.
Harris can travel the country rallying her party’s base, particularly voters of color who are the backbone of Democratic politics. Allies say her role will extend far beyond the legislative wrangling in the Senate to include meetings with activists, state officials and corporations — building relationships with the kinds of Democrats who can help bolster a presidential bid.
“From her perspective, what I would say she’s thinking about is, ‘Look, if we don’t fix this, our democracy is gone,’” said Leah Daughtry, a veteran of Democratic campaigns. “She will be using the power of the bully pulpit of the White House to get people engaged and involved.”
But some suggest that Harris’ portfolio may have more to do with office politics than those of the presidential variety. While Biden feels comfortable with Harris, Democrats familiar with the workings of the White House say, some on his team remain skeptical of her loyalty after the divisive primary race. Her agenda, they argue, may simply be the White House version of cleaning up after the office party: What better way to prove her fidelity than by taking on some of the most thankless tasks?
“There’s always the long view when you are vice president and you think about the future,” Brazile said. “But it’s too early. Joe Biden has said he’s running in 2024, and she is a real team player.”