Kamala Harris’s Would-be Moment

When Ron Klain admitted to me a year ago that the White House could have worked harder to elevate Kamala Harris’s profile, he didn’t know that the Democratic Party, and perhaps American democracy itself, would soon be riding on her readiness to be president. But perhaps he should have.

It was July 2023, and while interviewing President Joe Biden’s former chief of staff in his law office in downtown Washington, D.C., I’d asked if the administration had done enough to showcase Harris as a governing partner to the oldest president in history. Promoting one’s vice president is “always hard,” Klain, who was known to be an advocate of Harris’s, told me then. “Obviously, I wish, you know—you could always do more, and you should do more.”

Four months before the election, and one week after Biden’s disastrous debate performance against Donald Trump, Harris’s capacity to lead the Democratic Party and the free world has never been more relevant. And yet many Americans, after three years of the West Wing’s poor stewardship of Harris, are now looking at their vice president as if for the first time.

In another version of the Biden presidency, this would indeed be Kamala Harris’s moment. A growing list of prominent Democrats, including Congressman James Clyburn of South Carolina and, in a conversation with me this week, Senator Laphonza Butler of California, are touting Harris as the candidate best positioned to take on Trump in the event that Biden decides to withdraw from the race. Tim Ryan, the former Ohio congressman who challenged both Biden and Harris in the 2020 Democratic primary, has taken his support one step further, calling on the president to “rip the band-aid off” and promote Harris immediately. A recent CNN poll shows the vice president now running closer to Trump than the president is.

It is precisely the sort of moment that the 81-year-old Biden had once professed to anticipate, or at the very least be ready for: when, after assessing soberly the diminishing returns of his leadership, he would stand aside for a new generation. But if you believe Biden ever took seriously that it could come to this, that he would be pressured to cede his party’s leadership to her, then I have a bridge to sell you in Wilmington.

That would be the same bridge, of course, that Biden marketed to voters in 2020, when he pitched his presidency as a reset to a nation clamoring for normalcy, a lawn-tending exercise just until the party’s next leader was ready to step in. “Look, I view myself as a bridge, not as anything else,” he said in March 2020, campaigning alongside then-Senator Harris, Senator Cory Booker, and Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, a few months before he formally selected Harris as his running mate. “There’s an entire generation of leaders you saw stand behind me. They are the future of this country.”

Four years later, it is fair to ask how seriously Biden ever took the work of bridge-building. In the course of reporting a profile of the vice president last year, I learned that Biden’s team did not especially enjoying discussing whether Harris was prepared for the presidency—not so much because they had doubts about her ability to lead the country, it seemed, but because they resented the implication that there might soon come a time when she would have to. For all of Biden’s early efforts to frame his presidency as a generational handoff, those around him seemed dismissive of the notion that his legacy could be irrevocably tied to hers. My questions about Harris’s preparedness were regularly brushed off as a distraction, purportedly informed by talking points then being pushed by Republican primary candidates, including Nikki Haley, about how a vote for Biden was in fact a vote for President Harris.

“People who are polling near the bottom do things and say things to try and be relevant and get oxygen,” one official then told me. And yet Biden was the oldest president in history, I’d said: Was asking about Harris’s ability to do his job so ridiculous? “She is the closest to the presidency, as all of her predecessors have been,” the official replied.

When I interviewed Jeff Zients, Klain’s successor as White House chief of staff, I asked if he could recall a time when Biden had “noticeably leaned on Harris for guidance.” Zients noted that Harris had been essential to making “equity” a priority of the administration’s COVID response, but he was unable to call up another moment immediately; he said he would have his team get back to me with an additional example. I followed up several times, but the anecdote never came.

I asked Tim Ryan on Tuesday if he thought Biden had done enough in these past three years to encourage public confidence in Harris. “I don’t think so,” he said. “I mean, she was very much under wraps for a long time.” Echoing a complaint that many Harris allies have had since Biden took office, Ryan argued that the vice president’s portfolio had been stocked at the outset with unwinnable assignments, including immigration; Harris was tapped early on to lead the administration’s approach on the so-called root-causes element of border policy. “You send her to do immigration, but then aren’t willing to do anything on it,” Ryan said. As a result, he went on, Democrats have now “completely lost” the issue to Republicans. “And you certainly can’t blame her for that.”

The White House did not respond to a request for comment. Ernesto Apreza, the vice president’s press secretary, wrote in an email: “Vice President Harris is proud to be a governing partner to President Biden. As the President has said, he counts on her advice and counsel, and together they will continue to lead the nation forward for the rest of this term and the next.”

Of course, Harris’s staggering unpopularity with voters—both she and Biden have approval ratings below 40 percent—is by no small measure of her own making. As I noted in the fall, her first year as vice president was defined by a string of brutal headlines, her office beset by dysfunction, with senior and junior staffers alike quitting in short succession. Her communication struggles quickly came to define her public image; even today, it is difficult to have a conversation about Harris without someone bringing up the infamous Lester Holt interview, in which she inexplicably insisted she’d traveled to the southern border when she hadn’t.

Still, when commentators accuse Democrats of “political malpractice” for having kept Harris “under wraps,” as CNN’s John King did following Harris’s post-debate interview on the network, they’re only half right. The White House has seldom put Harris at center stage, but it’s not as if she’s been hiding. As I wrote in the fall, Harris by then had traveled to 19 foreign countries and met with 100 or so foreign leaders. She spent the lead-up to the 2022 midterm elections criss-crossing the United States as the administration’s spokesperson on abortion, one of the few officials in Washington who correctly intuited the salience of the issue for voters.

Harris’s work on reproductive rights has since come to anchor her vice presidency. Butler, in her previous job as president of EMILY’s List, a political action committee that aims to elect pro-choice women, launched a $10 million investment in promoting that work. And so when the senator watched Biden talk incoherently on the subject of abortion at the debate last week, “It was definitely painful to hear,” she told me. I asked if she would support Harris, a longtime friend, at the top of the ticket should Biden step aside. “Nobody should ever question whether or not I support Kamala Harris for president,” Butler said. “I think I’m on the record as having all the confidence in the world, and I remain confident, and so the answer that question is ‘yes.’”

Since the debate, Harris has fiercely defended the president and worked to assuage donors’ concerns about the viability of his campaign. Many of her aides and allies I’ve spoken with in recent days have been frustrated by the kind of wonderment with which these showings—cable-news interviews and fundraisers—have been greeted. “We’ve just seen Vice President Harris do an amazing job when it’s crunch time,” Representative Joyce Beatty, chair emeritus of the Congressional Black Caucus, told me. But for Beatty, after years of working with Harris—co-sponsoring legislation with her during her Senate days, personal visits with Beatty’s grandchildren in the White House—Harris’s rave-reviewed appearances last week were not any different from the performances she’s become accustomed to. “So maybe, yes,” Beatty said, “we should pay more attention.”

For the vice president and her team, the perverse irony is that it ultimately took Biden imploding onstage for many Americans to finally take notice of her. “She’s been out there, on the front lines of the campaign since it launched,” as a former Harris adviser, who requested anonymity to speak frankly, put it to me. “It got more focus, and will get more focus, because of what happened with his performance.”

It could be that, in the end, Biden’s most effective promotion of his vice president was entirely inadvertent.

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