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Biden’s Kamala Problem

The vice president is a stranger in a strange land

It was never a matter of if and always a matter of when. Even as I watched Kamala Harris’s triumphant speech following the Biden-Harris victory almost exactly one year ago, I felt apprehensive. I was not simply worried about the American right, roiled up with the fitful racist fury of the Trump presidency, but also about the more insidious combination of sexism and racism of the American center-left. That subtle form of denigration became explicit a few days ago, when CNN ran an article with a headline announcing the “exasperation” and “dysfunction” in the vice president’s office.

The report, based on accounts provided by “three dozen former and current Harris aides, administration officials, Democratic operatives, donors, and outside advisers,” pretends to tell a complicated story whose import—that Harris is not up to the job—is quite clear and simple. According to the article, Harris feels politically “constrained”—stymied if you will— over what she can and cannot do as vice president. Neither her own office nor Biden administration officials seem to know what her role is or should be: perhaps the young and vibrant prop for Biden’s re-election run at age eighty-two, or, if not, the most well-positioned Democratic candidate for the presidency herself. The consequence, it appears, is that she is not being prepared for any role at all.

There is some credence to the elbowing out that the Harris team is complaining of. Early this month, when Biden administration operatives were running around trying to drum up support for the final votes on the House infrastructure bill, Harris was touring the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, where she announced that she would chair a National Space Council meeting to discuss future priorities for the U.S. space program. Why she was not enlisted for a more prominent role in the outreach efforts of the Biden administration’s trillion-dollar bill is unclear. Then, the day after that CNN report, at the signing ceremony of the bill, the White House announcer appeared to skip Vice President Harris altogether, introducing the speaker after her, at which point Harris said “in a moment” and stepped up to the podium.

There couldn’t have been a better tableau of the way Harris is being treated by the Biden White House and by Democratic voters in general. Since the publication of the CNN article, Harris’s low approval rating (she is at 28 percent, against Biden’s own low 42 percent) is also being tossed around as another bit of proof of her overall failings. That these ratings themselves could be the result of the Biden administration’s own lack of a plan as to how their barrier-breaking vice president—the first Black woman and first of Indian descent to hold that office—can support their agenda is the detail that is conveniently left out of these discussions.

“There will be a resistance to your ambition. There will be people who say to you, ‘You are out of your lane.’”

It’s worth recalling that the nervousness in Biden’s world about Harris’s ambitions has been apparent since the summer of 2020, when Biden had locked down the Democratic nomination and was vetting running mates. Some of Biden’s close associates argued against Harris on grounds she might not be “loyal” enough to the Biden agenda. The New York Times reported there were “concerns in the Biden camp that he might be overshadowed by a running mate positioning herself to succeed him.” And Harris had occasionally spoken in defense of ambition—which is uncontroversial when it comes to men in politics. As Jessica Bennett noted in the Times after Harris was chosen, Harris once spoke at a conference for young Black women, telling them: “There will be a resistance to your ambition. There will be people who say to you, ‘You are out of your lane,’ because they are burdened by only having the capacity to see what has always been instead of what can be. But don’t you let that burden you.”

What is happening to Harris is what routinely happens to women of color who are selected to fill “historic” roles and then left to languish when it comes to actually wielding power. In Harris’s case, her qualifications have been glibly ignored (the CNN article mentions her lack of Washington experience even though her experience of being the attorney general of California should make up for that). This isn’t new: well-qualified women of color in the United States who are on corporate boards, in C-suites, or on leadership councils and other all-white bastions of power experience similar hurdles. Woke white supporters of racial equality are lackadaisical in emphasizing that these women of color have been selected for their qualifications, not only their race and gender. These white saviors—and Biden may be the one in this story—are not averse to letting people believe that the selection has been a favor bestowed upon the chosen Black or brown woman rather than something actually deserved. Such conclusions by the voting public make whichever old, white, and male kingmaker is doing the job appear more noble than they are. If this is how some in the Biden administration view Harris’s selection, then it may even be that the Biden administration expects a degree of obsequious gratitude from Harris—as if she should be happy to be there, even if Biden believes he doesn’t need her counsel or prominence in advocating for the administration’s agenda.

The conundrum is typical of center-left politics in the United States. The rabid race-baiting politics of the American right are easy to call out, given their in-your-face racism. But how does one categorize the exclusions and snubs that the Biden administration is leveling at the Harris team? Is the function of the vice president only to be present for photo ops? And is saddling her with intransigent problems like immigration setting her up to fail?

America in 2021, for all its immersion in a moment of racial reckoning, does not know how to answer questions about race, or about justice for migrants, or about women who seem too “ambitious.” It’s a difficult path to walk for Harris: her detractors on the left, a flank that would be most sympathetic to her sidelining, have legitimate ideological disagreements with Harris and her pro-incarceration agenda. Meanwhile, there is the apathy of the droves of Hillary’s “nasty women,” white and upper middle class, and theoretically supportive of a Brown woman as vice president but not with the same fanaticism they devoted to Hillary Clinton.

The confusion surrounding Kamala Harris traces back to the Biden administration’s own indecision about whether their boss will run for a second term. Questions about tokenism, the elevation of certain kinds of candidates because of the contrast they present against the other overtly racist Trumpers of the other side, are also complicated and confusing. In this sense, the Biden administration’s inability to make a decision about Vice President Harris may mirror the confusions of many Democrats who want “diversity” and “historic” leaps into a more egalitarian society but are still reticent to allow the newly included any real power to change things.

Add to this the inherent problems of the vice presidency. There is a perfect model for the obsequious and loyal—and ultimately humiliated—vice president: that would be Mike Pence. It’s obvious enough that Harris does not see herself in the Pence mold. It may also be true that the role Biden played for Barack Obama is not available. Obama made a great show in public of his affection for Biden, and pretended to seek his wisdom as an elder statesman.

Harris gets caught in different traps. If she is pushy, she risks triggering Americans, including those on the center-left who feel uncomfortable when a woman of color is aggressive about claiming power. Leaning-in is too often considered ungainly when women of color do it. At the same time, Harris is too smart and qualified to be touring Space Centers when the most ambitious legislation of the Biden presidency is on the brink of passing. Whatever the misgivings she has with the Biden administration, and regardless of whether they are warranted or not, she cannot waste time being petulant, and she knows that too. After the CNN report, she performed in the usual role as the loyal deputy, expressing no complaints at all about her first year in office. One way of rising to the challenges of her confounding job is to bite her tongue and swallow whatever the Biden administration demands of her in exchange for making her a more integral part of their agenda. If she negotiates her way through the built-in liabilities of the office of the vice presidency, along with the ones no previous vice president has had to put up with, she will have proven herself more able than the long line of men who have held that position.