For all the Biden administration’s efforts to make Kamala Harris into a co-consul in the bipartite “Biden-Harris administration,” the public has not taken as warmly to the vice president as they have to her boss.
Among registered voters, the vice president’s favorability—distinct from whether they approve or disapprove of the job she is doing—routinely underperforms Joe Biden’s. Moreover, voters who have an unfavorable view of Harris are more likely to have a “very unfavorable” view of her than her supporters are to express a “very favorable” opinion of her.
Maybe that explains why the Biden White House seems so comfortable setting Harris up for failure. It’s hardly unusual for vice presidents to be tasked by their boss with heading this or the other task force with the aim of mitigating the undesirable effects of the latest crisis. Political observers could be forgiven for thinking there is no higher purpose behind this tried and tested strategy than ensuring the White House has a readily disposable fall guy when things go south. And yet, it’s hard not to notice that Kamala Harris has received more than her fair share of unenviable tasks—particularly given her high profile in the Biden administration.
Though it might have disappeared from the national headlines, the crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border that erupted in March has not yet abated. Encounters between migrants and border patrol agents or field operations officers remain well above their 2019 highs. On Tuesday, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott declared a state of emergency in response to the spike in illegal border crossings, and states of emergency remain in place in Arizona and parts of New Mexico.
Harris was tapped by the Biden administration to oversee the crisis in late March, and overseeing seems the extent of her contribution to the administration’s efforts. In the months since, the White House has spent an inordinate amount of time defending the vice president’s conduct, including her conspicuous absence from the border.
Only now, three months into her tenure as the crisis’s manager, has the vice president generated some results. This came with last week’s announcement that 12 private interests will make investments designed to mitigate the conditions “pushing” migrants north. Next week, she will make a swing through Central America “to advance a comprehensive strategy to tackle the causes of migration.” Insofar as Harris has been able to navigate the crisis at all, that effort has compelled her to adopt positions that will only alienate her supporters on the Democratic Party’s left flank (like backtracking off her campaign-trail objections to border closures to stem the tide).
Today, Harris’s team is as consumed with the situation on the southern border as they are with insulating their principal from that ongoing crisis’s political fallout. According to CNN, Harris’s aides were “dismayed” by the general perception that the vice president had been deemed the administration’s “border czar,” rather than a figurehead tasked with identifying the “root causes” of migration (instead of its “symptoms,” like the actual border crisis).
Apparently, Harris is content with the unimpressive performance she’s so far turned in with that crisis because she’s moving on to another issue that consumes Democratic voters: GOP-led state-level voting-reform measures.
On Tuesday, Biden announced that Harris would head up the administration’s efforts to monitor and combat what he called the Republican Party’s “unprecedented assault on democracy.” Success in this undefined mission is far from assured. “It’s going to take a hell of a lot of work,” Biden affirmed. But the assignment was not undertaken begrudgingly, according to White House Press Sec. Jennifer Psaki. The vice president “actually asked to run point and lead on voting rights,” she said with muted astonishment.
The Biden administration and the president have developed a bad habit of assuming the worst of many state-level voting bills, many of which aim to codify (within circumspect limits) the conventions that made voting during the pandemic a simpler affair. But Republicans are more than capable of overreaching in their efforts to constrain access to the ballot to preserve its integrity, and the methods to which some state legislatures have appealed in that pursuit are more than enough to raise reasonable suspicion about the GOP’s motives. And yet, what the executive branch of the federal government, much less the vice president, is supposed to do about these initiatives is anyone’s guess.
At most, Harris can be expected to channel the indignation we hear from much of the Democratic voting base whenever any Republican legislature seeks to limit open-ended access to the franchise, no matter how well-reasoned and justified those reforms may be. But if the vice president is expected to produce results, it’s not at all clear what those could be. When Democrats apply a critical eye to her record on this core Democratic political priority, it’s more likely than not that they will be quite unsatisfied.
Harris’s visibility on issues that Democrats believe are central concerns for the communities of color on whom they depend for electoral successes is no accident. But setting the vice president up for failure after failure at the expense of her viability within the Democratic Party would seem to trade short-term gain for long-term misfortune. That is, if Harris really is the heir apparent that so many presume her to be.