Why Democrats doubt Kamala Harris can step into Joe Biden’s shoes

Kamala Harris, vice president of the USA

Kamala Harris, vice president of the USA

Standing shoulder to shoulder in Pennsylvania, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris offered a preview of their 2024 re-election bid.

Speaking in the state of battle, the US president and vice president highlighted their achievements in office, from creating jobs to encouraging domestic manufacturing.

It was a theme that will no doubt be central to Mr. Biden’s re-election bid, which is expected within weeks.

But there was another unspoken theme: Ms. Harris’s status as Mr. Biden’s heir.

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris - Patrick Semansky/AP

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris – Patrick Semansky/AP

The rare sight of the president sharing the stage with his deputy on Friday was a warning to the Democratic whisperers who have been briefing against her recently.

At the halfway point of their term, the Biden-Harris administration is at a critical point.

If Mr. Biden runs for re-election as expected, his current party, 58, will be a central part of the campaign for an 80-year-old president whose age is seen as a major liability.

But many Democrats are unsure about the vice president’s performance — let alone her ability to step into the top role — and have raised concerns about her.

Elizabeth Warren, the influential senator from Massachusetts, gave Mr. Biden a full-throated endorsement to run in 2024 in a recent interview, but has largely held back on doing the same for his representative.

Asked whether Ms Harris should be Mr Biden’s running mate, Ms Warren said: “I would defer to what makes Biden comfortable on his team … but they have to be a team. “

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris - ELIZABETH FRANTZ/REUTERS

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris – ELIZABETH FRANTZ/REUTERS

She was quick to point out that she didn’t mean to say there were “any problems”, but that her non-committal response was seized on regardless.

At the same time, Democratic strategists turned to the media to anonymously voice their doubts about Ms. Harris’s political skills.

Ms. Harris’s tenure has been under siege, marked by struggles as a communicator and at times near invisibility, more than a dozen Democratic leaders in key states told The Washington Post in a piece published this week.

That has left many rank-and-file Democrats unsure that she has the strength, charisma and skill to mount a winning presidential campaign, the piece added.

In response, the White House has launched an operation to boost Ms. Harris’s profile and cement her position by making more regular public appearances with Mr. Biden.

This week, it was Ms. Harris, not Mr. Biden, who gave an impassioned speech at the funeral of Tire Nichols, the black driver who was brutally beaten by police in Memphis, Tennessee.

Kamala Harris gave an impassioned speech at Tire Nichols' funeral - Pool/Getty Images North America

Kamala Harris gave an impassioned speech at Tire Nichols’ funeral – Pool/Getty Images North America

And later this month the vice president is being sent to the Security Conference in Munich to be the face of America’s response to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine.

Ms. Harris’s team sees this as an opportunity to reset her and position her as the oldest president-in-waiting in history.

Her perspective has been broadened because she no longer has to cast tie votes in the Senate, and is therefore no longer shackled to Washington.

The president’s team is understood to be prioritizing his deputy to undertake a rigorous travel schedule on behalf of Mr. Biden, who will be 82 percent of the next election.

Karen Finney, a Democratic strategist close to Ms. Harris, said she showed “what a great asset she is. [Biden’s] ticket” by playing a “crucial role” in the party’s mid-term success.

She credited the vice president’s “extensive travel” on behalf of the Democratic candidates for “stimulating enthusiasm and turnout” in several key races.

Kamala Harris - Gerald Herbert/AP

Kamala Harris – Gerald Herbert/AP

Mr. Biden’s age will put the spotlight on his vice president, which supporters say represents a younger voice for Democrats.

But Mr. Harris, whose term has been marred by staff resignations and a flood of unflattering leaks describing the turmoil within her office, remains worried.

Ms Harris’s frequent oral essays have also led to ridicule, most notably in a skit with Julia Louis-Dreyfus on the US satirical program The Daily Show.

Gil Duran, who worked for Ms. Harris for five months in 2013, when she was California’s attorney general, said many Democrats lost faith in Ms. Harris “because she had a tendency to fail.”

Mr. Duran said Ms. Harris’s popularity has been severely damaged by her difficulties communicating off-script.

“One of my criticisms is that she tends not to prepare for things, not to read briefings,” he said.

That portfolio includes a series of challenging tasks assigned to her by Mr. Biden, which allies of Ms. Harris say have left her speechless at times.

Potential challengers

His status as Mr. Biden’s heir apparent is in jeopardy among a growing list of potential rivals.

Among them is Gavin Newsom, the governor of California, who appeared to take aim at Ms Harris by criticizing the administration’s handling of the US border – a central part of her charge.

Pete Buttigieg, Mr. Biden’s transportation secretary, also appears to be preparing a presidential campaign with the help of deep-pocketed advisers and donors.

Whenever Mr. Biden steps aside, “nobody’s going to obey Harris,” Mr. Duran predicted.

Garry South, a longtime Democratic strategist in his home state of California, said the vice president’s historically low popularity is a major obstacle.

Mr South said: “She’s basically lower in public approval than any of the three previous vice presidents, including Dick Cheney, who wasn’t exactly a warm and fuzzy guy. That’s saying something.”

Ms. Harris’s approval rating was only at 40 percent in mid-January, about two years behind her, according to a Los Angeles Times poll.

That puts her about 14 points behind her predecessor Mike Pence; 17 points behind Mr. Biden; and 44 points behind Mr. Cheney at the same period.

Mr. Biden has repeatedly committed to having Ms. Harris as his running mate — not doing so would be politically repressive, and an implicit acknowledgment of the administration’s shortcomings.

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris - Samuel Corum/Bloomberg

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris – Samuel Corum/Bloomberg

There is little historical precedent for removing a vice president from the ticket. The most notable case is Franklin Roosevelt, who had a record number of three different vice presidents during his time in office.

Supporters are quick to point out that the vice president’s approval was closely tied to Mr. Biden’s polling, which has remained stubbornly low amid persistent inflation.

They have also gone back on many of the criticisms leveled against her, suggesting that there was an element of sexism in the overt stories.

Ms. Finney noted that Dick Cheney’s and Mike Pence’s staff turnover was not reported, despite claiming it occurred at similar rates.

One former staffer said Ms Harris had one main goal for the next two years: to be “a good partner to Joe Biden”.

“Any of Biden’s failures will be attributed to the president as well as her — but so will any successes,” the staffer said.

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