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

Kamala Harris, US Vice President

Kamala Harris, US Vice President

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

Speaking in the state of the battlefield, the US president and vice president highlighted their accomplishments in office, from creating jobs to boosting domestic production.

It was a theme that will undoubtedly be at the center of Biden’s re-election bid, which is expected to take place 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 image of the president sharing the podium with his deputy on Friday was a warning shot to the Democratic whisperers who have been briefing her lately.

Midway through their term, the Biden-Harris administration is at a critical juncture.

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

But many Democrats are unconvinced by the vice president’s performance — let alone her ability to step into the top role — and have expressed concern about her.

Elizabeth Warren, the influential Massachusetts senator, in a recent interview gave Mr. Biden a resounding endorsement to run in 2024, but emphatically shied away from doing the same for his deputy.

When asked if Ms. Harris should be Mr. Biden’s running mate, Ms. Warren said, “I really want to defer 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 add that it wasn’t her intention to suggest there were “trouble” but her noncommittal response was seized on anyway.

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

Ms. Harris’s tenure has been disappointing, marked by struggles as a communicator and almost invisible at times, more than a dozen Democratic leaders in key states told the Washington Post in a piece published this week.

As a result, many mainstream Democrats are unconvinced 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 raise Ms. Harris’s profile and solidify her position by making more 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 motorist 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 will be sent to the Munich security conference to be the face of America’s response to Russian aggression in Ukraine.

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

Her horizons have been broadened by the fact that she is no longer required to cast decisive votes in the Senate, and is therefore no longer tied to Washington.

The president’s team is believed to be preparing his deputy for an intense travel schedule on Biden’s behalf, who will be 82 by the time of the next election.

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

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

Kamala Harris - Gerald Herbert/AP

Kamala Harris – Gerald Herbert/AP

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

But concerns remain about Ms. Harris, whose tenure has been blighted by an exodus of staff and a deluge of unflattering leaks detailing the turmoil within her office.

Ms. Harris’s frequent verbal stumbling has also attracted ridicule, most notably in a sketch by Julia Louis-Dreyfus on the satirical US 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 had lost faith in Ms. Harris “because she had a tendency to fail.”

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

“One of my criticisms was that she tended not to prepare for things, not to read a briefing,” he said.

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

Potential challengers

Her status as Mr Biden’s heir to the throne is under threat amid a growing list of potential challengers.

Among them is Gavin Newsom, the governor of California, who appeared to target Mrs. Harris by criticizing the administration’s handling of the US border – an important part of its mission.

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

Whenever Biden steps aside, “no one is going to relinquish ground to Harris,” Duran predicted.

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

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

According to a Los Angeles Times aggregator, Ms. Harris’s approval rating in mid-January, about two years into her tenure, was just 40 percent.

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

Mr Biden has repeatedly pledged to have Ms Harris as his running mate – not to do so would be politically charged and a tacit admission of the government’s shortcomings.

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris - Samuel Corum/Bloomberg

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris – Samuel Corum/Bloomberg

There isn’t much historical precedent for stripping a vice president off the ticket. The most notable example is Franklin Roosevelt, who had a record three different vice presidents during his tenure.

Supporters are quick to point out that the vice president’s endorsement is closely tied to Mr Biden’s polls, which have remained stubbornly low amid continued inflation.

They’ve also hit back at much of the criticism leveled at her, suggesting there was an element of sexism in the unflattering stories.

Ms. Finney noted that Dick Cheney’s and Mike Pence’s employee turnover was not reported, despite the fact that it happened at a similar rate.

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

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

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