Feb 18, 2022

What is Kamala Harris doing?

What is Kamala Harris doing?
U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris takes the Oath of Office /Photo credit: DoD photo by U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Kevin Tanenbaum

The vice president has been getting a lot of negative press.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Here is a sampling of some of the headlines about Vice President Kamala Harris in the last few months:

What the heck is going on with Kamala Harris? — CNN

Kamala Harris one year: Where did it go wrong for her? — BBC

Heir Apparent or Afterthought? The Frustrations of Kamala Harris. — The New York Times

Kamala Harris, the incredible disappearing vice president — Los Angeles Times

A Kamala Harris staff exodus reignites questions about her leadership style — and her future ambitions — The Washington Post

And those are from some news outlets you might expect to be giving her more favorable coverage. "Where is Kamala Harris?" asked The Washington Times. Fox News unpacked her "self-inflicted, bad first year," and advised "Forget Kamala Harris' likability, she can't even do her job." The Wall Street Journal suggested "Kamala Harris needs to get serious."

At the same time I've been watching these headlines roll in, I've also been seeing the questions pop up in my inbox. What happened to Kamala Harris? What is she doing? Why isn't she more in the mix? One reader recently wrote to me and asked, "It's been one year since the historic election of Kamala Harris as our first female (and first Black and Asian American!) Vice President. What has she been working on with regards to policy, legislation, programs, etc? I'm surprised that I haven't heard much of anything about her in the last year."

The first and most important thing to know is that, like most vice presidents, Harris was almost bound to get this kind of coverage. Perhaps, given her situation, doubly so.

For starters, the vice presidency has historically been seen in politics as a kind of consolation prize — one that can sideline a politician’s career by burying them in the ceremonial duties of the title. Daniel Webster, the former secretary of state, famously responded to an offer to take the job in the 1840s this way: “I do not propose to be buried until I am really dead and in my coffin." Gerald Ford's Vice President Nelson Rockefeller said his job was to be on standby for funerals and earthquakes.

That's just a normal part of the assignment. But in Harris's case, the expectations were unusually high. President Biden was the oldest president to ever assume office (78), and his age has been a major topic of conversation in the press. Harris, who is 57, came to the job with the expectation that she would take over the presidency — not just when Biden presumably steps down in 2024, but possibly if he decided not to finish his term in the first place. The presidency is notoriously demanding and Biden's capacities are regularly being questioned, a dynamic that puts more focus on Harris than it has on past vice presidents.

For other observers, the case of Harris's negative press coverage is a lot simpler: She's a minority woman, the first to ever take the job. In an interview with The New York Times, Hillary Clinton — arguably the most visible woman in the history of national U.S. politics — expressed a belief that sexism was at play. “There is a double standard; it’s sadly alive and well,” she said. “A lot of what is being used to judge her, just like it was to judge me, or the women who ran in 2020, or everybody else, is really colored by that.”

California Rep. Karen Bass, a Black woman, made a similar observation. “I know, and we all knew, that she would have a difficult time because anytime you’re a ‘first,’ you do,” Bass told The Times. “And to be the first woman vice president, to be the first Black, Asian woman, that’s a triple. So we knew it was going to be rough, but it has been relentless, and I think extremely unfair.”

In a newsletter trying to suss out the root of this negative coverage, I'm not sure precisely how to quantify the impact racism and sexism have had on Harris. Simply put: It's hard to measure. There's no doubt women are still viewed as out of place in top positions in American politics, and the obsessive coverage about the "likability" and appearance of the women running for president in 2020 was a stark reminder of this fact. Black women, in particular, still have to worry about the simple act of expressing themselves for fear of being pegged as the stereotypical "angry Black woman", somehow incapable of controlling their emotions because they display them on occasion. Some interesting research has shown the negative nature of coverage in 2020 of women running for president.

I think there is a good counterpoint, too, that Harris came into office benefitting from these historic firsts. She was the first woman to become vice president, the first Black woman, and the first Asian American. That meant a lot of her early days in office were dripping with "historic first" coverage, the kinds of favorable fluff pieces that — in politics — are usually worth their weight in gold.

It's also true that very few vice presidents get rosy coverage from the press. Just look at the contemporary examples: Mike Pence, who has more recently been framed as The Man Who Saved Democracy, spent most of his four years in office being blamed for everything Donald Trump did wrong. He was an "enabler." He was regularly blamed for not leading a charge to remove his own president from office, he was hammered for walking out of a football game in a "fake protest," and there were endless stories written about non-policy issues like his refusal to be alone with women who weren't his wife. PolitiFact did an entire fact-check about whether he called his wife "mother." The negative stories about Pence were constant.

Some may contend they were deserved, of course, but a lot of people feel that way about Harris, too.

Joe Biden, meanwhile, was brought into the Obama presidency largely because he was old, moderate, white, and experienced in dealing with Congress — everything Obama was supposed not to be. The Obama administration also knew he'd be a big help in the Senate. While the two got a lot of light coverage for their "bromance," a lot of news around Biden when he was in office revolved around highlight reels of his gaffes and the fact he continued to fail to actually be president.

Dick Cheney, perhaps the most powerful vice president in recent memory, sometimes accused of being Bush’s co-president, now has a legacy that can basically be summed up as dragging the country into a series of failed wars in the Middle East.

But none of this really answers the question of "what happened" and "what has she been up to?" It's just a useful context to consider as we think about her first year.