What Kamala Harris Has Learned About Being Vice President

Everyone expects Harris to run for president again one day, but her job requires her to avoid even the appearance of preparing for her political future.

A back-and-white photo of Kamala Harris framed by American and Guatemalan flags behind her
Brendan Smialowski / AFP / Getty

Updated at 1:00 p.m. ET on May 19, 2021

Air Force Two is a smaller plane than Air Force One. The exterior is the same light-blue and white, but unlike the commander in chief’s plane, the vice president’s aircraft is open plan—from the back, you can see all the way to the front, where a small office doubles as a bedroom. Kamala Harris spends most of her Air Force Two flights in that office, with the door closed. She doesn’t work the plane, the way Joe Biden or even Mike Pence did.

The vice president flew on Air Force Two to Los Angeles for Easter weekend, then to Oakland, her hometown, for events the following Monday. As Harris strode down the stairs, the angle of her head and the pace of her step deliberate, California Lieutenant Governor Eleni Kounalakis started a round of applause. Kounalakis was still gushing when I caught up with her by phone a week later. “She carries the mantle of this big job in a way that seems very natural,” she said. “To arrive with so much pomp and circumstance, but then to go to a water-treatment plant and then a small business—the juxtaposition underscores the work at the center of her start on the job.”

Critics of Harris see her vice presidency so far as a collection of unconnected set pieces. Harris arrives somewhere with the plane and the motorcade and the Secret Service agents, makes a few mostly bland statements, then tells whomever she’s meeting with about how she’s going to bring their stories back to Washington. Then she’s quickly out of sight again. She marvels aloud to aides about how the president is the same in private as he is in public—a fact that is striking to her because she is still getting to know him, and because her public and private personas are different: She is much looser, and talks more about herself and her experiences, when the cameras are off.

In Oakland, though, bits of the off-camera, more personal Harris broke through. Walking around that water-treatment facility she was visiting to promote the administration’s infrastructure push, she mentioned several times that her late mother had lived on the other side of the highway exit her motorcade had taken. She noted that she’d learned to focus on water issues early in her career in California politics. She worked in an unsubtle plug for her old San Francisco political frenemy, Governor Gavin Newsom. She mentioned that water reclamation is an issue all over the country, which she learned during the time she spent in Iowa, as if it were a random state she just happened to have visited a few times.

Everyone expects Harris to run for president again one day, but her job requires her to avoid even the appearance of preparing for her political future. I spoke with two dozen White House aides, members of Congress, current and former members of Harris’s circle, and other friends and allies in recent weeks. They have mixed feelings about Harris’s vice presidency, but even those who want her to seize a more public profile acknowledge the difficult spot she’s in. She’s already made history, and might make more of it. She’s working with a man who, after his own time as vice president, is determined to be the boss—but might also become the first president in decades not to seek a second term. She feels the burden on her as the first woman and first Black and South Asian person to be vice president, but she’s determined that her time in office will be about more than those facts.* She asked not to be handed just one portfolio. But by aiming to be involved in everything, she’s having a hard time making her mark on anything—especially because she’s careful not to create the impression that Biden needs help being sensitive to issues of inclusion and equity.

For a political world in palace-intrigue withdrawal post-Trump, the Biden-Harris dynamic drips with promise. Harris tried to propel her own presidential campaign by calling Biden a relic and pointedly not a racist in their first debate. But he rolled on to victory while her campaign fell apart, and now her political existence is in limbo while everyone waits to see how long he wants to remain in charge. As I report in my book, out next week, about Democrats’ path back to power in the Trump years, Biden believed, during his running-mate selection process, that he needed Harris more to help him win the White House than to help him govern. But now that they’ve won, their relationship is quickly taking root, his aides insist.

“She generally will ask very good, very pointed questions in meetings with staff. And she will follow up on his questions—‘I think what the president really wants to find out is X,’” Anita Dunn, one of Biden’s closest advisers, told me. “She does have a bit of that prosecutorial ‘I can sense a weakness in an argument. And I’m going to push that weakness to make sure that when the president goes out with that argument, it’s been really fleshed out and thought through.’”

If Biden’s presidency succeeds, Harris will be on a glide path to the Democratic nomination and potentially the White House. If it doesn’t, her vice presidency could end her political career. The woman who launched her presidential campaign to 22,000 people packing the streets of Oakland—about three times more people than showed up for Biden’s launch—has had to adjust to a smaller role than the one she once campaigned for. A few weeks ago, in Chicago, she made awkward small talk with a window washer at a vaccination site. She asked what the tallest building he’d ever worked on was. “Trump Tower,” down by the river, he told her. She asked him how he’d gotten to the top. “Do you go up to go down,” she asked, “or do you go down to go up?”

The vice president and her team tend to dismiss reporters. Trying to get her to take a few questions after events is treated as an act of impish aggression. And Harris herself tracks political players and reporters whom she thinks don’t fully understand her or appreciate her life experience. (She often mentions an episode in which a Washington Post reporter mistook the cheer of the historic Black sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha for “screeches,” I was told.) She particularly doesn’t like the word cautious, and aides look out for synonyms too. Careful, guarded, and hesitant don’t go over well. But she continues to retreat behind talking points and platitudes in public, and declines many interview requests and opportunities to speak for herself (including for this article). At times, she comes off as so uninteresting that television producers have started to wonder whether spending thousands of dollars to send people on trips with her is worthwhile, given how little usable material they get out of it. But Kim Foxx, whom Harris mentored after Foxx became the first Black woman elected state’s attorney in Cook County, Illinois, said this is a learned reticence. “There’s a reality of doing this work as a woman and a Black woman—and it often isn’t talked about a lot publicly—that there’s a presumed resilience around people who are first,” Foxx told me. “There is a celebration of what it means to break the ceiling, and not nearly the conversation of what the cuts to your head look like.”

Harris has been an elected official for 18 years straight, but she has only a few senior aides on staff who have worked for her for more than a few months. Turf battles have been a recurring feature of Harris offices over the years, but her newest circle believes it is finally getting her on track after years of past staffers not serving her well. Some have been surprised at how much work there is to be done, whether that’s briefing her on certain policy issues or helping her improve her sparring-with-journalists skills.

Interviewing prospective hires, she asks, “Who are you?” pressing for details of their life story, what makes them want the job they’re chasing. She tries hard to teach new aides about how she thinks. When they sit down for a meeting, she tells them: Take a moment and look for who isn’t at the table, who isn’t represented. Imagine you’re visiting the home of someone whose wedding you attended. You page through the album out on the coffee table. Does their vision of their celebration include you? That’s what policy is like, she tells them: All sorts of Americans are watching the administration’s actions, trying to see if they’re included in its vision.

Biden and Harris are both more interested in how regular people will feel about their decisions than how they will play among political junkies on Twitter. Biden often asks what people in Scranton will think of the administration’s choices. But Harris pushes him to consider how people in places he didn’t grow up in might think about those choices too. She’s careful to defer to him, yet conscious that someone needs to speak up. How do you define rural America? she’ll ask. Who are we not thinking about? “Coming from the Bay Area, her roots are in movements through her parents, in the civil-rights movement,” Barbara Lee, the representative from Oakland, told me as we stood in the kitchen of a Black-woman-owned catering business there, waiting for Harris to visit. “She sees public policy and her work from a lens of equity and justice and racial justice and gender equality.” Harris’s focus on Americans who have been left out of the government’s considerations has produced results: She helped push for the administration’s COVID-equity task force, mobile units to bring vaccines into neighborhoods that don’t have easy access to health care, and broader education efforts to reach vaccine-hesitant minority populations. In the Senate, she was a lead sponsor of a bill expanding community development financial institutions, which provided billions in relief to businesses hit by the effects of COVID-19; as vice president, she has touted the inclusion of CDFIs in Biden’s American Rescue Plan. In meetings, she often weed-whacks her way through political-speak to emphasize what’s really at stake. At the end of March, for example, she paused a conversation with women leaders at the White House to point out that the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour isn’t just an abstraction. People who work 40 hours a week at that rate make only $15,000 a year, she said, in the kind of moment that tends to happen behind the scenes but was caught by a pool reporter. “Let’s deal with that,” she said. “Let’s deal with the fact that one in three of those are women of color.”

“She’s pretty clear on the things that she’s interested in, and she sort of one way or the other leads you back around to those things,” Tina Flournoy, Harris’s chief of staff, told me.

Progressives went into the Biden administration expecting to be disappointed. Even before the election, some operatives were telling me that their strategy was to lean on Harris: They’d push her to push Biden, and she’d do it because she’d want to scare off any prospective presidential-primary challenge from the left. The fight in February about a minimum-wage increase to $15 an hour looked like a perfect opportunity. Members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus started putting together a letter that they planned to address to Harris, asking her to press Biden. Pramila Jayapal, a representative from Washington State and the chair of the caucus, told me that though she thinks Harris is indeed more progressive than Biden, she would not have signed a letter addressed only to the vice president. “The idea that we are going to target everything towards her as a brand-new vice president, when we have a brand-new president, made no sense to me at all,” Jayapal told me. “As a woman of color, I’m always sensitive to ‘Why do we put the burden of this on the first woman of color to be elected to this position, when we all know darn well that the president is going to make that decision?’”

The progressives eventually sent a letter addressed to the president and vice president together. Biden, seeing that the votes weren’t there in the Senate for the increase, backed off, even though he’s continued to say that he supports it. Biden repeated his call for raising the minimum wage in his first speech to a joint session of Congress last month, but the increase is not any closer to getting the support it would need in the Senate—including from a number of Democrats—to pass. The Reverend William Barber, the leader of the Poor People’s Campaign, wrote an article in March calling on Harris to be like Queen Esther in the Bible, “who rose to the challenge and risked her position to save her people.” When I spoke with him recently, he said Harris never got the chance: “You can’t evaluate what she has done without talking about what even Democrats have undermined her from being able to do.”

Now, four months into the administration, many progressives like Jayapal and Barber are surprised at how satisfied they are with Biden’s presidency so far. But some of those same activists and elected officials still find ways to gripe about Harris. Everything she doesn’t do is a strike against her. Everything she does gets attributed to Biden.

Harris spends a lot of time in meetings with Biden, the president’s and vice president’s aides make sure to point out. Biden—who values the views of politicians who have won elections more than those of staffers who have never been on the ballot—seeks out Harris’s opinion. Biden and Harris are in the White House, and with each other, more than they would be in non-pandemic times. When asked whether she is the “last person in the room” on any significant decision, which Biden made his condition for accepting Barack Obama’s offer to be vice president, aides tend to demur. “The way I like to think of it is,” Flournoy told me, “she’s the person in every discussion, and she’s ultimately the person that he’s going to turn to and say, ‘What do you think?’” Harris did say she was the last person in the room on the decision to withdraw from Afghanistan, though.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina told me he was “dumbfounded” trying to come up with what Harris’s precise role or impact has been. Bob Casey, the Democratic senator from Pennsylvania who’s been close with Biden for years and is now a Harris fan too, fondly recalled how much he enjoyed being in the Senate until 5:34 a.m. to watch Harris cast the tiebreaking vote to move the COVID-relief bill forward. As for her specific influence, he added, “It’s probably the case that there are a number of things where her imprint or her presence on that team is the reason why there’s a particular emphasis. I can’t say that I can identify one.” Other members of Congress who have sat in Oval Office conversations with the president and vice president struggled to answer this question too. Biden, who has shown a new confidence since he returned to the White House, has been making clear that he’s the one running the meetings, and Harris has been diligently deferential.

In March, Biden put Harris in charge of diplomatic efforts around migration from Latin America. Obama had given him the same assignment, so Biden imagined that he was showing Harris respect while also giving her a prime chance to build up her nearly nonexistent foreign-policy experience. To much of the political world, though, it looked like he’d stuck her with a worse setup than Nelson Rockefeller’s description of the vice presidency: “I go to funerals. I go to earthquakes.”

Harris’s staff initially told reporters that the border was part of her assignment. Republicans eager to create the news narrative of a “border crisis” demanded that Harris visit a detention facility or inspect some stretch of land where Donald Trump’s wall would supposedly have gone. House Republican Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana appeared at a press conference with a mock-up milk carton that declared Harris MISSING at the border.

A few weeks ago, I went to a White House press briefing to try to get a sense of what the vice president’s role is supposed to be. Harris had held a virtual meeting with the Northern Triangle leaders that morning, so I asked Press Secretary Jen Psaki how that call fit into the administration’s overall effort. Psaki started by saying that the conversation was part of a series of meetings the vice president had been having with other leaders and staff, not all of which had been public. Had the president given Harris any directives? I asked. “Well, the president and the vice president see each other quite regularly. She’s in many of the meetings, when she’s in town—almost all of them—that the president is in as well. So I would say it’s more of a discussion with others who are leading and running point on these issues.”

No one, including the vice president’s staff, has been able to tell me what any of this means. Migration and immigration are multinational, multilayer problems. Saying that Kamala Harris is going to fix them is like declaring that she’ll be the one to figure out how to land a crewed mission on Jupiter. “It appears to me like President Biden handed her a hand grenade and pulled the pin, and she was quick to get rid of it as fast as she could,” Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas told me, noting that despite the border legislation he’s working on and his obvious interest in the issue, he hasn’t heard from the vice president’s office.

Harris hasn’t spoken with Republican leaders about the border, her aides say now, because she was never supposed to be dealing with the border—she was supposed to be handling migration-related diplomacy with Latin American countries. She’s going to Guatemala and Mexico in June to meet with leaders there, because that’s the assignment. Pretty much everyone—reporters, members of Congress, advocates—gets confused about what the parameters of her role are. On a Friday afternoon last month, for example, the White House announced one policy on refugee caps, and then, a few hours later—after being bombarded for sticking to Trump policy by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois—announced another, higher cap. Theoretically, this change had something to do with the immigration crisis that Harris was supposedly managing, because refugees are fleeing dangerous conditions at home. But as far as most people could tell, Harris wasn’t a key player in the discussions leading up to the first cap, or the revised one. Jayapal, who is a leader on the refugee issue, called the process “incomprehensible,” and said she hadn’t even thought to go to Harris to ask for an intervention.

Harris’s aides believe that the Republicans who have attacked her on immigration are doing so because they’ve been having trouble landing punches on Biden, because Harris is a Black woman, and because they want to damage her ahead of an inevitable run for president. Biden sees those criticisms in a similar light. “He’s so sensitive to that. And I think everyone in this building is extremely sensitive to that,” Dunn told me. “Republican attacks are what they are for the reasons that they have decided on. But I didn’t notice anybody ever claiming that Mike Pence should be in charge of the border, that somehow that’s part of the job description.”

These days, when friends and allies try to reach out, they often can’t get through (she got a new cellphone after being elected, for national-security reasons). When she sees friends from her pre–Naval Observatory life who tell her they’d like to connect her to some cause or supporter who might be helpful down the road, she’ll tell them that they should talk to her sister and closest confidante, Maya Harris, who’s not on staff and who often tangled with aides during her presidential campaign.

Being in a bubble leads Harris to talk in terms like “human infrastructure,” by which she means measures such as child care. Human infrastructure is one of those self-defeating phrases that some liberals like to popularize. Even most Democrats roll their eyes at it; Republicans think that it’s too “woke.” Is her more stilted approach one reason the administration doesn’t put her on television or send her to talk to members of Congress as much as, say, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg? No, West Wing aides insist: She’s just busy actually building the administration’s policies.

During the presidential transition, Harris had thought about asking to be put in charge of the administration’s criminal-justice efforts, so she could draw on her past as a prosecutor, but opted against that, to avoid being pigeonholed. Last year in the Senate, she was one of the lead sponsors of a Democratic police-reform bill written after George Floyd was killed. Along with Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, she halted efforts to advance a much less far-reaching bill sponsored by Republican Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina. Booker and Harris felt that a deal wouldn’t have done much to solve the problem, but would have given Trump and the Republican majority in the Senate a talking point. Now Democrats control the Senate and the White House, but Harris has avoided saying whether she’ll try to lead on an issue that is more relevant than ever, but which for her has a fraught political history given her own past as a prosecutor. When I asked several Harris aides about whether she’ll return to criminal justice, a press staffer on the call quickly cut me off to say that they wouldn’t be discussing the topic with me for the time being, but it’s not on the agenda anytime soon, even as a police reform bill works through Congress. In the meantime, the news Harris is making is about being tapped to chair the National Space Council.

Among Harris’s allies, though, there’s a growing impatience to see her boldly engage on her own terms, to publicly speak out about the issues she’s more privately advocating for in closed meetings at the White House. Barber, for example, said he wants to see Harris launch a tour of the South. “She’s a prosecutor; let her prosecute the case. Let her go, in all of her richness and all of her diversity, in all of who she is,” Barber told me. “This is not the moment to get power and then find out how little of it you could use.” The challenge for Harris is that to succeed Biden, she may need to create more of an independent political profile. But drawing more attention to herself carries a risk: Any time spent building her own power outside the White House could risk her influence within it.

* This article previously referred to Kamala Harris as the first person of color to be Vice President. In fact, she is the first Black, first Asian-American, and first woman to hold the office.