Kamala Harris Knows She’s Trapped

The vice president needs to win over the voters who approve of Biden, but not of her performance.

Vice President Kamala Harris is in a difficult position at the White House.
Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times / Getty; The Atlantic

“I think it’s okay if we shake hands,” Kamala Harris told me last week. The vice president came out from behind her West Wing desk to greet me, her eyes smiling above her face mask. The last time I was in this particular office, the occupant was Mike Pence. And had it not been for a few state election officials who withstood the pressure to ignore the results, Harris’s desk would still belong to him.

Donald Trump’s most extreme supporters hold out hope that the election results will somehow be overturned, and that Trump will resume office this month. Three days before Harris and I met, police officers testified before Congress about their hellish clash with Trump supporters who swarmed the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to stop the certification of the election on January 6. One Black officer, Harry Dunn, spoke about repeatedly being called the N-word by rioters. What will the White House do to stop the insurrectionists from trying again? I asked Harris.

“There is that aspect of January 6 which was no doubt about the election,” she told me. “But there is also that component of January 6 that was about a long-evolving and, at moments, increasing distrust in government in our country.” What the Biden administration must do to stave off a repeat, she said, is demonstrate “the relevance of government to the lives of the American people.”

Harris’s response puts an almost impressively optimistic sheen on what had transpired and who was responsible, especially for a former prosecutor. And as the conversation went on I saw her politician’s knack for filibustering, limiting the number of questions a reporter can ask in the time available. One Harris answer started with musings on the attempted coup and ended with a plug for the child tax credit. She’s plainly wary of saying anything that might deviate from President Joe Biden’s message that Democrats and Republicans need to reach across the aisle.

But she also has reason to address this dangerous moment in a more direct way, given that she is positioned to represent the future of the Democratic Party. As the oldest president ever to serve, Biden is not guaranteed to seek reelection in 2024, making Harris the heir apparent. Yet many Democrats openly doubt Harris’s ability to defeat either Trump (should he run again) or one of the many Republicans remaking themselves in his image. “I hate to even say it, but it will be very difficult for her, for the obvious reasons, and it shouldn’t be that way,” says Dennis DeConcini, a moderate Democratic former senator from Arizona, one of the states that Biden narrowly flipped in 2020.

Polls show Biden is significantly more popular than Harris, and his team is running more smoothly than hers. If she doesn’t close that gap, and soon, she risks inviting Democratic challengers into the field of a future presidential primary. And even if she prevails in such a fight, unless she can win over more voters to her side, she will struggle to win the presidency—just as she struggled to win the nomination when she tried for it herself.

Biden defined his campaign as a battle for the soul of America, a fight to defend democracy that the nation could not afford to lose. He won the first round of that fight. But if Harris is to face a resurgent Trumpism, can she find a way to win the second?

Harris’s elevation is far from guaranteed. Before Biden’s election, the last vice president to mount a successful bid for the top job was George H. W. Bush, in 1988. Bush’s own vice president, Dan Quayle, tried and failed to do the same. “The vice presidency is an awkward job,” Quayle told me. “It all depends on what the president wants.”

For all the warmth between Biden and Barack Obama, the operatives running Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign nevertheless considered dumping the then-VP in favor of Hillary Clinton. As a matter of strategy, vice presidents like to tether themselves to the sitting president. Plotting an independent path would quickly alienate a West Wing staff alert to perceived acts of disloyalty. “You cannot appear to be running away from the president,” Roy Neel, who was chief of staff to Vice President Al Gore and later deputy chief of staff under President Bill Clinton, told me. “The president and the president’s people will just cut you off at the knees. In a heartbeat you can be cut out of meetings, you can be cut out of photo ops and trips, and suddenly when you want additional staff, they’re saying no. It can happen, and it can happen very quickly.”

Harris and Biden didn’t know each other all that well when he picked her to be his running mate. She told me that they’ve grown close—but how could she say anything else? At bottom, political alliances are largely transactional, though Harris said she and Biden hold the same values. “If you just kind of look at us and who we are stereotypically, people would assume that we have nothing in common, in spite of the fact that we have everything in common,” she said. “Yes, we are a different race, different gender, different generation. But on the things that we care most about, we have everything in common.”

Still, something isn’t working quite right in their first year. Harris’s approval rating is 45 percent, seven points lower than Biden’s, according to Real Clear Politics’ polling average. A senior White House official said it’s not surprising that Harris’s ratings don’t match Biden’s. “Vice presidents aren’t as known!” this person, who, like others quoted for this story, spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to be candid, said. “People don’t see them on a daily basis and don’t think they’re running the government.” But a Los Angeles Times analysis shows that Harris is less popular than Biden, Dick Cheney, and Gore at comparable points in their vice presidencies.

The simplest explanation for the Biden-Harris approval gap is sexism and racism. Men view Harris unfavorably by an 18-point margin, and she is a convenient proxy for conservative pundits who have demeaned her through sexist tropes. In April, the Newsmax host Grant Stinchfield aired clips of Harris laughing and likened her to the “Wicked Witch of the West.” Jesse Kelly, a guest on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show last month, said she “started out her political career as [former California Assembly Speaker] Willie Brown’s bratwurst bun,” a reference to reports that the two had once dated.

“As a woman of color myself, and having worked a long time trying to elect the first woman president, there is just a different standard for a woman in politics,” Patti Solis Doyle, who managed Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign, told me. “I don’t think that Vice President Harris has performed any less than any other recent vice president in modern history.”

Harris’s fiercest defenders have hinted that Biden has put her in an impossible position. Some of her allies told me they are upset that she accepted the daunting assignment of curbing illegal border crossings, fretting that the issue might doom any future presidential run. They’re annoyed with both Biden for giving her the job and her staff for letting her take it. A once and potential future presidential rival, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, is out traversing the country, talking about road and bridge projects that Americans eagerly want built, while Harris has become the face of perhaps the most polarizing issue in politics, one of her campaign fundraisers told me. “Can you think of a worse issue for a general election than the border?” this person said. But that argument misses the cold reality of the job: “I don’t know how many successful vice presidents remain successful by saying no to the president when he asks you to do something,” a senior White House official told me.

Resentment toward Harris might also be a holdover from the Democrats’ brutal primary. Certain Biden donors still haven’t forgiven her for the moment in the first Democratic presidential debate when she attacked him for opposing busing policies aimed at desegregating schools. Again and again, the word ambition seeps into the conversation, as though ambition is a bad thing for a presidential candidate to have. “It leaves you wondering how far she’s willing to go, having done something like that,” one Biden fundraiser told me. To others, that argument seems hollow. In the 1980 presidential campaign, Bush derided Ronald Reagan’s platform as “voodoo economics,” then went on to become Reagan’s unfailingly loyal vice president.

I asked Harris if she regretted confronting Biden at the 2019 debate. She leaned forward in her seat as she spoke. She never broke eye contact with me—but she didn’t quite answer my question.

“There is no sunlight or daylight between he and I on the issue of race, on the history of racism in our country, and also what we need to do going forward to fight for equity based on race, gender, and everything else,” she said.

Harris’s role as a governing partner isn’t immediately obvious. In the modern era, the president is typically an outsider, and the vice president is an insider who schools him in Washington’s byzantine customs. The Biden-Harris duo is the inverse of that: She is the relative outsider, he the insider. “That doesn’t mean the vice president can’t be important and effective,” Joel Goldstein, a vice-presidential scholar who taught at Saint Louis University Law School, told me. “It just means that she’s going to be different.” Biden doesn’t necessarily need Harris to close legislative deals. His White House is stocked with West Wing and Capitol Hill veterans. For that matter, Biden can do it. Two administrations ago, it wasn’t Obama who’d be called in to haggle with Congress over proposals that were at risk of falling apart. “When I was negotiating Obamacare, we took Biden up to the Hill, not Obama,” Jim Messina, a former deputy chief of staff in the Obama White House, told me.

In his first year as Obama’s vice president, Biden oversaw a smoothly executed $800 billion stimulus program. Two issues that Harris spearheads are immigration and voting rights, and her imprint on each feels faint. She visited Guatemala in June amid a mounting crisis over a surge in border crossings. There, she delivered a message that the White House wanted to broadcast. To those thinking of making the trip to the U.S. border, she said: “Do not come.” Liberals balked. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democrat from New York, tweeted that it’s legal for migrants to seek asylum. “This is disappointing to see,” she wrote above footage of Harris’s stark warning.

“Part of my frustration is the way that this system rewards sound bites” as opposed to “depth and thought,” Harris told me. She really did seem fed up with the media portrayal of her—particularly when it comes to those clips that drive headlines. But Harris also has a keen appreciation for the political power of the sound bite. When she challenged Biden over busing at the first debate, she spoke of a California schoolgirl who was part of a newly integrated class. “And that little girl was me,” she said. Soon afterward, her campaign started selling $29.99 T-shirts emblazoned with the phrase.

Much of her value to Biden comes from interactions the public can’t see. She spends hours a day in meetings with the president, privately giving advice and offering a perspective rooted in a life experience very different from his. A former prosecutor, Harris will press officials on what they mean in hopes of satisfying Biden’s questions.

During the recent presidential transition, Neel, the former Gore aide, sent Harris a memo that warned of how easily a vice presidency can go sideways. He spelled out how the vice president needs unambiguous guidance about what, exactly, the president expects. “I mentioned things like making damn sure your staff doesn’t get sucked into a gossip game about the president’s team,” Neel told me. “You’ve got to make sure your staff is discreet. Discretion is everything.”

So far, Team Harris hasn’t always been discreet. A Politico article in June described a “tense and dour” atmosphere in her office. One source told the outlet, “People are thrown under the bus from the very top, there are short fuses and it’s an abusive environment”—the sort of anonymous quote that any well-run White House detests. Harris is working toward improvements. She consults a “kitchen cabinet” of people who offer her a perspective from outside the vice-presidential bubble: Minyon Moore, who oversaw her transition; Donna Brazile, who managed Gore’s 2000 campaign; and Karen Finney, a former spokesperson for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. She may soon hire some additional Washington veterans to bolster her staff.

In April, she spent more than an hour on the phone with the presidential historian Douglas Brinkley. They talked about successful vice-presidential models that Harris might emulate. One concern she raised was the perception that “she’s not following the lead of Joe Biden” and that the news media might “find a way to wedge them apart,” Brinkley told me. “That’s what she’s guarding against. It’s a very delicate balance.”

Harris also spoke with former Vice President Walter Mondale. The Jimmy Carter–Mondale tandem marked the beginning of the modern vice presidency. A month before taking office, in 1977, Mondale sent Carter an 11-page memo that has become a foundational text. “I fully realize that my personal and political success is totally tied to yours and the achievements of your administration,” he wrote. Harris’s conversation with Mondale came a few days before his death.

“One of the things that I shared with him is, in a nutshell, how I’m acutely aware that I’m part of his legacy,” Harris said. She began ticking off all the ways Mondale transformed the vice presidency. He was, she noted, the “first to have this office in the West Wing; the first, in large part because of the generosity of Jimmy Carter, to take on such a substantial load in terms of domestic and foreign policy.” And later, when Mondale ran for president and chose Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate, he was “the first to say that a woman could be vice president.”

Should Harris run for president in the next election or the one after that, she would start the race as a strong favorite. But she’s an unproven candidate at the highest level. Her 2020 primary campaign didn’t go well; she dropped out a month before the first contest, in Iowa. “I don’t think there’s overwhelming enthusiasm for her,” Lou D’Allesandro, a Democratic state senator from New Hampshire, traditionally the nation’s first primary state, told me. “People just don’t know her.” Normally a sitting vice president might clear the field. That’s not likely to be the case in the event Biden heads home. “I don’t see everybody saying, ‘Okay, she’s the vice president. Now she is automatically the nominee,’” Bill Bradley, the former Democratic senator, who mounted a strong challenge to Gore in 2000, told me. “That’s not the way it works.”

I asked Harris if she faces a double standard as a woman of color. She dodged. “Let me tell you,” she said, laughing. “When I meet with [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel, or the king of Jordan, or the prime minister of Japan or South Korea, I’m the vice president of the United States. I represent my country. I represent my president.”

Searing events have a way of reigniting political careers. In 2017, Harris showed her prosecutorial chops when questioning then–Attorney General Jeff Sessions at a Senate hearing, bearing down on any contacts he’d had with Russians during the presidential race. A year later, she again made headlines for her shrewd questioning of the Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, who looked befuddled during an exchange involving reproductive rights. This is the persona that seemed to inspire her supporters.

Biden chose to run for president a third time after hearing Trump say there were “very fine people on both sides” of the white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. January 6 could prove to be such a clarifying moment for Harris. As investigators unearth the full story of how America nearly slipped into authoritarianism, the country may decide it’s ready for a former prosecutor and a candidate who’s trying to preserve democracy. “We are a democracy,” she told me. “The power should lie with the people. It should rest with the people, but they must feel that. And not because we give a lovely speech about it, but because in our policies and in our structures and systems, that we actually manifest and then carry through on that principle.”

Maybe voters will connect with the version of Harris they saw during those Senate hearings, though she would need to show more of that gumption than she’s displayed to date as Biden’s No. 2. The niceties that have long underpinned relations between the president and vice president may be outdated. If Harris is the heir apparent, she has to be electable. She needs to develop a winning political profile.

Previous presidents quashed shows of independence from their vice presidents, but Biden and his West Wing staff have the power to change that practice. If Biden genuinely believes that the fight against Trumpism is a battle for the soul of America, he will have to find a way to bolster his likeliest successor despite any short-term political cost, granting her the freedom to define her own profile. Democracy is popular; the January 6 insurrection is not. That’s a winning issue that Harris could make her own.