President Joe Biden was minutes away from his first address to a joint session of Congress. His prepared remarks prompted him to say he was “asking the vice president to lead” the effort to push through his infrastructure plan.
But when Biden got to the line, he moved over to face Kamala Harris, who was sitting on the platform above him, and added the phrase “if she wanted.”
“Of course,” Harris replied, before Biden turned and signaled his confidence to him, saying, “Because I know it will be done.
The supplication momentarily shifted attention to Harris. Whether she likes it or not, being the first black person, the first woman and the first person of South Asian origin in the second highest elected office has already put unusual attention on a vice president.
“She will be in the spotlight whether she gets into it or not,” said Brian Brokaw, former political adviser and campaign manager for Harris. “I think she’ll probably be more covered than any vice president – at least at this point in administration – than anyone in recent history. But she is not ahead of anyone there.
Harris, like most vice presidents, had to carefully carve out a role as a trusted presidential adviser, seen as a team player inside and outside the White House. Any project she undertakes should be seen as advancing the president’s priorities, and in no way can she be seen as an attempt to outshine Biden or position herself to run for president.
“The key to the vice president’s success is to focus on the present, not the future,” said Joel Goldstein, professor of law emeritus at Saint Louis University and vice president expert. “When people speculate on the future, it creates problems for the vice president.”
In interviews, senior Harris collaborators spoke of the vice president’s efforts to shape policies in line with the president’s agenda and his focus on including neglected and historically marginalized groups. They said those efforts were manifested in the COVID relief package and in the vice president’s efforts to draw attention to the declining number of women in the workforce.
“It constantly pushes us to think about who is not included in the policies that should be, and do the work to make sure that when people see this policy, they see themselves in this policy,” said Rohini Kosoglu. , Harris’ home policy adviser. .
Michael Pyle, Harris’ chief economic adviser, said the vice president’s team had worked closely with the president’s team to develop proposals targeting essential workers and children. The result was an extension of the tax credit for childless workers which he said “was at the heart of the bailout” and the extension and expansion of a tax credit for families with children. .
“In the bailout, the ones that really come to mind are sort of landmark achievements in terms of shaping political outcomes with tangible benefits for people,” Pyle said.
Harris is frequently in the room with Biden for briefings and important announcements. But she’s making her own way more and more, making solo trips to the country and meeting foreign dignitaries on her own. She met Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga at the White House in April in her office ahead of her meeting with Biden.
She is preparing to make her first international trip as vice president, a solo visit in June, to meet Mexican and Guatemalan leaders on tackling the migration of their citizens, which creates a major problem on the southern border. the United States.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Harris’s work on migration and his elevation of the issue of vaccine reluctance are examples of the vice president identifying people who “ don’t not always making their voices heard and ensuring that there is someone in the White House who has a seat at the table who speaks on behalf of these communities.
Harris also brings a unique perspective as a former attorney and attorney general, Psaki said in an interview. “You can see it in the way she asks questions in meetings and how she presents a pitch in meetings.”
In a CNN interview this month related to her first 100 days in office, Harris reflected on how Biden chose her as vice president despite their “very different life experiences,” despite having values. and similar principles.
“But it was something I know he was very intentional about in asking me to run with him and serve with him, that is, I will bring a perspective that will contribute to the overall decisions that we let’s take, ”Harris said. .
Brokaw said he expects Harris to increase his public appearances as the pandemic abates.
“I think it will only become more and more visible as the country continues to open up,” he said. “I think we’re going to continue to see her being a strong presence both alongside the president and in her own right.”
Goldstein of Saint Louis University said Harris is still trying to figure out what the right balance is between being the president’s behind-the-scenes adviser and taking on attention-grabbing public duties.
“One of the challenges of being a vice president of any vice president is that a lot of what you do is done behind the scenes, and it stays behind the scenes,” he said. he declares. “You kind of make your case when you meet with the president or during the policy-making process, but once the decisions are made your job is to help with the implementation and your role is really to give. credit to the president and the administration and not try to claim credit yourself. “
Goldstein said Walter Mondale, who was Jimmy Carter’s vice president, set the modern approach to the role and set the tone that the best thing any vice president can do to promote his or her own political future is help administration to be successful. Harris spoke to Mondale this month, days before his death.
Harris, 56, who competed for the presidency last year before joining Biden on the ticket, is expected to run for the White House again.
“Due to Biden’s age he will certainly be a president for a single term and that means Harris will enjoy increasing prominence in the second half of Biden’s term,” author and historian Ron Chernow said in an email.
“I think he has to give her independent portfolios – important and difficult tasks – lest she always be seen as standing in his shadow figuratively and literally,” he said. added.
Biden handing over the migration issue to Harris is a good start, Chernow said.
Goldstein said Biden giving Harris such a difficult question was a signal that he trusted her.
“If you have a vice president who just gets into trouble easily, that probably signals that on really tough things the president turns to other people,” he said.
Biden and Harris’s relationship has been described by current and former collaborators as genuinely warm, having bonded with their memories of the president’s late son, Beau Biden.
And although they have served in the Senate at different times before and come from different generations, they have been described as respecting each other, as evidenced by the way Biden regularly turns to Harris for his advice.
“You can really see that they are making decisions in consultation with each other,” Psaki said, “this is how it should work.”