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Kamala Harris tries to shake off her rough start

Deeply unpopular with voters, Harris’ defenders say she hasn’t had a chance yet to show what she can do

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Getty Images / Alex Cochran, Deseret News

It was just a joke, but with a sharp edge.

“WASHINGTON — In an effort to earn a little extra cash ahead of the holiday season, Vice President Kamala Harris told reporters Thursday she had picked up a seasonal job at a D.C.-area Macy’s,” the satirical newspaper, The Onion, reported last November. “‘Technically, I don’t think I’m supposed to have a second job outside the vice presidency but it’s not like they’re missing me anyway,’ said Harris ... as she folded a stack of cable knit sweaters. ‘I’d be bored out of my mind if it weren’t for these 15 hours a week at Macy’s.’”

Satire works if the audience is in on the joke. In this case, The Onion was lampooning the perception, or, some would say, misperception, of Harris as invisible and irrelevant.

Washington politics can involve a lot of parlor games. Who’s in? Who’s out? Who’s up? Who’s down? Right now, a popular game is assessing and guessing at Harris’ status and stature as she enters her third year in office amid questions on whether her boss, President Joe Biden, will run for reelection.

Criticism from Democrats

In February, The New York Times ran a story beneath the headline: “Kamala Harris Is Trying to Define Her Vice Presidency. Even Her Allies Are Tired of Waiting.”

It was tough stuff. Quoting local Democratic officials by name and others under the cloak of anonymity, it claimed that Harris “has not risen to the challenge of proving herself a future leader of the party, much less the country.” Officials and fundraisers questioned whether she could win the presidency in 2024 if Biden steps aside, and whether she would be a liability even as running mate.

“I can’t think of one thing she’s done except stay out of the way and stand beside him at certain ceremonies,” John Morgan, a prominent Democratic fundraiser, was quoted as saying.

One veteran political analyst, who asked to remain anonymous, told me, “I do not think she’s taken seriously as a national political figure. I think she is seen as damaged goods as a political entity. It’s a hard thing to come back from when people have made up their minds like that.”

Harris ‘carried the ball with Roe’

Harris’ defenders — and there are many — describe what amounts to an alternate reality.

“President Biden’s electoral right-hand ma’am is finishing a banner year (2022) filled with domestic barnstorming and high-wire diplomacy,” wrote Washington Post columnist, Jonathan Capehart.

Harris’ supporters point to highlights from last year, including her speech at the Munich Security Meeting a year ago as the war in Ukraine began, and meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Also, her many appearances across the country in support of abortion rights before and after the Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade.

“She carried the ball with Roe,” Jamal Simmons, who recently stepped down as Harris’ communications adviser, told me. “That is something everybody acknowledges. She was out everyday talking about it. And we come to find out that was one of the primary motivators of voters who chose Democrats in the last election.”

Despite rumblings of conflicts between Harris’ and Biden’s staff, her supporters insist she is a trusted partner to the president, who he consults with about every major decision.

A rough start in 2021

Many of those same supporters concede Harris got off to a shaky start in 2021. A low point was a bungled interview with NBC anchor Lester Holt where she gave evasive answers about what the U.S. was doing to stem illegal immigration, and said the administration was trying to address its root causes — crime, corruption and poverty — in Central America. 

She gave a prickly response when he pressed her about visiting the border, as Republican critics — and there are many — were urging her to do. It was a bad look. Afterward, she appeared to limit reporters’ access. For many months, it seemed she only made news when a top aide would depart, which was not infrequent.

“The history-making part notwithstanding, five minutes later, it felt like she could do no right. The perception became one of Harris bumbling all the time,” said Rick Klein, ABC News political director.

Harris’ disapproval numbers surpassed her approval in the summer of 2021, and they have been underwater ever since. A recent Los Angeles Times poll put her approval at 40% and disapproval at 53%. Biden registered 45% approval and 52% disapproval in the same poll.

What’s more surprising is her standing in her home state. A recent poll by the Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies asked California voters about their level of “enthusiasm” for a Harris presidential run in 2024, if Biden doesn’t seek reelection. Among respondents, 37% said they were very enthused or somewhat enthused, while 59% were not too enthused or not at all — of which, 41% said “not at all.” 

Among California Democrats, Harris did much better, with 56% saying they were somewhat or very enthused about her running in 2024. But 41% of Democrats said they were “not too enthused” or “not at all” at the prospect. Among independents, 63% were in the latter group.

“One of the big problems (for Harris) is that the only time she’s making news or really relevant in the news cycle or being talked about is when she’s made some mistakes,” said one former top Republican political operative who I spoke to, who asked to remain anonymous. 

A tough path to the presidency

Some of Harris’ baggage comes with the job. The vice presidency is and always has been inherently a low-wattage, often thankless job. Franklin Roosevelt’s first vice president, John Nance Garner, famously said it didn’t “amount to a warm bucket of spit.” The power of the office derives mostly from the degree to which the president makes you a partner.

“The only real job of the vice president — and the one that actually matters to his or her future — is maintaining a strong relationship with the president,” says political writer Chris Cillizza. “And there’s no indication that there is a rift between Biden and Harris.”

If Biden does not run, it is likely there would be quite a few other Democrats itching to jump in and challenge Harris. I spoke to a number of observers who said, point blank, in that scenario, she would be unlikely to prevail. 

“If Biden says, ‘I’m out of here,’ he’s not going to endorse her,” one analyst said. “He’s going to do what Obama did, which is stay out of it, in which case, I wouldn’t put a dime on her winning the nomination. There’s going to be 15 other people running.”

Many Democrats were stunned by how poorly she fared as a candidate for president in 2020. Again and again, I heard a recurring commentary about what many think are her greatest liabilities, that she comes across as inauthentic to voters and that, if nominated, she cannot defeat either former President Donald Trump or Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Melanie Mason, national political reporter for the Los Angeles Times who also covered Harris when she was California attorney general, said a scenario in which Democratic candidates are rushing in to shove her aside would be a bad look for the party.

“Optically, that could be a big problem for the Democratic Party,” she says. “But I think the Democratic voters who are worried about electability may think, ‘OK, but if Trump is running or it’s DeSantis, do we need to worry so much about optics? Or do we need to worry about someone who can win?’”

Questions on race, gender, ethnicity in play

When talking about Kamala Harris, inevitably and reasonably, questions arise about whether her gender, race and ethnicity have affected her image and press coverage. She’s hardly the first vice president to be eclipsed by the president’s long shadow. Are the judgments being made about her harsher because she is a Black and Asian woman?

“She has faced double standards in how she is seen and judged, as many women and people of color are, including when they are first in jobs,” said Jeffrey Frank, author of two biographies of presidents and vice presidents.

“She’s a Black woman and so she’s going to encounter some turbulence,” said Simmons. “She’s going to encounter some resistance to her being on the national scene. But I also think that people regard her as a competent able woman of color in a nontraditional role.”

Harris’s supporters say she is charming and charismatic with people in small groups and one-on-one with voters. They say she takes seriously and carries the weight of the admiration and expectations of many women and, especially, little girls.

This year, Harris has begun to raise her public profile. She traveled to Monterey Park, California, after the mass shooting there, to Memphis where she met with the family of Tyre Nichols who was killed in police custody and to this year’s Munich Security Meeting where she gave a forceful speech accusing Russia of war crimes.

The two major portfolios Harris was handed early on — illegal immigration and voting rights — are seen as “losers,” issues that could not be solved and so doomed her to looking ineffectual. Perhaps her most influential role was casting 26 tie-breaking votes in the Senate when the chamber was evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans. That’s not exactly the kind of achievement to which the public pays a lot of attention. With Senate Democrats now holding a 51-49 majority, supporters say Harris will be freer to get out of Washington, raise her profile and, just maybe, quell those grumblings about her among restive Democratic officials and voters.