Low approval ratings and the rumor mill in the great political circus that is Washington DC are chipping away at the figure of Kamala Harris, who almost a year ago made history not only by becoming the first woman to hold the office of vice-president of the United States, but also in being the first Black person to do so. Judging by the polls, the government’s attrition has taken a heavier toll on Harris than it has on President Joe Biden. Around the Capitol, a gloomy narrative has taken hold; there has been a raft of news stories talking about frustration among Harris’ team at her lack of prominence over the last few months. Her chief spokesperson, Symone Sanders, announced last week she will be leaving the administration and Harris’ communications director, Ashley Etienne, resigned on November 18 in the wake of a devastating CNN report that forced the vice-president to deny any rift with Biden.
The vice-presidency of the United States is a very peculiar position. The holder is one rung away from the most powerful office in the world and yet, except in the event of a fatality, its functions have a merely cosmetic appearance even though the VP is the person who the president leans on the most, as Biden said of his tenure as Barack Obama’s number two. Benjamin Franklin once proposed bestowing the title of “his superfluous excellency” on the holder of the vice-presidency. Nelson Rockefeller, who performed the role under Gerald Ford (1974-1977), summed up his employment thus: “I go to funerals, I go to earthquakes.” Thomas Marshall, Woodrow Wilson’s vice-president from 1913 to 1921, likened the post to “a man in a cataleptic fit; he cannot speak; he cannot move; he suffers no pain; he is perfectly conscious of all that goes on, but has no part in it.”
However, everything takes on a different aspect when the person under the microscope is someone who has generated so much expectation. Harris, in addition to breaking one of the most inaccessible glass ceilings, works for a man who is 79 years old, which from practically the day of his inauguration has led to speculation over Biden’s replacement as Democratic candidate for the 2024 presidential elections, even if the president has insisted on several occasions that he will run again in a stance designed to quell talk on the subject and lend the current administration greater stability.
Vice-presidents have always been natural candidates for the presidency – Biden himself, George H. W. Bush and Richard Nixon all occupied the position before ascending to the Oval Office – but many doubts arise over Harris’ ability to win a presidential election.
Biden has entrusted his number two with the thorniest of issues, migratory pressure on the southern border of the US, a matter where there is everything to lose and damage control is the only political victory to be gained
The weighting of national opinion polls carried out by Real Clear Politics sets Harris’ percentage of support at 40%, two points fewer than Biden (42%), while The Los Angeles Times, which provides the most detailed analysis as Harris is from California, points out that her numbers are weaker than Biden’s when he was vice president, lower than Al Gore’s (vice-president under Bill Clinton) and even below Dick Cheney, George W. Bush’s number two.
Although it is not the only one, sexism is a major factor that helps to explain Harris’ low ratings. Among men, her approval rating is 18 points lower than among women. The vice-president is a constant target for sexist attacks not only on social media, but also by conservative broadcasters. Newsmax TV host Grant Stinchfield ran a segment featuring videos of Harris laughing and likened her to the “Wicked Witch of the West.” Furthermore, messages suggesting her political rise has been based on past romances have proliferated since the election.
Patti Solis Doyle, a political strategist who led Hillary Clinton’s campaign in 2008, underlines the double standards women in politics face, and how the simple fact of aspiring to a position of power erodes their public image. “Before announcing her candidacy, when she was still Secretary of State, Clinton’s support base stood at around 70%. Then she took the step and that plummeted.” Also working against Harris, says Doyle, is the lack of time she has had to define her role. “When Al Gore was vice-president, it took several years before he was identified with the climate battle; Biden became Obama’s closest confidant and Mike Pence [Donald Trump’s VP] ended up becoming a kind of pandemic czar, but that was towards the end.”
Asked whether there is a racial or gender element to Harris’ low approval ratings, Larry Sabato, founder and director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, replies: “Is the Pope from Argentina?” Sabato, one of the foremost political analysts in the United States, notes that those who are pioneers in a field, who break a glass ceiling, “carry the special burden of having to prove that they are ‘fit’ for office, which is completely unfair, but is there anything in politics that is fair?” Sabato adds that the vice-president has been “assigned very difficult tasks, such as immigration, and there is nothing to be won with that issue. Every side will find something to criticize in her every move.”
In effect, Biden has entrusted his number two with the thorniest of issues, migratory pressure on the southern border of the US, a matter where there is everything to lose and damage control is the only political victory to be gained. In her first international trip as vice-president last June, Harris visited Guatemala and Mexico, where she was handed the task of telling Central American migrants attempting to flee misery for a new life in the US: “Do not come.” Three words that guaranteed a flood of criticism from progressive voters.
Any indication of the border policy being loosened, on the other hand, becomes ammunition for the Republicans to accuse the Democratic administration of opening the US to all newcomers, even though Biden has retained some of the most restrictive policies of the Trump administration. Migratory flow to the US has been at record-high levels since Biden assumed office, with 1.7 million would-be migrants detained since September 2020, the highest number ever registered.
Harris is also affected by an obvious carry-over effect from the president’s low poll ratings, something that has habitually occurred in every administration. Historian Julian Zelizer, a professor of political history and public affairs at Princeton University, notes that Harris “has not been particularly visible in recent months and, at a moment when approval ratings for the president are falling, it stands to reason that the vice-president, who tends not to be recognized for any achievements, ends up worse off.”