Kamala Harris in the Oval Office. Kamala Harris protesting with her husband, Doug Emhoff. Kamala Harris taking a selfie with a supporter. Kamala Harris walking with Joe Biden down the arched hallway leading to the West Wing, before embracing his wife, Jill Biden.
The vice president is a recurring presence in the three-minute video announcing President Biden’s 2024 reelection bid. Harris was Biden’s running mate in 2020, and as the first woman, first African-American and first person of South Asian heritage to run for the vice presidency, she was instrumental to his victory over Donald Trump. Harris will be Biden’s running mate again in the 2024 election, but it’s unclear whether this time, she will have as much of an impact. Or if she will have any positive effect at all. The prevailing idea in Washington is that after two years and three months in office, she has failed to find her footing.
Perhaps for that reason, Harris ended Tuesday — which began with the announcement of her second run for the vice presidency — on friendly territory: Howard University in Washington. The historic educational center, known as “The Mecca,” is considered a temple of African-American teaching excellence in the United States. It’s also Harris’ alma mater.
On Tuesday, Harris spoke at Howard University at an event in defense of women’s reproductive freedom, organized by various associations, including Planned Parenthood. She used the opportunity to speak in front of a young, Black audience to launch her first rally of the campaign, attacking “extremist so-called leaders” in the Republican Party for trying to limit the right to abortion, which is in the hands of the states after the Supreme Court overturned Roe vs Wade. “The true sign of a leader, the measure of a leader, is not based on who you beat down and belittle,” said Harris. “It is based and measured on who you lift up.”
In the United States, the incumbent president traditionally runs for reelection, and does so on the same ticket. But in Biden’s case, a second White House run was less certain given the concerns about his age: if he wins the 2024 election, he will be 82 when he is sworn in as president. During the 2020 campaign, Biden — who is now calling on voters to let him “finish the job” — called himself a “bridge” with a mission: to restore normalcy in the United States after four years of Trump and pave the way for future Democratic leaders.
And in the months that followed the January 6, 2021 assault on the Capitol — one of the lowest moments of U.S. democracy — Harris, 58, seemed like the most logical choice to pass the baton on to.
But not many think that way today. With an approval rating of just 40%, according to FiveThirtyEight, Harris has fallen victim to both the hype surrounding her leap into national politics and the challenges of the vice presidency, one of the most difficult positions in U.S. politics.
A vice president’s duties can seem purely superficial to those outside the inner halls of the White House, that is, unless they take over because the president resigns (Gerald Ford), is assassinated (Lyndon Johnson) or gives them a much-awaited moment of power (from Bush Sr. to Biden, the second in command sometimes gets the opportunity to occupy the Oval Office). It’s not a new idea: it’s as old as Benjamin Franklin, who joked that a vice president should be addressed as “Your Superfluous Excellency.”
Given the limitations of the office, Harris has done little in the past two years but show that she is loyal to Biden. But if the president had decided not to run for reelection, all eyes would have turned to her. But in private conversations, both analysts and members of the Democratic Party expressed doubts about whether she would make a good candidate, citing two main reasons. Firstly, there were concerns that a Black and South Asian woman would have difficulty winning over the key voters in the deep south, given today’s highly polarized society. And secondly, there were concerns about her performance as vice president.
“Given what is at stake,” wrote Thomas L. Friedman, a columnist for The New York Times, on Tuesday in reference to the risk of another Trump presidency, “Biden needs to make the case to his party — and, more important, to independents and moderate Republicans — why Harris is the best choice to succeed him, should he not be able to complete his term. He cannot ignore this issue, because that question will be on the minds of many voters come election time.” Friedman also cited three possible reasons for Harris’s low approval rating: it may be that she has been forced to deal with unsolvable issues, that she is continually looked down on, or that she is the victim of a mix of sexism and racism.
This “impossible set of issues” includes international relations and social problems such as minority voting rights, police brutality and gun control. But it is foreign policy that has caused Harris the most headaches. Her first international trip as vice president — a visit to Guatemala and Mexico — was also her first major gaffe. In a message addressed to would-be migrants, who dream of leaving misery and hardship behind for a new life in the U.S., Harris said: “Do not come. Do not come. The United States will continue to enforce our laws and secure our borders.”
Harris also faced another hurdle when she said in a TV interview that the border was secure, prompting Texas Governor Greg Abbott to start sending buses full of migrants to her residence in Washington.
Harris has had better luck on social issues, especially the right to abortion. At Tuesday’s event at Howard University, Mini Timmaraju, the president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, expressed her support for the vice president’s efforts. “Reproductive freedom is under attack, and we can’t back down from this fight,” said Timmaraju. “Today, Vice President Harris affirmed again that the Biden-Harris administration will always defend our fundamental freedoms.”
Speaking at Howard University, Harris linked the attacks on reproductive freedom to the suppression of minority voters, book bans and persecution of LGBTQ+ rights. All this, she said, was part of the Republican Party’s “national agenda.” She claimed this agenda went beyond Florida and North Dakota, where Republican governors have introduced a six-week limit on abortion, which amounts to a total ban.
The vice president remembered how she had entered Howard University as a college freshman, and said she could not have imagined that decades later she would be back there to defend rights that were previously unquestioned.
In the audience, students Kayla Finley and Taniyah Smith said they were willing to give “four more years.” “I’m not going to say she hasn’t let me down,” Finley admitted, “But I think he deserves another chance.” They will be the voters who decide whether or not she gets one.
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