Kamala Harris’ difficult balancing act: Between supporting Biden and establishing herself as an alternative

After three and a half bumpy years in office, the vice president is today the most likely option to replace the Democratic candidate if he drops out of the race. Some polls indicate that she is better positioned to beat Trump

Kamala Harris
U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris discusses reproductive rights on the second anniversary of Roe v. Wade being overturned, in Phoenix, Arizona, U.S. June 24, 2024.Rebecca Noble (REUTERS)
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Bidenologist is the hottest new profession in Washington. Like the observers who, during the Cold War, analyzed every sign coming out of Moscow for clues about the Kremlin, Bidenologists have been closely following Biden since his disastrous debate against Donald Trump on June 27, trying to decipher if the U.S. president is more confused than before, if he is having more trouble finishing his sentences, if he is responding slower than usual or if he is being overly protected by the people around him. There does not seem to be enough information to draw conclusions about the physical and mental capabilities of an 81-year-old man, who is convinced — despite signs to the contrary — that he can win the U.S. presidential elections in November.

A good Bidenologist also knows that it’s important to keep their eyes on Vice President Kamala Harris. If Biden decides to drop out of the race (something that, he said on Friday, only the “Lord Almighty” could convince him to do), Harris seems like the most likely and safe option to replace him, given that she already has the public support of leading members of the Democratic Party. And if Biden does not throw in the towel and is elected for another four long years, it is increasingly possible that Harris will have to step forward in the event that the president’s health worsens.

Harris has slightly higher approval ratings than Biden (although the difference is almost imperceptible and in both cases, the figure is below 40%), and some of the many voter intention surveys that have been engaging (and confusing) journalists, analysts and voters put her in a better position to beat Trump.

So, after three and a half years in one of the most thankless positions in American politics, the first woman and first Black person to hold the vice presidency finds herself facing a difficult balancing act. If she is eager to take a step forward, she must not make it look too obvious, and any gesture she makes inevitably ends up being overanalyzed, as happened on Thursday, during the White House’s Independence Day celebrations on July 4.

In a brief speech, Harris praised Biden and then, after watching the fireworks from one of the balconies of the White House, she gave him a hug that was widely analyzed from below by those attending the event. Was it a forced display of affection?

Kamala Harris hugs Joe Biden on July 4 at the White House.
Kamala Harris hugs Joe Biden on July 4 at the White House.Elizabeth Frantz (REUTERS)

Before the spotlight was pointed at her again, Harris, 59, had already been gaining weight in the Biden administration. She had been starting to turn a corner after the setbacks of the first stage of her vice presidency, in which resignations in her team dominated the headlines; there was talk that she was out of sync with Biden; and Washington often spoke of its disappointment with this daughter of an Indian woman and a Jamaican man, who came to the city to make history. In the first half of the Biden administration, Harris was tasked with dealing with the relationship with Mexico and Central America, as well as the southern border, a poisoned chalice. Her prospects improved when, after the Supreme Court decision that overturned Roe v. Wade in 2022, she took the reins of the fight for the right to abortion, a key electoral issue.

That commitment was highlighted in the spring of 2023 when Biden and Harris announced that they were running again for the White House. In the afternoon following the announcement, Harris gave a rousing speech at a pro-abortion event at Howard University, a historic Black educational center in Washington known as “The Mecca.” In those classrooms, the vice president studied law before embarking on a brilliant career in California that led her to be attorney general and senator in Sacramento.

A difficult position

This was followed by Harris’ leap into national politics, her disappointing performance in the 2020 Democratic primaries, and her being chosen as Biden’s running mate in a bid to attract younger and more diverse voters. But after the exciting promise of what the two could achieve together and the prospect that Biden was only to serve as a “bridge” for a new generation, came the disappointments of the vice presidency, a double-edged sword.

From left, Jill and Joe Biden, Kamala Harris and her husband, Doug Emhoff, at the Democratic Convention where Biden and Harris were named the candidates for the 2020 election.
From left, Jill and Joe Biden, Kamala Harris and her husband, Doug Emhoff, at the Democratic Convention where Biden and Harris were named the candidates for the 2020 election.Andrew Harnik (AP)

On the one hand, the vice presidency has been, for half a century, the most reliable source of U.S. presidents. On the other hand, it is an almost impossible position to perform, so much so that Benjamin Franklin proposed calling VPs “your superfluous excellence.” It is not a good idea to stand out too much, nor to contradict the president and, in the worst case, if that president is Donald Trump you could end up like Mike Pence, with a mob demanding that you be hanged during the assault on the Capitol.

Due to the peculiarities of Biden, the oldest president in history, Harris faced the added difficulty of convincing the world she was a capable substitute while observing all those rules. Now that this is becoming more likely, her collaborators point out that her attitude has changed, a move that they say took place months before the debate, around the time when special counsel Robert Hur called Biden an “elderly man with a poor memory” in his report on Biden’s handling of confidential papers that he kept from his years as Obama’s vice president. It was necessary to “strengthen the ticket,” say those advisors.

Proof of this new role and her desire to get out of the Washington bubble — a bubble that in her case includes an official residence, a colonial house on the grounds of the Naval Observatory, northwest of the city — is the fact that Harris has undertaken about 60 trips this year, according to calculations by The New York Times. For the past week, this newspaper has been working on a single mission: forcing Biden’s to drop out of the race (and perhaps promoting Harris as his replacement).

Amid the debate about Biden’s fitness to run again for office, Harris has repeated that she has no intention of replacing him — “I’m just Biden’s running mate,” she insisted on Tuesday. But according to Axios, the Trump campaign — which has largely watched in silence as its rival falls apart — is preparing an attack plan against Harris, who they consider a more difficult candidate to beat. That plan consists of discrediting her and presenting her as too liberal, inexperienced and weak to assume the presidency. And when it comes to Trump, these attacks are expected to personal and loaded with misogyny.

Meanwhile, Harris has seen a surge of support on social media, with memes celebrating her more eccentric comments, which can sometimes resemble the Dada philosophy of baseball player Yogi Berra. Under the hashtag #KHive (in the style of Beyoncé's Beyhive), social media users have claimed the vice president has been underestimated, with one of the most popular posts highlighting her curious statement about a coconut tree.

Harris made the comment at a White House event aimed at promoting opportunities for the Hispanic community. “My mother used to give us a hard time sometimes, and she would say to us, ‘I don’t know what’s wrong with you young people. You think you just fell out of a coconut tree?’” she said, laughing. “You exist in the context of all in which you live and what came before you.”

Needless to say, Bidenologists have been mulling over the quote for days, trying to understand not only its meaning, but above all what impact it will have in the context of the United States — with a president in free fall —, and how it will affect the future of the country and the future of Kamala Harris. Which, given everything that preceded her, is perhaps the same thing.

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