It’s been six months since the inauguration — so how is it going and how unified is the top team? Oliver Wiseman has a report card
Joe Biden and Kamala Harris have come a long way in the past two years. As rivals for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, they traded vicious blows in some of the most heated moments of that contest. She questioned his record on race relations, and he defended himself. But ever since they became running mates the two have worked in lock step, as you would expect from a President and his deputy.
Hopes were high for this administration — no wonder, after the last one — but six months in, as the honeymoon period ends, are cracks in America’s top team starting to show?
Even by the hectic standards of US politics, Biden and Harris inherited a full in-tray when they took office in January. From the vaccine roll-out and recovery from one of the deepest recessions in American history, to the aftermath of the attack on the US Capitol on January 6 and refreshing relations with allies after the Trump years, the President’s team has had its work cut out.
In these busy early months, Biden has been happy to delegate. In fact, hardly a month goes by without Harris’s portfolio of responsibilities expanding. And the policy areas where she has been asked to lead include some of the most contentious in US politics: immigration, changes to voting laws and police reform. According to YouGov, 50.3 per cent of Americans have a favourable opinion of the President, and 44.8 per cent have a positive opinion of his right-hand woman. The VP has loomed larger than most of her predecessors since Biden picked her as his running mate last summer. Part of the reason for that is symbolic. She represents a handful of historic firsts: the first female vice-president, the first non-white vice-president. The daughter of a Jamaican-born father and an Indian-born mother, she is also the highest ranking Asian-American politician in history.
But Biden, a former vice-president, has always made clear his determination to involve Harris closely in the business of his administration. Before becoming VP, she was California’s Attorney General and a senator. In an echo of how he and Barack Obama worked together, Biden has asked that Harris be “the last voice in the room” before big decisions. She is usually with him in the White House for the President’s Daily Brief and they have a private lunch together once a week; both conventions from the Obama years. “Maybe I don’t say no enough,” quipped Harris when asked about her long list of responsibilities in a recent interview.
Some in Washington wonder whether the Vice-President’s to-do list, plus her immersion in the inner details of the administration, means she’s bitten off more than she can chew. Others speculate that the tricky to-do list was designed by top Biden aides to undermine Harris should she become a rival again in 2024. Shirley Anne Warshaw, a professor at Gettysburg College and an expert on presidential and vice-presidential decision-making, is sceptical of that theory: “I think he wants her to succeed and he wants to build up her record. This is his legacy at stake if she doesn’t succeed.”
Mo Elleithee, a former adviser to Hillary Clinton who now runs the Institute for Politics and Policy at Georgetown University, also pours cold water on the charge of dirty tricks. “I don’t think this is Team Biden poking a finger in her eye,” he says. “I think it is him delivering on a promise that he was going to make her a full partner in the way that he was with President Obama.”
Regardless of Biden’s intentions, however, Harris is feeling the heat. Last month, even sympathetic observers had to acknowledge that her first foreign trip, a tour of Central American capitals, was rocky. The Vice-President let herself get bogged down in a row over whether or not she would visit the US-Mexico border, responding to questions with a flippancy that made things worse. Crossings are at a record high and even members of the Democratic party describe the situation as a crisis. When Harris finally went to the border last month, she was criticised for avoiding any of the so-called tent cities where the administration houses undocumented and unaccompanied children.
"Harris is feeling the heat. Her first foreign trip was rocky and she got caught up in a row over borders"
In recent weeks, allegations of a toxic work environment have further raised the temperature. A Politico article based on interviews with 22 current and former Harris aides and administration officials accused her of leading a dysfunctional and unhappy team. An unnamed source described Harris’s office as “a place where people feel treated like sh*t” and said that “people are thrown under the bus from the very top”. “We are not making rainbows and bunnies all day,” said Harris’s senior spokesperson Symone Sanders in response to the accusations. “What I hear is that people have hard jobs and I’m like ‘welcome to the club’.” Commentators have picked up on differences between Harris and Biden. Where Biden takes a stolid, low-key approach (“I know that’s a boring speech,” he said after remarks on the worthy subject of infrastructure), his less experienced deputy seems less assured in public appearances.
Elleithee also warns she is proving a more effective bogeyman for Republicans. “The Vice-President is still more of a blank slate to many voters, and so it’s easier for Republicans to try to turn her into a villain.” There’s some evidence to suggest it is working. According to YouGov’s poll, 38 per cent of Americans have a strongly negative opinion of Harris. Arguably, Harris’s historic firsts have also put pressure on her that has not been shouldered by other vice-presidents. Not to mention Biden’s advancing years, which only add to the attention Harris receives. Already the oldest president in American history, he would be 81 by the start of his second term. Some therefore wonder if he might step down in 2024, making Harris the frontrunner to succeed him.
Whatever Biden’s plans, the health of their relationship ultimately depends on the fortunes of the administration. It’s still early days and the duo have had some quick and important successes. Their vaccine rollout was admirably speedy. Congress passed their $1.9 trillion stimulus package within weeks of them taking office.
Still, progress has begun to stall. Infrastructure, the current legislative focus, has been the subject of protracted negotiations. With a Senate split 50-50 and a razor-thin Democratic majority in the House of Representatives, gridlock could soon become the norm. And given the high expectations set by Biden and Harris early on, they could be set for a fall. Things will get much more fraught if their legislative agenda hits the buffers, if the economic recovery falters, or if the Democrats lose control of either the House or the Senate in next year’s midterm elections.
“Remember, the only thing the White House staff care about is the President’s re-election,” says Warshaw. “If Harris starts to jeopardise that, they’ll get nervous. And if they get nervous they’ll start sniping at her and cutting her out of things.”
As for Harris, her political fate depends on Biden’s success. If the administration flounders, then her Vice-Presidency becomes more of a hindrance than a help when she runs for President in either 2024 or 2028 (there is no doubt that she plans to run). And so Harris has little choice than to remain loyal. “Her strategy is the right one,” says Elleithee. “She’s got to keep her head down and focus on being a good partner to the President.”