Column: Why you shouldn't underestimate Kamala Harris in all the speculation about a post-Biden 2024

Vice President Kamala Harris speaks during a meeting with state legislative leaders.
Vice President Kamala Harris, shown in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on July 8, enjoys advantages over other possible contenders for a post-Biden Democratic Party. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)
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As Democrats despair over President Biden’s unpopularity and cast about for an alternative, many overlook the obvious front-runner to succeed him as party leader:

Vice President Kamala Harris.

Biden, of course, has said he fully plans to seek reelection in 2024, with Harris as his running mate.

But that hasn’t stopped rampant speculation about the leadership and direction of a post-Biden Democratic Party, and how soon it takes shape.

Some Democrats have turned from musing to open mutiny, urging the septuagenarian president to stand aside for the perceived good of his party, as well as the country, and make way for someone younger and more vigorous.

Some of that may be ageism. (Though, at age 79, Biden has clearly lost a few steps.) Most of the chatter stems from panic among Democrats fearing a ghastly November and worried that worse could come if Biden tops the ticket again in 2024.

Hence, the breathlessness surrounding a notional Gavin Newsom run for president and the bruiting about of other possible Biden replacements: Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand and Elizabeth Warren, former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, and on.

Clearly, the thinking goes, if Biden were to withdraw, the 2024 nomination would not be Harris’ for the asking, never mind her role as the president’s understudy. She is no heir apparent.

Which, despite Harris’ own slew of problems, shouldn’t necessarily be taken as a personal reflection on the vice president.

“Of course it’s not going to be given to her,” said Cornell Belcher, a Democratic pollster who made clear his belief that Biden should and would seek election to a second term. “It never is.”

Harris’ 2020 presidential bid ended in a heap of smoke and ash, and she’s been working to politically rehabilitate herself ever since.

The results have been decidedly mixed.

She acquitted herself well as Biden's running mate, doing her duty attacking President Trump and holding her own in the debate with Vice President Mike Pence. Her time in office, though, has been much rockier.

Some of that has nothing to do with Harris and everything to do with the vice presidency. The job is inherently subservient, which tends to diminish those in the post — even a history-making figure like Harris. If anything, her role as the first female and first woman of color to hold the position has increased the gap between reality and expectation.

But many of Harris’ difficulties have been her own doing, including stumbling TV interviews, persistent staff turnover and a penchant for verbal calamity when speaking off-script. (Clips labeled "Kamala Harris word salad" have been viewed nearly 27 million times on TikTok.)

The result is a dismal approval rating that nearly matches Biden’s poor standing and an eagerness among some Democrats to write off both Harris and the president and start fresh in 2024.

That thinking, however, diminishes her political prospects and ignores advantages Harris enjoys over other possible contenders.

The office of vice president might shrink its occupants in the public eye. But behind the scenes it offers a formidable platform to build a national campaign. (In recent decades, Biden, Al Gore, George H.W. Bush and Walter Mondale held the office before winning their party's nomination.)

Harris, who publicly shuns overt political activity, has nevertheless made moves that could serve her well, speaking at a major Democratic Party dinner in early-voting South Carolina and, as the administration point person on abortion rights, meeting state lawmakers and Democrats across the country.

Last weekend she was in Pennsylvania, appearing on behalf of gubernatorial hopeful Josh Shapiro and rallying activists in a major battleground state.

It also helps a great deal that Harris is a pioneering Black woman in a party whose most loyal constituents are Black voters. Their support for Harris remains strong.

In a Fox News poll released last month, the vice president's overall approval rating was 41%. Among Black respondents, it was 73%.

In a recent nationwide survey of Black women, Belcher put the question differently, asking how warmly they felt toward Harris. She rated a quite favorable 71 on a scale of 100.

"Until Gavin and Pete and Kirsten and Liz show they can win Black voters, Kamala Harris is the front-runner," said Bakari Sellers, a former South Carolina lawmaker who co-chaired Harris' presidential campaign and remains a friend and confidant. "That's just pure objective analysis."

South Carolina has been crucial in deciding the Democratic nomination ever since it moved its primary forward in 2008.

The state's most powerful Democrat, Rep. James E. Clyburn, was vital to Biden's success in 2020, rescuing his flailing campaign with a timely endorsement, and he's made his 2024 preference known.

"Right now, I'm for Biden, and second I'm for Harris," he told the Wall Street Journal.

"So I don't care who goes to New Hampshire or Iowa," Clyburn said of two other traditionally early-voting states. "I'm for Biden and then I'm for Harris — either together or in that order."

All the political handicapping will be moot if Biden runs again.

If he doesn't, and Harris bids to succeed him, she'll have to run a better and smarter campaign than the last one, which sunk in a mire of mixed messaging and internal squabbles. Her ability to do so is by no means certain.

But any Democrat who thinks the vice president is a nonfactor or would be an easy pushover in a fight for the nomination risks failing as badly as Harris did in 2020.

Today's head-to-head polls are meaningless. In the fight to succeed Biden, his vice president remains the one to beat.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.