History-maker Kamala Harris will wield real power as vice-president

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Miranda Bryant in New York
·8 min read
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When Kamala Harris raises her right hand and takes the oath of office on Wednesday she will realize a multitude of historic firsts – becoming America’s first female, first Black and first south Asian American vice-president.

Exactly two weeks after a deadly attack on the Capitol by Donald Trump supporters, and a week after the president’s second impeachment, it will be a barrier-breaking moment for millions of women across the US and the world that it is hoped will signal a distinct shift away from the chaos and racist rhetoric of the previous administration.

Related: Can Kamala Harris as vice-president be both loyal deputy and heir apparent?

But for Harris, it will also be deeply personal. The California senator has said she will be thinking of her late mother Shyamala Gopalan Harris, an activist and breast cancer researcher who immigrated to the US from India in 1958, and children who were told by their parents: “You can do anything.”

“I feel a very big sense of responsibility … I will be the first, but I will not be the last,” she told ABC, echoing her mother’s words and those of her powerful victory speech.

Bakari Sellers, a friend and supporter, said it will be an “amazing moment” for Harris and her sister Maya, with whom she is very close and was the chairwoman of her presidential campaign, and that their mother “is going to be looking down on them both”.

“Personally it’s going to be an awesome feeling, and then she’ll have a sense of history because from a historical perspective there’s so many women who chipped away at that glass ceiling and now she has broken it. And I think that she will feel the weight of that history on her shoulders,” added Sellers, an attorney, commentator and author of My Vanishing Country.

But with the coronavirus pandemic still raging across the US, and amid heightened security fears following the attack on 6 January and the threat of unrest from far-right extremist groups, the inaugurationwill look very different from previous years.

There will be minimal in-person spectators at the inauguration, themed “America United”, and a virtual parade. Guests will include Vice-President Mike Pence (but not the president, who has said he won’t attend) and former presidents and first ladies Barack and Michelle Obama, Bill and Hillary Clinton and George W and Laura Bush.

Harris, 56, is expected to be sworn in just before Biden, 78, at around midday in a televised ceremony in front of the US Capitol that will include performances by Lady Gaga and Jennifer Lopez.

Together with her husband Doug Emhoff, who will become America’s first “second gentleman”, she will then take part in a pass in review, a tradition with members of the military, and attend a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington national cemetery with the new president and first lady, Dr Jill Biden.

She will also feature in an evening prime-time television special called Celebrating America.

It signals to the world that we are an interracial democracy

Manisha Sinha

Manisha Sinha, history professor at the University of Connecticut and author of The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition, said Harris’s vice-presidency has galvanised huge enthusiasm among Black women and the Indian American and Asian American communities and signifies “a new direction in American democracy”.

She added: “It’s also a symbol to the rest of the world that has been watching the United States in horror, just to have her and Biden take over is really important. It signals to the world that we are an interracial democracy and that certainly her election is a rejection of the kind of white supremacist politics that Trump brought back into vogue.”

But, she warned, the whole country is not behind America’s increasingly diverse political landscape, demonstrated by a “tremendous racist backlash”.

“There is a strong unregenerate minority in this country that is willing to overthrow democracy in the United States rather than accept the election of people like Barack Obama and Kamala Harris to the presidency and vice-presidency of the United States.”

Harris’s role will be far more than symbolic. Unusually for a vice-president whose official role is largely ceremonial, she will wield considerable power.

Biden has vowed that Harris will be the “last person in the room” making important decisions, modelled on his relationship as vice-president with Obama, and has asked the vice-president-elect to bring her “lived experience” to every issue. Harris has said she wants to be a “full partner”.

But in addition to her White House duties, following the Democrats’ two recent Senate victories in Georgia, Harris will also play a high-profile role in passing legislation on Capitol Hill.

Kamala Harris heads into the Senate chamber for a procedural vote in December. The Senate may continue to occupy her time as vice-president.
Kamala Harris heads into the Senate chamber for a procedural vote in December. The Senate may continue to occupy her time as vice-president. Photograph: J Scott Applewhite/AP

Despite their constitutional duty as president of the Senate, vice-presidents are only allowed to vote to break a tie. But with the balance of power evenly split 50-50 with Republicans, it is likely that Harris will be required to spend more time than perhaps she imagined with her former Senate colleagues.

The last two times that the Senate had a 50-50 split was for six months in 2001, under the vice-presidency of Dick Cheney, and in 1954. Harris is likely to be in this position for at least two years.

Jennifer Lawless, a politics professor at the University of Virginia, said Harris’s pivotal role in the Senate will mean she “is going to be cast in a very different light than previous vice-presidents” and will make her crucial in terms of putting forward a legislative agenda.

“Now that doesn’t mean that she’s not going to weigh in on important policy decisions or try to be a broad adviser to Joe Biden, [but] at least for that first 100 days, she’s pivotal to ensuring that any piece of tied legislation gets passed because that’s how Joe Biden’s going to build a legislative record.”

In a lot of ways, she’s basically just taking on an additional job – she’s going to be a senator plus vice-president

Jennifer Lawless

She added: “I can’t remember another time, and in contemporary history there isn’t one, where the vice-president is basically the person determining whether legislation gets to the president’s desk.”

The extent to which her Senate responsibilities will shape her vice-presidency will depend on what happens in the 2022 midterms, said Lawless. But she believes it could constrain her ability to work across party lines as well as other responsibilities and potential to travel.

“In a lot of ways, she’s basically just taking on an additional job – she’s going to be a senator plus vice-president … that’s sort of poetic in that women have been doing three times as much work as men forever,” said Lawless.

Harris allies insist nothing has changed in her approach to the vice-presidency in which she will be a “governing partner” to Biden.

A source familiar with the situation said: “If she needs to be there [the Senate] for anything, she will, but the president-elect won because people want the gridlock in Washington to end. Our goal is to work across the aisle to get things done.”

Joe Biden has said he plans to model his relationship with his vice-president on his with Barack Obama.
Joe Biden has said he plans to model his relationship with his vice-president on his with Barack Obama. Photograph: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Despite an impeachment trial, expected to take place in the Senate in the early days of the new administration, Harris has said they will be “hitting the ground running” on their first day of office, starting with a $1.9tn rescue package to address the pandemic and the economic crisis. Their other top priorities, the source said, will be racial justice and climate change. “She is approaching this as a partner to him and they have to address those together.”

The pair are said to have a “wonderful dynamic” and are in constant contact. Their spouses are also said to have a good relationship and are well acquainted after travelling extensively together on the campaign trail.

She’s thoughtful, she is deliberate, she is strategic, she thinks more than one step ahead

Dan Morain

Dan Morain, a California-based journalist and author of biography Kamala’s Way: An American Life, said she is an “incredibly talented politician”.

“She’s thoughtful, she is deliberate, she is strategic, she thinks more than one step ahead, she thinks many steps ahead.”

In California, where Harris was district attorney and attorney general before being elected to the Senate in 2016, Morain said she was known for being “tough and demanding” but also “incredibly charming and charismatic”. He believes there is little doubt that Harris, who ran against Biden in the 2020 presidential election, will run again for president in the future.

Lateefah Simon, a civil rights activist who worked for Harris in San Francisco and considers her a mentor, cannot wait to see the vice-president-elect – who she refers to as the MVP (Madam Vice-President) – in the White House.

“Kamala shifts that conversation, not only for little Black girls, but for all women who believe that they have to wait their turn,” she said. “Kamala showed us that there’s no turns – if you’re right for the job, you work hard, and you take it.”

Additional reporting by Lauren Gambino