Why Kamala Harris is suddenly under the microscope

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“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

After spending last week on a diplomatic trip to France, Vice President Kamala Harris returned home to a series of news reports that painted a worrying picture of her role in President Biden’s administration and raised questions about her potential to lead the Democratic Party in the future.

On Sunday, CNN published a story in which dozens of unnamed officials described an air of “exasperation and dysfunction” about the vice president’s job performance, along with accusations that she is being “sidelined” by the president. That same day, a report from Politico suggested she isn’t “scaring off” any prospective challengers for the Democratic nomination should Biden choose not to run for reelection. All this comes a week after the release of a poll showing Harris’s approval rating at just 28 percent. That poll was an outlier — others show her approval hovering around 40 percent — but she still consistently rates lower than Biden, who has seen his own popularity dip recently.

All vice presidents are important, but Biden’s choice of Harris as his running mate was especially significant. She’s the first woman and first person of color to hold the position. She’s also serving under the oldest president in history, who in the past has referred to himself as a “transition candidate,” making questions about who might succeed him particularly pointed.

As vice president, Harris has been tasked with taking the lead on two key issues for the administration: immigration and voting rights. She has also made some high-profile foreign trips, including her recent visit to France to help heal a diplomatic rift with one of America’s key allies. Harris pushed back on the perception that she’s being “underused” in the administration during an interview Thursday. “We’re getting things done, and we’re doing it together,” she said. White House chief of staff Ron Klain and press secretary Jen Psaki have made similar statements in recent days.

Why there’s debate

The slate of negative news about the vice president has sparked a variety of explanations for why she hasn’t broken through with the public or, at least according to reports, in the administration itself.

In the eyes of her critics, Harris mostly has herself to blame. They say she has failed to make a meaningful impact on the issues she’s been assigned. Her fiercest detractors, many of them conservatives, say she lacks the charisma, experience and political talent she needs to raise her own profile.

Others blame Biden for not putting Harris in a position to succeed. They say making Harris the point person on an issue as difficult and politically fraught as immigration doomed her to be the target of intense critiques from both ends of the political spectrum. Others also say he hasn’t done nearly enough to put her at the center of his most successful initiatives, like COVID-19 response and the infrastructure bill.

Harris’s defenders argue that she was always going to face heightened scrutiny because of her race, gender and position as Biden’s presumptive successor. They say all vice presidents struggle to distinguish themselves in what is an inherently thankless role, and the perception that Harris is underperforming is largely due to unfair expectations no one could have lived up to.

What’s next

Biden has said he plans to run for president again in 2024, but ongoing speculation that he might change his mind likely means Harris’s every move will be under the microscope for the foreseeable future.


Harris is still the frontrunner to lead the Democratic Party after Biden

“Despite her rough start, Harris is potentially a very strong candidate. Her progressive record in the US Senate is tempered by her years as a prosecutor. She has an impressive personal story and resume. And Harris has a natural base — African American women — without whom the Democratic Party has no chance of winning anything.” — Lincoln Mitchell, CNN

Vice presidents always get pushed into the background

“Part of the answer is simple: What happened to Harris is she became vice president. Even as she shoulders an array of policy portfolios, even as she visits Paris this week seeking to address the administration’s ruptured relations with France, it remains a fact that the No. 2 job in the White House is inherently a diminishing one.” — Mark Z. Barabak, Boston Herald

Harris faces unrealistic expectations for what a vice president can be

“Harris is behaving like a conventional modern vice president — meeting regularly with Biden and otherwise selling his agenda. The early notion that some on the left and right had — that she would have an outsized role — is not bearing out.” — Noah Bierman, Los Angeles Times

Harris was never popular in the first place

“Harris has been dubbed a 2020 presidential candidate. But that’s a misnomer, because she never even got to 2020 as a candidate. Never got to Iowa or New Hampshire. She was polling lower than even Andrew Yang in her home state of California in December 2019, prompting her to drop out while seeming to blame Democratic voters for misogyny and racism.” — Joe Concha, The Hill

Biden’s performance will always be the top factor in how the public sees Harris

“This administration is going to rise and fall on the decisions that Joe Biden makes. And so Kamala Harris can’t be the scapegoat every time Joe Biden has a bad day.” — Andra Gillespie, political scientist, to USA Today

Biden hasn’t created enough space for Harris to establish herself

“Previous presidents quashed shows of independence from their vice presidents, but Biden and his West Wing staff have the power to change that practice. If Biden genuinely believes that the fight against Trumpism is a battle for the soul of America, he will have to find a way to bolster his likeliest successor despite any short-term political cost, granting her the freedom to define her own profile.” — Peter Nicholas, Atlantic

There’s no clarity to Harris’s position and her vision for the country

“Harris’s presidential campaign ran into trouble in part because of flip-flopping on big issues. ... Flip-flopping on issues is ultimately a reflection of a political leader who isn’t entirely certain what he or she wants. Aspiring political leaders want to accomplish big and consequential things and to be remembered as bold and willing to make the difficult but correct choices. Aspiring political leaders also want to be popular.” — Jim Geraghty, National Review

Race and gender bias are absolutely a factor in the criticism Harris faces

“Is it possible that misogyny and racism have something to do with the way VP Harris is perceived and covered? Of course it is.” — Eugene Robinson, Washington Post

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Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images, Drew Angerer/Getty Images