On Sunday, after Vice President Kamala Harris’s visit to the southern border, the White House felt the need to issue a statement calling her trip a “success.” The statement cited as supporting evidence five tweets by Democratic allies of hers and some neutral media accounts. That’s a relatively modest definition of success, but then again, there were no defensive moments like during the NBC News interview in Guatemala in which she called a border visit a “grand gesture” and noted that she hadn’t visited Europe as vice president, either.
Addressing the root causes of migration is one of several jobs President Biden has handed Ms. Harris, who had no deep expertise with Latin America issues or the decades-long quandary of federal immigration reform. He has also asked her to lead the administration’s voting-rights efforts, which are in a filibuster limbo. According to The Times, he has her working on combating vaccine hesitancy and fighting for policing reform, too, among other uphill battles.
It’s gotten to the point that every time I see Ms. Harris, I immediately think of “The Wiz” and hear Michael Jackson singing:
You can’t win, you can’t break even
And you can’t get out of the game
People keep sayin’ things are gonna change
But they look just like they’re stayin’ the same
Ms. Harris, at this point, can’t seem to win for trying. She is a historic yet inexperienced vice president who is taking on work that can easily backfire as so many people sit in judgment, with critics sniping (especially right-wing commentators) and allies spinning (like with official statements about “success”).
And all the while, the clock is ticking. Most political observers think that if Mr. Biden decides not to run for re-election in 2024 (when he will be 81), Ms. Harris most definitely will. He had to know that in choosing her as his vice president, he was making her his heir apparent. But based on how things look now, her work as his No. 2 could end up being baggage more than a boon. Mr. Biden and his team aren’t giving her chances to get some wins and more experience on her ledger. Rather, it’s the hardest of the hard stuff.
Ms. Harris is a complicated figure. She is not a progressive darling — never has been. As with Barack Obama, the only thing radical about her is her skin color and gender in the Oval Office. On a more substantive level, how Ms. Harris deals with her portfolio will surely alienate the left and centrist factions of the Democratic Party. She was far from a diversity hire for Mr. Biden, and she has clear potential as a national leader, but she needs the time, support and right combination of goals to learn and grow. She needs a mix of tough targets and ones that show her ideas and creativity, as Al Gore had with his Reinventing Government effort, rather than a portfolio consisting of the most difficult policy challenges in 21st-century America.
The way things are going, if Mr. Biden decides not to run again in 2024, countless male Democratic senators and governors would challenge Ms. Harris for the nomination. On one level, there are far too many male leaders who wake up each morning, brush their teeth, look in the mirror and say, “I can do this job I am wholly unqualified for. Let’s go!” But there are also other reasons she would face competition — ones we aren’t talking about.
This country has yet to have an honest conversation and reflection on the ways in which race and gender play out in electoral politics. There are voters who look at Ms. Harris and immediately believe she is unqualified for the job because of her gender, her immigrant parents and the color of her skin. Republicans tend to say the quiet part loud, but if we are being honest, far too many Democrats would never be able to vote for a Black woman at the top of the ticket, no matter how qualified.
Many white liberals like racial and gender equality in theory but get a little gun shy when asked to make room at the table for others on a long list of issues — school integration, housing, homelessness, incarceration, policing and executive leadership among them. And for those of you scoffing, ask yourself why you can list almost every major and minor flaw of Hillary Clinton, Kirsten Gillibrand, Elizabeth Warren, Maxine Waters and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, to name just a few. Many liberals struggle with issues of gender and race in practice; they may not admit to having a problem with Ms. Harris per se, but many still expect her to conform to certain standards and judge her harshly when she struggles on issues that are difficult to begin with.
Many voters do not see women of color, and Black women specifically, as capable of executive leadership, as evidenced by the lack of any Black female governors in the history of the United States. We must also wrestle with the fact that there have been only two Black female U.S. senators in history. Therefore, for Mr. Biden to select an African American woman from the traditional pool of acceptable vice-presidential candidates of senators and governors, he had an N of one. As brilliant as Stacey Abrams has proved herself to be, the political imagination in this country has yet to evolve to the point that many voters would support a selection of a brilliant politician and policy expert whose highest elected office was minority leader of the Georgia House.
No one has been able to solve the complicated issue of immigration and undocumented immigrants coming to the U.S. border, yet Ms. Harris is charged with solving it. As the child of not one but two immigrants and the No. 2 leader of an imperial nation, she is the one charged with telling people in Guatemala “do not come” to the United States. She undertakes tasks at the pleasure of the president, but this particular role reminds me of Admiral Ackbar’s declaration in “Return of the Jedi”: “It’s a trap!” If she is somehow miraculously able to detangle the complex “immigration crisis,” she will be heralded by some, but not all, as a success and worthy of the Democratic nomination in 2024. If she becomes only the latest leader (in either party) who cannot solve the problem, she specifically will be viewed as a failure.
The role of the vice president has always been undefined, left largely up to the president to shape. Ms. Harris is clearly not a yes man like Mike Pence, the one completely running the show like Dick Cheney or an institutional encyclopedia and counsel the way Mr. Biden was to Mr. Obama.
Ms. Harris’s political aspirations clearly extend beyond the vice presidency, but the way the Biden team seems to be playing out the old Life cereal commercial here — “Let’s get Mikey” — makes her political future uncertain. There will be no shortage of Democratic colleagues gunning for her, not to mention Republican politicians and the right-wing media that together revel in misinformation and caricature. I can imagine a scenario in which she is the face that launches a thousand ships but all of those ships will be fighting against her, not for her.
Until then, Ms. Harris will do what any faithful vice president does: put her head down, let the president shine and work on her vast portfolio with the staff she has. Hopefully for her, those lyrics from “The Wiz” won’t ring true.
Christina Greer is a political scientist at Fordham University. She is political editor at TheGrio and a co-host of the podcast “What’s in It for Us?”
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