The Excellence of Kamala Harris Is Hiding in Plain Sight
Vice President Kamala Harris occupies an office that can be the butt of jokes and criticism. The only duties of the vice president spelled out in the Constitution are to cast tiebreaking votes in the Senate and to become president if the office becomes vacant.
I’ve never run for government office, but as a Black woman who has spent my life working in politics — including as manager of Vice President Al Gore’s unsuccessful presidential campaign in 2000 — I know what it’s like to be underestimated, over-scrutinized and unfairly criticized, just as Ms. Harris has been. Yet I’ve never been under such a glaring spotlight as hers.
I have watched politicians up close for decades. And I have known Vice President Harris for years and urged Joe Biden to make her his running mate in 2020. I believe that the criticism of her is unrelated to her performance as vice president and fails to account for the role she plays in the White House.
As a consequential and successful vice president himself for eight years under Barack Obama, President Biden has a keen understanding of the job he once held and he has tasked Vice President Harris with major responsibilities. She has done an outstanding job and her record in two years stands up to that of her predecessors. Has she solved every problem? No, but name me one vice president who has.
We should think about our expectations for the vice presidency. It was only starting with the presidency of Jimmy Carter, and the role Vice President Walter Mondale played in foreign and domestic policy, that the job became more than a ceremonial position. Vice President Harris ranks third in breaking Senate ties (and first in the first two years in office), after John C. Calhoun and John Adams. While some claim that her duties breaking ties in the Senate have limited her scope of influence, the reality is that Ms. Harris regularly traveled the country to meet with Americans even as she cast the tiebreaking vote on key legislation to better the lives of the American people, including the Inflation Reduction Act.
To advance President Biden’s objective to strengthen America’s foreign alliances, Ms. Harris has met (mostly in person) with more than 100 world leaders to repair damage to our international relationships caused by Donald Trump. At the Munich Security Conference in February she announced that the Biden administration has formally concluded that Russia is guilty of “crimes against humanity” in its war against Ukraine and warned China not to assist Russia in its invasion. Through public-private partnerships, she helped raise over $4.2 billion to address the root cause of migration from Central America.
Ms. Harris has pushed for federal legislation to secure voting rights, worked to expand access to the child tax and earned-income tax credits, is co-leader of the White House Task Force on Worker Organizing and Empowerment, was an integral part of the White House’s push to get Americans vaccinated against Covid, and is the chair of the National Space Council.
Questions have been raised about the fitness of just about every vice president to move into the Oval Office should the president die or is unable to continue serving for another reason. Mr. Biden knew what he was doing when he selected Ms. Harris to be his vice president and had confidence that she would be up to the task of succeeding him if necessary. I hope that never happens, but if tragedy strikes, Mr. Biden’s judgment will be proven correct.
Ms. Harris has more experience in elected office than several past presidents and vice presidents — a successful record beginning in 2004 as San Francisco district attorney and California attorney general and including four years as U.S. senator. By contrast, Presidents Trump, Dwight Eisenhower, Ulysses S. Grant, Herbert Hoover and Zachary Taylor never held elected office before becoming president. Many other presidents had fewer years in elected office than Ms. Harris has had.
Ms. Harris has been derided by some as an affirmative-action hire, perhaps because Mr. Biden pledged to select a female running mate when he campaigned for the Democratic presidential nomination.
On many occasions when people of color and women have climbed the career ladder we’ve heard criticism that they advanced only because of their race and/or gender. This was the case last year during the confirmation process for Ketanji Brown Jackson, a brilliant and extraordinarily qualified jurist who is the first Black woman to serve on the Supreme Court.
For too many Americans, the idea that nonwhites and women actually got their jobs because of their qualifications, experience and talents is hard to believe. Maybe that’s because for most of American history, white men were the only people considered for high-level jobs in what amounted to affirmative action for them.
And as the first woman, African American and Asian American to serve as vice president, Ms. Harris has arguably faced greater — and a different type — of scrutiny than previous vice presidents.
The clothes and shoes she wears, the role of her spouse (Doug Emhoff, America’s first second gentleman), the way she sometimes laughs, her cooking skills and staff turnover in her office have all drawn greater attention than her predecessors experienced.
Mr. Emhoff summarized the challenges confronting his wife in a 2021 interview. “She has faced challenges as a groundbreaker her whole career,” he said. “When you’re breaking barriers, there’s breaking involved and breaking means you might get cut sometimes, but that’s OK.”
Vice President Harris is fulfilling the dream of the empowerment of Black women advanced by the Rev. Willie T. Barrow, a Black woman who was a field organizer for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and a co-chair of the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow PUSH Coalition and supporter of his presidential campaigns.
Ms. Barrow, who was an inspiration to me when I was a young member of the staff on Mr. Jackson’s 1984 presidential campaign, died at age 90 in 2015. She was a mentor to Mr. Obama before he entered the White House but didn’t live long enough to see Ms. Harris become vice president.
Ms. Barrow never received the accolades and fame she deserved for her work because the most visible leadership roles in the civil rights movement, government and elsewhere were reserved for men. But I have no doubt that she and other Black female civil rights pioneers paved the way for Ms. Harris to climb to the second-highest office in our government.
Vice President Harris stands on the steely, unbowed shoulders of Black women like Willie Barrow and others who broke barriers before her. It shouldn’t be so hard for a leader like Ms. Harris, so visible in the office she holds, to get some credit where credit is due."