Here’s a simple question as we contemplate the outsized role that Vice President Kamala Harris will play in the imaginations of voters as they decide whether to reward President Biden with a second term: What made Barack Obama more prepared than Harris to become leader of the free world?
After all, he had less experience on the national stage and almost nothing in the way of foreign policy experience before he ran for president. He was a community organizer, a law professor and an Illinois state senator who served as a United States senator for about 10 minutes before deciding he was ready to move into the Oval Office.
Harris was the district attorney in San Francisco, the attorney general of California, a United States senator and a brief front-runner in the race for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination before Biden tapped her as his No. 2.
So what, exactly, do people mean when they say Harris is ill-equipped to step up in the event that something terrible were to befall Biden?
She is already first in line to the presidency; she has that job.
In objections to Harris as a potential president, I hear echoes of the vague complaints that plagued Hillary Clinton, a former first lady, policy wonk and United States senator when she ran against Obama in 2008, and also a former secretary of State by the time she ran for president against Donald Trump in 2016: I just don’t like her.
Why is that?
Well, some people perceive Harris as inauthentic or haughty. Some are annoyed by her tendency to laugh. The Wall Street Journal’s Peggy Noonan infamously found it “embarrassing” that Harris danced in the rain in Jackson, Miss., during a campaign appearance in 2020.
They knock her for a lack of concrete accomplishments, describing her vice presidential record as “underwhelming.” (But come on; Biden first put her in charge of fixing the intractable humanitarian crisis at the southern border, and also with leading the administration’s push for federal voting rights legislation, which ran head first into the refusal of two Senate Democrats — Joe Manchin III and Kyrsten Sinema — to support changing Senate rules.)
Anyway, pundits have been declaring Harris in trouble almost since the beginning of the Biden administration. They have lazily settled on a narrative that is only loosely tethered to reality.
“The narrative goes something like this,” said veteran California political journalist Dan Morain, author of the biography “Kamala’s Way.” “She was picked because she’s a woman and a person of color, not for any of her accomplishments, skills, intelligence or abilities. The narrative doesn’t concede she has any of those attributes. Fox hosts play a role. Much as good liberals hate to admit it, the vile stuff gets into the air and bloodstream and infects their thinking. She is very intelligent. I have seen her campaign, in debates, in press conferences and in smaller gatherings, and she is a talented politician.”
The narrative gained new force last week, when Biden announced he would seek reelection, with Harris as his running mate again. Already the oldest president in American history, Biden would be 82 at his second inauguration.
“Whoever the Republican nominee is will run against Kamala Harris,” said Morain.
Which is why the drumbeat of negativity against her just keeps getting louder.
It’s true that her low approval ratings have tracked those of the president. She has few concrete policy achievements to show as vice president. And of course, there is still a bad taste left over from her stunning fall from grace as a 2020 presidential front-runner, when she oversaw — or didn’t — a chaotic, underfunded campaign that floundered when it could not settle on a strategy, or even a tag line.
But we cannot ignore the hurdles inherent in her very identity. Regardless of how far this country has come in its attitudes about race, regardless of the fact that we elected a Black man as president in 2008 and 2012, only a fool would pretend the presidential playing field is even for a biracial woman like Harris, and I do emphasize “woman.”
Studies, after all, show that voters associate leadership with masculinity. “No elective office is more masculine than the presidency,” said the authors of a study excerpted in Political Parity, a website associated with the Rutgers University Center for American Women and Politics. “The president, as commander in chief, is expected to embody masculinity and exhibit toughness.”
Who can forget Harris’ performance during Brett M. Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings when, as a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, she looked at the flummoxed nominee and repeated her question slowly and deliberately, “Can you think of any laws that give government the power to make decisions about the male body?”
Or, in 2018, when she grilled a recalcitrant then-Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions so hard that he finally blurted out, “I am not able to be rushed this fast, it makes me nervous.”
Anyone who questions Harris’ toughness hasn’t been paying attention.
Back in 2020, it may have been true that Biden needed Harris in order to win but not to govern. In 2024, however, the pair will be yoked as never before. It’s up to Biden to make sure Harris has a portfolio — especially on issues like abortion and Black maternal health — that resonates with his voters and hers, that raises her profile.
Think of it as the Biden/Harris paradox: While no president really wants to spend time pumping up his veep, Biden can help neutralize concerns about his age by showcasing Harris’ leadership chops.
And everyone else can bear in mind that in many countries around the world, a female head of state is no big whoop.