Essential Politics: 100 days in, Kamala Harris quells talk of her own ambitions

Kamala Harris speaks at a lectern
Vice President Kamala Harris speaks as President Biden listens during an event to mark International Women’s Day on March 8.
(Patrick Semansky / Associated Press)

This is the April 28, 2021, edition of the Essential Politics newsletter. Like what you’re reading? Sign up to get it in your inbox three times a week.

On the eve of election day Nov. 3, Donald Trump stood on an airport tarmac in Fayetteville, N.C., and delivered a last-ditch warning about what would happen if Joe Biden won the Oval Office: “Kamala will be put in that position very quickly. Very quickly. And she’s more liberal than Crazy Bernie.”

Trump, who often singled out women of color for derision, was hoping the image of a shadow Kamala Harris presidency would incite his base. It was a specter he raised throughout the campaign. Yet even many Democrats, while not forecasting that a Vice President Harris would be pulling the strings, expected that Biden, at 78 by inauguration day, might be perceived as a lame duck — or a “transition candidate,” as he once told donors — giving Harris outsized importance.


As we hit the Biden-Harris administration’s 100-day mark, and witness Biden’s first address to a joint session of Congress, we’re not hearing such talk much anymore.

Good morning and welcome to Essential Politics, Kamala Harris edition. Today we will assess how shifting expectations of Biden’s presidency have in turn altered perceptions of Harris.

Attacks on Biden are at odds with each other

Democratic strategist Cornell Belcher told my colleague David Lauter that he now embraces a notion he once thought laughable, that Biden is a transformational president. In Lauter’s piece, which assessed Biden’s first 100 days, Republican Rep. Mike Johnson of Louisiana accused Biden of overreach — hardly the sort of charge laid against a mere caretaker.

Alex Conant, a Republican consultant who has advised Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, told Lauter that his party’s two main messages about Biden are at odds with each other, blunting their impact. “The thing you hear Republicans say most is that he’s too old for the job, which isn’t consistent with saying he’s doing too much,” Conant said. “You can’t effectively argue that he’s incompetent and that he’s too effective.”

Biden’s relatively good approval ratings suggest most Americans believe he is in charge of the White House, or at least in charge enough to accomplish what they want. And speculation around Harris’ next run for the White House, while alive, is hardly raging. That’s helpful to Harris, who can focus on playing what her advisors call a complementary role.

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Harris is visible, but she’s a team player

Harris has been highly visible publicly and potentially influential — she’s generally in the room where decisions are happening — yet her vice presidency so far has been unexceptional in terms of power and prestige. She gets to speak for the administration a lot, sell its agenda and meet with world leaders. She draws more interest as the first woman, first Black person and first Asian-American person to hold the job. But she has come to be viewed as a partner to Biden, not his impatient would-be heir, rival or puppeteer.

“It is often the case that as I will ask his opinion about things, he will ask my opinion. And through that process I think we arrive at a good place. Ultimately he is the president and he makes the final decision,” she told CNN last week.


Bakari Sellers, a co-chair of Harris’ 2020 presidential primary campaign who has remained a close ally, told me Harris came into the White House determined to show she was a team player, in part to deflect the “misconception” that she is driven by ambition to run in 2024 should Biden choose not to.

That has taken some pressure off Harris, allowing her to adjust to the new job without the kind of spotlight that hurt her when she ran for president against the Democratic field that included Biden. Joel Goldstein, a vice presidential historian, said that Biden, by spending so much time with Harris, is helping her “get a sense of how do things work and how do you look at things when you’re in the Oval Office or the Situation Room.”

But she remains a top target of Republicans. They’ve tried to make her the face of the administration’s handling of the influx at the southern border since Biden tapped her to lead diplomatic efforts to reduce migration from Central America.

“There is a campaign to peg a lot of things on Kamala Harris because they can’t pin it on Joe Biden,” said Amanda Carpenter, a former advisor to Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas who broke with her party over her opposition to Trump. “They want something to tag her with because Biden’s sort of untouchable.”

According to the RealClearPolitics average, Biden’s job rating sits at about 53% approval and 42% disapproval — a decent showing in our polarized political climate. Harris is viewed favorably by about 49% of voters; 43% view her unfavorably.

Carpenter said Harris could still face problems down the road, especially if the border remains in crisis. And, she added, some critics will continue to “to play on concerns about Biden’s age and mental faculties” by painting her as the true power in the administration.


More on the first 100 days

— Biden is proposing an ambitious $1.8-trillion, 10-year plan to subsidize American families’ education, child care, health insurance and job leave costs — an investment in workers intended to complement his earlier call for infrastructure spending and much more, writes Eli Stokols. He’s expected to describe the plan in his prime-time address today.

— Speaking of that address: Erin B. Logan has the details on how you can watch Biden’s speech to a joint session of Congress.

— Since Biden took office, he’s pledged to end the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite progress, political division is standing in the way of full success, Chris Megerian writes.

The view from Washington

— The U.S. Census Bureau on Monday released new population data that offers a first glimpse of the coming decade’s congressional landscape, report Melanie Mason and Seema Mehta. California will lose one seat in Congress for the first time in state history, while Texas and Florida are among the states that will see their representation increase.

— The Supreme Court agreed Monday to hear a major case on whether the 2nd Amendment gives law-abiding individuals a right to carry a loaded handgun in public, regardless of local restrictions, David G. Savage writes.

— Congressional Democrats unveiled a far-reaching — and costly — plan for aid to American families Tuesday, including a guaranteed 12 weeks of family leave for most American workers and permanent extension of help to low- and middle-income families with children, Lauter reports.


— Lawmakers are also revisiting police reform, writes Sarah D. Wire. But many of the same issues that divided Democrats and Republicans last summer when they first tried to pass reform legislation after George Floyd’s murder remain as sticking points.

— The Justice Department is launching a broad inquiry of the police department in Louisville, Ky., more than a year after the death of Breonna Taylor. It’s the second such investigation into a local law enforcement agency in the last week, Del Quentin Wilber writes.

— The Biden administration moved toward allowing California to once more set its own car pollution standards, a right revoked under President Trump, Anna M. Phillips writes.

The latest from California

— It’s official: A Republican-led drive to remove Gov. Gavin Newsom from office collected enough voter signatures to qualify for the ballot. Taryn Luna and Phil Willon report that it’s only the second time California has seen a rapid-fire campaign to decide whether to oust a sitting governor.

— There’s no certainty on when that recall election will be held, leaving the governor’s supporters and opponents alike in limbo, writes John Myers.

— We’ve heard plenty from Caitlyn Jenner. But who else wants a chance at the job? Mehta has the full list, including former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer and billboard model Angelyne.

— Facebook, Google and Blue Shield of California are among the companies that contributed an unprecedented $226 million to government causes on Newsom’s behalf last year, Melody Gutierrez and Maloy Moore report. Here’s where all that money went.


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