After a summer of criticism, political pressure on Kamala Harris eases — for now

Vice President Kamala Harris stands at the entrance to a plane
Vice President Kamala Harris boards Air Force 2 in Oakland after joining Gov. Gavin Newsom at a rally Sept. 8.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

The past few weeks have been some of the toughest for President Biden, who has absorbed bipartisan criticism for the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan and national frustration over the resurgence of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But politics is a strange business. And in a paradox, the negative attention directed at Biden has taken some of the pressure off Vice President Kamala Harris, who spent the early part of the summer taking heat over the large increase of migrants heading to the U.S.-Mexico border.

The number of Central Americans seeking to cross the border remains high, but you’re not seeing quite so much of Harris — who was tapped by Biden in March to lead diplomatic efforts in the region — on your television screens over the last few weeks.


Good morning and welcome to Essential Politics, Kamala Harris edition. This week, I’ll discuss why a little quiet time, at least for now, may help a vice president struggling in public opinion polls.

Blinken becomes new punching bag

Harris has said little about Afghanistan and, in general, has not given many interviews; instead, in recent weeks, she has stuck to largely scripted events.

First, let’s stipulate: The issues confronting the Biden administration are incredibly important. The conditions at the border, the suffering in Afghanistan and the deadly pandemic are humanitarian crises, which The Times has documented extensively.

But these issues also have political consequences, including for the vice president, and that is what I will be exploring here.

For much of spring and early summer, Harris was serving as a shock absorber for Biden. Republicans were having trouble attacking the president. It felt like none of their mortars were denting his political armor. Conservative politicians and Fox News, however, made some headway blasting Harris. They dubbed her the “Border Czar,” even though Biden has tasked her with working on what the administration called “the root causes” of migration, not the problems associated with processing people at the actual border.

The issues are related, but the nuances were set aside.

In recent weeks, Biden has shown himself more vulnerable to Republican attacks, seeing his approval numbers in polls slip as the pandemic has flared and the Afghanistan withdrawal appeared messy and ill-planned.

While Harris has boasted of being the last one in the room when Biden made his decision to leave Afghanistan in April, she has not been the face of the withdrawal.

Instead, we saw two days of Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken slogging through House and Senate hearings this week as Republicans, and some Democrats, blasted the Afghanistan pullout as a disaster and surrender to the Taliban.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III refused to testify, prompting a subpoena threat from Sen. Bob Menendez, the New Jersey Democrat who chairs the Foreign Relations Committee.

My colleague Tracy Wilkinson, who covered the hearings, wrote that Blinken defended himself by noting the Trump administration’s role in striking a deal with the Taliban that opened the way for the pariah organization to regain power.


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Riding the Newsom train

After Blinken wrapped up his testimony on Tuesday, Harris spoke briefly at a private fundraiser in Virginia on behalf of gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe, raising more than $500,000 according to organizers. That followed her appearance last week in the Bay Area stumping for Gavin Newsom in his bid to fend off a recall.

By the time Harris arrived for Newsom, he had a comfortable lead in the polls, allowing Harris to claim some credit for a win without risking the potential embarrassment of a loss. Biden himself showed up Monday, on the eve of Newsom’s substantial victory.

“When you’ve stalled out a little, one good strategy is to jump on a fast-moving train,” David Axelrod, a former advisor to President Obama, tweeted about the Biden visit.

The same could be said for Harris, who also needs to tend to her political base in California if she wants to run for president again.

Last week, I traveled with Harris to Hampton University, where she promoted STEM education and the importance of historically Black colleges and universities. Politicians love STEM education, even if the rest of us have trouble remembering the wonky acronym stands for “science, technology, engineering and mathematics.”

It was one of the most enthusiastic receptions I’ve seen for Harris. Students oohed and aahed when she made an unscheduled visit into a classroom in the business school. An even bigger group cheered loudly as she walked to an outside rope line before leaving in the vice-presidential motorcade.

Such events are not likely to boost Harris’ sagging approval numbers; controlled roundtable discussions and staged tours of scientific labs don’t tend to make it onto cable news. Harris also did not answer questions from the traveling reporters about the news of the day, which may have gotten her attention on cable news.

The comfort she displayed as Biden’s running mate has seemingly evaporated, and these quiet events may help her regain her political footing. She badly needs to find it — keeping a low profile is not a successful long-term strategy for a politician with presidential aspirations.


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The view from Washington

— Harris pressed lawmakers on Wednesday to back legislation that she said would expand access to child care and raise the wages of day-care workers, reports Erin B. Logan. The push came the same day that Biden is reported to have met with a pair of centrist Democrats who have indicated they do not support the overall costs of the party’s $3.5-trillion spending plan.

— Meanwhile, Jennifer Haberkorn reports that Democrats are sharply divided over whether to require drugmakers to negotiate prices with the federal government, a rift threatening key parts of the social safety net bill — including the possible expansion of Medicare and Obamacare — and one that could put the entire effort at risk.

— Biden’s “Build Back Better” agenda is poised to be the most far-reaching federal investment in decades and on Thursday, Biden framed the package as a long-overdue opportunity to reshape the modern economy. It’s also a test of what kind of government voters want.

— The United States will arm Australia with nuclear submarine technology as part of a new defense partnership, one of many steps that Biden is taking to strengthen alliances as a bulwark against China, Chris Megerian writes. Tracy Wilkinson reports that move has angered not only Beijing but America’s oldest ally — France.

— The so-called China Initiative, a sweeping program launched in November 2018 under the Trump administration to counter theft of trade secrets, hacking and economic espionage has resulted in several failed prosecutions. Don Lee has the story of how the initiative has unraveled.


— One of the 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach former President Trump for his role in inciting the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol announced Thursday that he will not seek reelection in Ohio next year.

— Despite a U.S. district judge’s ruling that the State Department must expedite the processing of visa lottery winners in Afghanistan by Sept. 30, Afghans and their advocates say it’s unlikely the U.S. government will meet this deadline, writes Meena Venkataramanan.

The view from California

— After overwhelmingly rejecting an effort to oust Newsom in Tuesday’s recall election, California voters appear ready to sign him up for a second term in 2022. Phil Willon reports on a new UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies poll cosponsored by the Los Angeles Times.

— From Melanie Mason and Seema Mehta: California Republicans thought they had found a unifying rallying cry in the recall attempt. Instead, the campaign exposed — and even worsened — some long-standing clashes, while leaving unsettled the question of how the party can stop its losing streak in the state.

— Arnold Schwarzenegger, who became California’s governor in 2003 after a recall, said he was relieved that Newsom kept his job, reports Mehta: “It’s better to stay with someone who you know what they’re going to do, rather than someone who comes in wacky and is changing everything around.”

— Los Angeles City Council President Nury Martinez announced Thursday that she has ruled out a run for mayor, saying the city needs stable political leadership as it emerges from the pandemic and the economic downturn that accompanied it, David Zahniser reports.


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