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Covering Kamala Harris Covering Kamala Harris

Essential Politics: What is Kamala Harris doing with her time?

Vice President Kamala Harris is surrounded by reporters outside the Senate chamber
Vice President Kamala Harris speaks to reporters outside the Senate chamber after a voting rights bill failed to pass Oct. 20.
(Andrew Harnik / Associated Press)

When I tell people I cover Vice President Kamala Harris, they often reply with the same question: What does she do?

Since coming into office with an unusually high profile, she has faded, to some extent, from public view. That’s typical for vice presidents, but unexpected to those supporters and critics who thought Harris would have an unusually prominent role.

For those of you who want to know what the vice president is doing with her time, The Times has come up with a tracker for her public events.

Good morning and welcome to Essential Politics: Kamala Harris edition. This week, I will explore what Harris’ public schedule can tell us about her role in what was branded early as the “Biden-Harris administration.”

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Less time with Biden

Not all of Harris’ work is included in her public schedule. But the events the White House wants the public to know about, whether they are open to the press or not, are sent out in a daily email to the reporters who cover her. A similar one is emailed for President Biden. Harris’ schedules include some of her meetings with Biden and lawmakers, her round tables with interest groups, her trips to water treatment plants, foreign lands or wherever.

Not everything is on the schedule, including some behind-the-scenes meetings and phone calls and time with advisors. But the advertised events are a strong signal of where the administration is directing one of its most powerful tools: its ability to attract news coverage.

Three of The Times’ visual data journalists — Thomas Suh Lauder, Maloy Moore and Matt Stilescreated an interactive tool, released this week, that uploads those schedules and categorizes them.

When I looked at the data, one of the first things I noticed was that Harris was spending less time with Biden than she had earlier in her term, both in the number of events and the percentage of her scheduled events.

In any White House, time with the president is the most valuable currency. White House officials said Harris hasn’t lost any clout or trust. The top leaders are simply spreading their wings, reaching out to more people and places now that COVID-19 restrictions have eased.

It is not clear whether slates of separate events for the president and vice president is good for Harris. The reality is that Harris gets much less media coverage when she is on her own, which may be why so many people say they do not know what she is up to. And less face time with Biden may make it more difficult for her to get to know him and influence policy.

The former Democratic primary rivals have some history, but nothing like the battle scars Biden has built up with some of his inner circle of advisors who have served him for decades.

You can read more about the implications in this article I wrote with Stiles.

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Voting and immigration

What else can the schedules tell us? Harris is spending less time talking about COVID-19 than she did in the administration’s early months, when officials were spending much of their energy rallying the country to get vaccinated and control the coronavirus’ spread.

She is also spending less time talking about migration from Central America. Harris, in March, was tasked with the thorny task of curbing migration from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador by tackling its “root causes,” which include corruption, poverty, gang violence and climate degradation that has exacerbated the devastation from natural disasters. The assignment has been a political headache, as border encounters with migrants have swelled to record numbers and conservative politicians and media have blamed Harris.

Harris visited the region in June and the administration has done some behind-the-scenes work. But Harris has not had a publicly advertised event on the topic since August.

The vice president’s other big assignment is expanding voting rights in the face of Republican efforts at the state level to pass laws that curtail them. That effort is not going well either; Senate Democrats failed to advance a bill for the third time last week after failing to attract Republican support. Advocates are pushing Democrats in the 50-50 Senate to alter the filibuster rule that requires a 60-vote majority to pass many bills.

Harris had an active schedule of events related to the topic in the summer but has had just a few events since then.

Digging deeper into the schedules, you will find that about half of Harris’ events have been fully open to the press. A third are closed to the press. The remaining events are a hybrid, usually containing a “pool spray” that allows photographers and reporters to hear a portion of her remarks for five or 10 minutes.

Harris’ favorite format when engaging with the public is the round table, in which she discusses issues with activists, business leaders or members of the general public who help illustrate the administration’s policy goals. She’s held 27 of them as of Tuesday.

These are staples for most vice presidents, who, like Harris, are often asked to highlight the administration’s agenda without overshadowing their boss, the president.

Harris’ advisors say she also likes round tables because they are a good way to talk to a cross section of people during a pandemic, where larger events are difficult or impossible to hold. They say she also enjoys hosting small groups in her grand ceremonial office to highlight the fact that no one like her — a woman of color and South Asian origin — has ever sat there before her.

For the most part, the schedules reinforce my impression that Harris is behaving like a conventional modern vice president — meeting regularly with Biden and otherwise selling his agenda. The early notion that some on the left and right had — that she would have an outsized role — is not bearing out.

It’s worth keeping on eye on these trends over the next three years. A vice president’s time is her biggest asset.

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The view from Washington

— The Supreme Court on Friday refused again to put on hold a Texas abortion law, writes David G. Savage. Instead, the justices said they will hear arguments next month on whether the Justice Department has standing to sue Texas.

— From Andrea Castillo: Most of the Customs and Border Protection agents who participated in secretive social media groups featuring violent, bigoted posts against migrants and members of Congress received significantly watered down punishment, according to a report released Monday by the House of Representatives.

— In the scramble to scale back their social safety-net spending bill, Democrats are discussing cuts to new funds that address homelessness, public housing, racial inequities in homeownership and renters assistance. It’s set off a West Coast-East Coast tug of war, write Jennifer Haberkorn and Benjamin Oreskes.

— From Jenny Jarvie and Margot Roosevelt: After decades of stagnating wages and diminishing pension and healthcare benefits, followed by a grueling 19 months working long hours during the COVID-19 pandemic, many American workers are fed up. A small but growing number are organizing, but is this really #Striketober?

— Biden is jetting off to Rome on Thursday to attend the annual G-20 summit, a gathering of leaders from the world’s most powerful nations, Chris Megerian writes. Here’s what The Times will be watching.

— For months, Republicans cried fraud over former President Trump’s 2020 loss. They’ve gone silent as a Nevada ally is charged with voting twice, writes columnist Mark Z. Barabak.

— Since 2008, former President Obama and Bruce Springsteen have struck up an unlikely friendship. Dorany Pineda has the details on their new book, a collection of intimate and thoughtful conversations between the two that builds on the duo’s eight-episode podcast series.

The view from California

— Three months after Gov. Gavin Newsom required state workers to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 or undergo weekly testing, his pledge that California government would lead by example has not been fulfilled, reports Melody Gutierrez. Most state-run workplaces have failed to test unvaccinated employees.

— Election results showing California voters refused to oust Newsom were certified by state officials Friday, bringing to an end a historic and bitter recall effort, report John Myers and Phil Willon.

— If L.A.’s City Hall scandals are not as brazenly corrupt as other cities’, it might not be for want of trying, writes columnist Patt Morrison. Los Angeles city government is designed to spread out power and keep too much of it out of the hands of any one politician.

Sign up for our California Politics newsletter to get the best of The Times’ state politics reporting.

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