Why Democrats have doubts Kamala Harris can step into Joe Biden’s shoes

Kamala Harris, the US vice-president
Kamala Harris, the US vice-president

Standing shoulder-to-shoulder in Pennsylvania, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris offered a preview of their 2024 re-election bid.

Speaking in the battleground state, the US president and vice president highlighted their achievements in office, from creating jobs to stimulating domestic manufacturing.

It was a theme that will no doubt form the centrepiece of Mr Biden’s re-election bid, which is expected to come within weeks.

But there was another, unspoken theme: Ms Harris’ status as Mr Biden’s heir.

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris - Patrick Semansky/AP
Joe Biden and Kamala Harris - Patrick Semansky/AP

The rare visual of the president sharing the stage with his deputy on Friday was a warning shot to the Democratic whisperers who have been briefing against her of late.

At the halfway point of their term, the Biden-Harris administration finds itself at a critical juncture.

If Mr Biden runs for re-election as expected, his running mate, 58, will be an integral part of the campaign for an 80-year-old president whose age is seen as a major liability.

But many Democrats are not convinced by the vice president’s performance - let alone her ability to step into the top role - and have raised concerns about her.

Elizabeth Warren, the influential Massachusetts senator, gave Mr Biden a full-throated endorsement to run in 2024 in a recent interview, but pointedly shied away from doing the same for his deputy.

Asked if Ms Harris should be Mr Biden’s running mate, Ms Warren said: “I really want to defer to what makes Biden comfortable on his team... But they have to be a team.”

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris - ELIZABETH FRANTZ/REUTERS
Joe Biden and Kamala Harris - ELIZABETH FRANTZ/REUTERS

She quickly added that she did not mean to suggest there were “any problems”, but her non-committal response was seized upon regardless.

At the same time, Democratic strategists have turned to the media to anonymously voice their doubts about Ms Harris’ political skills.

Ms Harris’s tenure has been underwhelming, marked by struggles as a communicator and at times near-invisibility, more than a dozen Democratic leaders in key states told the Washington Post in a piece published this week.

That has left many rank-and-file Democrats unconvinced that she has the force, charisma and skill to mount a winning presidential campaign, the piece added.

In response, the White House has launched an operation to boost Ms Harris’ profile and solidify her position by appearing in public more regularly with Mr Biden.

This week, it was Ms Harris, not Mr Biden, who delivered an impassioned speech at the funeral of Tyre Nichols, the black motorist brutally beaten by police in Memphis, Tennessee.

Kamala Harris delivered an impassioned speech at the funeral of Tyre Nichols - Pool/Getty Images North America
Kamala Harris delivered an impassioned speech at the funeral of Tyre Nichols - Pool/Getty Images North America

And later this month the vice president is being dispatched to the Munich Security Conference to be the face of America’s response to Russian aggression in Ukraine.

Ms Harris’ team views this as an opportunity to reset and position her as a president-in-waiting to the oldest commander-in-chief in history.

Her horizons have been broadened by the fact that she is no longer required to cast tie-breaking votes in the Senate, and therefore no longer shackled to Washington.

The president’s team is understood to be priming his deputy to undertake an intensive travel schedule on behalf of Mr Biden, who will be 82 by the time of the next election.

Karen Finney, a Democratic strategist who is close to Ms Harris, said she had demonstrated “what a tremendous asset she is to [Biden’s] ticket” by playing a “critical role” in the party’s midterm success.

She credited the vice president’s “extensive travel” on behalf of Democratic candidates for “boosting enthusiasm and turnout” in several critical races.

Kamala Harris - Gerald Herbert/AP
Kamala Harris - Gerald Herbert/AP

Mr Biden’s age will sharpen the spotlight on his vice president, whom supporters say represents a younger voice for Democrats.

But concerns remain about Ms Harris, whose term has been blighted by a staffing exodus and a flood of unflattering leaks describing turmoil within her office.

Ms Harris’ frequent verbal stumbles have also led to mockery, most prominently in a skit by Julia Louis-Dreyfus on the satirical US programme The Daily Show.

Gil Duran, who worked for Ms Harris for five months in 2013, when she was the attorney general of California, said many Democrats had lost faith in Ms Harris “because she’s had a propensity to fail”.

Mr Duran said Ms Harris’ popularity has been severely damaged by her difficulties in communicating off-script.

“One of my criticisms has been that she has tended to not prepare for things, not read a briefing,” he said.

That portfolio comprises a series of challenging tasks assigned to her by Mr Biden, which Ms Harris’ allies say has left her hamstrung at times.

Potential challengers

Her status as Mr Biden’s heir apparent is in jeopardy amid a growing list of potential challengers.

They include Gavin Newsom, California's governor, who appeared to take aim at Ms Harris by criticising the administration's handling of the US border - a key part of her brief.

Pete Buttigieg, Mr Biden’s transportation secretary, also appears to be readying a presidential campaign with the help of advisers and deep-pocketed donors.

Whenever Mr Biden steps aside, “nobody will be ceding ground to Harris”, Mr Duran predicted.

Garry South, a longtime Democratic strategist in her home state of California, said the vice president’s historically low popularity presented a major obstacle.

Mr South said: “She is basically lower in public approval than any of the previous three vice presidents, including Dick Cheney, who wasn’t exactly a warm and fuzzy guy. That’s saying something.”

Ms Harris’ approval rating was just 40 per cent in mid-January, roughly two years into her tenure, according to a Los Angeles Times aggregator.

That puts her roughly 14 points below her predecessor Mike Pence; 17 points behind Mr Biden; and 44 points behind Mr Cheney at the same period.

Mr Biden has repeatedly committed to having Ms Harris as his running mate - to not do so would be politically fraught, and a tacit acknowledgement of the administration’s shortcomings.

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris - Samuel Corum/Bloomberg
Joe Biden and Kamala Harris - Samuel Corum/Bloomberg

There is not much historical precedent for dropping a vice president from the ticket. The most notable instance is Franklin Roosevelt, who had a record three different vice presidents during his time in office.

Supporters are quick to point out that the vice president’s approval has been closely tied to Mr Biden’s polling, which has remained stubbornly low amid persistent inflation.

They have also hit back at many of the criticisms levelled against her, suggesting there was an element of sexism in the unflattering stories.

Ms Finney noted Dick Cheney and Mike Pence’s staff turnover went unreported, despite claiming it occurred at similar rates.

One former staffer said Ms Harris had one main aim for the next two years: being seen “as a good partner to Joe Biden”.

“Any of Biden’s failures will be attributed to her as well as the president – but also any successes,” the staffer said.