White House aides and allies stress it’s still too early to define the type of portfolio Kamala Harris will have as vice-president. They bristle at the suggestion that Harris would be confined to one project or focus on just one subject area, as some previous vice-presidents were pegged to do.
But over the last week, the former California senator has once again taken on an increasingly familiar mantle: top surrogate for promoting the Biden administration’s agenda.
On the one hand that’s a powerful position: it puts Harris – the first female vice-president in US history and probably a strong future contender for its first female commander-in-chief – at the forefront of US politics. But on the other, it is the latest example of Harris being used on an ad hoc basis, lacking a defining mission or role.
In the days since Joe Biden signed his $1.9tn stimulus package Harris has embarked on a cross-country tour to sell the impact of the new law. She made stops in Nevada, Colorado and then Georgia last week. She is expected to make more trips in the coming days.
“I really believe that this will support our economy,” Harris said during her stop in Colorado.
The vice-president’s tour, days after an administration passes a massive piece of legislation into law, is not entirely unusual. It’s in part a move to assuage fears that this stimulus could follow the same fate as the $800bn rescue law in 2009. After passage of that bill, critics argued that the Obama administration was not aggressive in responding to Republican attacks about the bill. At the same time, liberals have argued that law did not go far enough.
So this time, the Biden administration is trying to pre-empt similar critiques about his rescue package.
Roy Neel, who served as a chief of staff to the then vice-president, Al Gore, said it was clear the Biden administration wants to use Harris as a sort of “floater” – someone who isn’t consigned to one corner of the administration or its initiatives.
“They’re saying basically what the president wants her to be which is sort of a floater, to work on anything that’s important at the time,” Neel said. “Right now, selling the stimulus is one of the most important things to him.”
For Harris, though, the trip stacks on top of her undertaking a media campaign in West Virginia and Arizona while the stimulus bill was still making its way through Congress. But that push partially backfired on Harris and resulted in proxy sparring with Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, one of the senators Harris ostensibly set out to win over.
Harris’s trips over the last week suggest that the Biden team still see her as a potent salesperson and rather than assign her to run briefings with governors on Covid relief, as Mike Pence did when he served as vice-president to Donald Trump, or when Biden oversaw the Obama administration’s recovery efforts early on.
Still, that has prompted multiple questions about Harris and how she will be involved in the Biden administration. Why not run the Covid meetings right now like Pence did, officials have been asked, instead of Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York?
“We do know that she is a potent tool and it’s clear that the Biden administration is more than happy to deploy her in support of its signature initiatives so far,” said Yusef Robb, a veteran Democratic strategist. “Look, Kamala Harris is exciting, talented and can personally speak to people of color, women, parents and others who have been most affected by the pandemic.”
At the same time Harris has also been visible on the foreign policy front, a move that might prove beneficial in the future if the current vice-president ever ended up running for president and needed to highlight her experience with world leaders. She has reportedly begun regular private lunches with the secretary of state, Antony Blinken, a meeting that other presidents have usually taken themselves. She has also had one-on-one conversation with a number of world leaders early on in the administration.
Neel said that suggests that Biden is “comfortable including and relying on the vice-president to be involved in things where she doesn’t have much of a background”.
Neel added: “That is really good for her because it doesn’t pigeonhole her into any one government function like the environment or healthcare or something. So he’s obviously using her everywhere it makes sense as part of the team.”
Democrats stress the Biden administration is in its earliest days and the role Harris will play is still forming.
Her rise has been extremely fast compared with previous vice-presidents. She did not finish her first term in the Senate before Biden picked her as vice-president and before that was attorney general of California. But her background as a prosecutor, which resulted in a viral moment or two in the Senate, has not been visibly utilized since she became vice-president – yet.
Harris’s future, though, depends on the success of Biden’s administration. If Biden leaves office popular, Harris will be regarded as the heir apparent.
“She is pushing forward Joe’s vision for America, just like she said she would,” Robb added.