The nature of the vice presidency is typically one of brief significance, ridicule, and vague adaptability. They’re briefly significant in the election cycle because they can be used to give some momentum to a candidate’s campaign, as the final months close in. They’re ridiculed because, while seemingly senior in management, they’re often sidelined next to other key positions such as Chief of Staff or Secretary of State. And then their actual role remains vague, depending on the administration, and adaptable, because their responsibilities may change depending on the issues at hand, their credibility, or image.
All of these things are as true for any VP as they’ve been for the current incumbent, Kamala Harris. And yet, with an approval rating hovering in the 30s (a few points below Joe Biden’s), she seems to be suffering the brunt more unjustly. To the left, this is because she is a woman and mixed race. To the right (and many others aside), this is kind of for the same reasons, if with a twist. They see Kamala Harris’ very appointment in terms of affirmative action; a choice made solely to appeal on the grounds of identity politics. To reel in those wide-eyed liberals.
This is a tough ordeal for Harris because she can’t exactly deny such criticisms. Indeed, it was always Biden’s plan to choose a woman as his running mate but given she’d been relatively tough on him in the debates, she also might’ve drawn some early intrigue for her strength in challenging a potential “yes man” agenda. This might’ve mattered to some. To most, it probably didn’t.
But say, Harris was just what many expected; a choice to appease Democratic voters. This is hardly different (beyond the issues of gender and race) in making such a decision. Kennedy picked Johnson (despite disliking him) to win the South. Roosevelt was forced to go with Truman for his fourth round, to appease his party. Mike Pence was hardly a regular at Trump’s various resorts but yielded an opportunity to appeal to more traditional, evangelical Republicans. This kind of appointment is nothing new. And yet…
Well, things have changed a bit. The cultural and political wars of today are more toxic than ever. There is increasing skepticism and frustration with the Democratic Party and liberals today (from within and outside the party) on how important identity politics has become in electing and appointing important positions. Credibility is at play on the level of perception and media coverage. Plus, more tangibly, there’s the matter of Sleepy Joe’s age. He’s 80. And while relatively fit for the job, one can’t help but hover over the matter of mortality. Indeed, the question of whether he’ll run again in 2024 has been springing up at every occasion (he plans to, by the way). This is awkward for Harris because (already labelled an affirmative action pick), she’s been perceived as a forced successor; a more likely leader than most VPs have been before her. The optics are concerning.
The gullible (or innocent) response to this quagmire would be to posit that Harris need only prove herself in the role she has to attain credibility. If you regard most the criticisms of Harris however, they’ve been mostly vague: weak on immigration (not exactly a simple issue to tackle); not doing enough to support Biden and conversely, out there too much or hidden in the background; and “dysfunctions” in her office (as if Trump’s cabinet didn’t changed a thousand times in his first year). Again, this role is largely symbolic and without definition. Harris’ main prerogative seems to be addressing immigration, voting reform, and other issues (e.g. the destruction of Roe v. Wade) with an ambassadorial-type approach, which granted hasn’t yielded any phenomenal results. But the same people who’d argue how disastrous she’s been would likely be hard-pressed to define the legacy of past VPs such as Pence or Biden, himself. The point is that most people simply don’t care about the actual job, whatever they think it may be.
To return to the matter of image then, Harris faces a challenge there may be no solution to. It seems to me that she’s been given a raw deal on one hand but on the other, having watched her give several interviews, I’m not exactly impressed by her traditionally political, say-a-bunch-without-saying-anything approach either (see her on Colbert recently; cringe). The 2024 election is looming and where the question of Biden’s age lingers, so too does a tangent on Harris’ continued suitability. At the end of the day, is she worth the hassle? Would offing her prove cowardly or tactically smart? If Biden’s credibility is at stake, I think he’d be better off sticking with her; the image of loyalty supersedes political meanderings. They may be no Obama-Biden, but they can at least stick it out and maybe one day, Harris’ legacy will be revised to reflect her support of this administration rather than her attributes as a candidate.