WASHINGTON – That should have been an easy question.
In Guatemala this week, Vice President Kamala Harris spoke with NBC presenter Lester Holt, who explained to her why she had not made it to the US-Mexico border as part of her work on the causes depths of migration. After the third border question, the vice president seems to have had enough.
“I’ve never been to Europe,” Ms. Harris said. “I don’t understand the point you are making.”
This response puzzled several administration officials who knew that it had prepared at length for the question. Stepping away from the storyline, Ms Harris gave Republicans water for a news cycle that lasted longer than her two-day trip. In another appearance, his direct message to migrants on behalf of President Biden – “don’t come” – was criticized by lawmakers from the progressive wing of his own party.
The trip crystallized something crucial about Ms Harris’ vice-presidency: that she stay true to the message – as she did by telling migrants not to come – or that she unscrew the script, she will not be able to satisfy everyone. With two of the most polarizing issues, migration and voting rights, now in her portfolio, the risk of missteps is so high and the issues so intractable that even her allies say she is in a dead end.
A politician who has always struggled to define himself, Ms Harris is now trying to do so in real time, with two issues that could complicate his own political future and potentially disrupt some of Mr Biden’s central ambitions for his legacy.
“They just got caught off guard on immigration and they opened up significant political vulnerability for themselves,” Richard N. Haass, chairman of the Council on Foreign Relations, to whom Harris turned to get foreign policy advice during the general election, said of the Biden administration’s approach to responding to a wave of migrants at the border. “It was his bad luck that this was his mission. She cannot be successful under these circumstances.
(As for his “Europe” comment, Mr. Haass only had one word: “Inartful.”)
His collaborators say the criticism should not overshadow a trip that, from a political point of view, achieved its diplomatic and economic goals. National Security Council officials continue to flood it with requests for additional overseas travel, viewing its presence in the Northern Triangle countries of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala as a plus for the administration.
Ms. Harris is aware of the issues.
According to interviews with 20 aides, allies and former White House advisers, Ms Harris is trying to shape her vice presidency by tackling difficult political issues, developing relationships she was not known to have in as a senator and adhering to the president’s goals, even though some of what she says now contradicts what she said she previously believed.
“This is the role she signed up for,” Gil Duran, Democratic strategist and former aide to Ms Harris, said in an interview. As a senator, Harris signed a letter criticizing the Trump administration’s use of a public health rule to turn asylum seekers at the border, a position at odds with current administration policy Biden.
But Duran stressed that Democrats’ reception of the Biden administration’s warnings to migrants “could be very different in general elections in the future, and that’s the audience she’s playing for now.”
A charismatic Senator who competed in the 2020 presidential election by drawing comparisons to Barack Obama, Ms. Harris failed to reach the Iowa caucuses in part because she never knew which issues to focus on. As Vice President, Ms. Harris began her tenure as a generalist, largely to learn the rhythms of a President she was still getting to know.
At first, she had two options, worked out by Ron Klain, Mr Biden’s chief of staff. She could develop a small portfolio, diving deep into a few specialist issues. Or she could spend most of her time with Mr. Biden. Ms Harris, who since joining Mr Biden on the ticket has been eager to prove herself a team player, eagerly chose the first option.
When Mr. Biden decided to assign him the Northern Triangle – a task he had taken on during his eight years as Mr. Obama’s vice president – it was seen as “taking one for the sake of it.” team, ”said one of his former associates, who spoke on condition of anonymity to preserve the relationship.
Over a month ago, Ms. Harris started having conversations with the President and Mr. Klain about another area where she felt she could be effective. She had worked on voting rights legislation in the Senate and co-sponsored two of the ambitious bills that were sinking through the chamber. And, as the first black woman and woman of Asian descent to hold her position, the subject was personally important to her.
She told Mr Biden that she would be happy to take the lead on the matter. Mr. Biden agreed.
“I’m glad she’s not waiting for someone to put on her plate what should be on her menu,” said Donna Brazile, who led Vice President Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign. “I can’t think of a better problem for her.”
The challenges of Ms Harris’ new role arose almost immediately: Senator Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, who is seen as a moderate pivot who could help fellow Democrats pass extensive voting rights law, said publicly last week that he couldn’t support it.
He also said he was against removing legislative obstruction, a promise that jeopardizes much of the Biden administration’s agenda, including voting rights.
Mr Manchin’s decision exposed another political reality for Ms Harris: she did not have a strong enough relationship with key lawmakers to negotiate on this issue, or several others facing the administration.
Ms. Harris, who spent part of her four years in the Senate running for president, was not known for forging particularly close relationships with her colleagues, and Mr. Manchin was no exception. She has not acted as one of the administration’s main negotiators on the US bailout Mr. Biden promulgated in March or the US jobs plan, his infrastructure proposal.
Recently, she has tried to raise awareness among her former colleagues. Next week, she will host a bipartisan dinner for the 24 women senators at her official residence on the grounds of the Naval Observatory, her first social event since moving in.
With the passage of any voting rights legislation looking less likely, many Democrats expect Ms Harris to play a role in mobilizing civil rights groups, private businesses and community leaders to push back hundreds of restrictive laws introduced in Republican-run state houses across the country. Next week, it will host a group of Texas Democrats who last month blocked passage of legislation that would have made it harder for Texans to vote.
“You’re going to need a prominent surrogate to tell you, ‘They did it on purpose and you have to come forward to vote.’ Maybe that’s what she ends up doing, ”said Jennifer Palmieri, who was White House communications director under President Barack Obama.
Many of her predecessors struggled with the limits of the vice-presidency, but Ms. Harris, the first woman of color in her post, is the subject of a different scrutiny. She has become the target of attacks from the conservative media, which have so far found no way to attack Mr. Biden head-on. And each of his actions is viewed through the prism of his own political future. By choosing her as his running mate, Mr Biden essentially anointed her as the leading Democratic candidate to succeed her.
For now, however, Ms. Harris is still learning to play a role her boss knows better than anyone.
Realizing that he made a big investment in Ms Harris by choosing her as Vice President, Mr Biden made sure she received the same briefing materials as him and included her in most of his meetings, because, as the White House official put it on, he wants her to absorb his way of thinking. They both receive their daily briefings and media clips on iPad.
Ms Harris also has a weekly one-on-one meeting with Mr Klain, a level of inclusion in the day-to-day work of the White House that Biden aides say was never offered to Mr Biden when ‘he served. as vice president.
“The job of vice president is so difficult because the advice you give is invisible and the tasks you perform are completely at the discretion of the president and his staff,” said David Axelrod, former senior advisor to Mr. Obama. . “For politicians accustomed to leading roles, it can be very frustrating. “
As vice president, Mr. Biden was known to step outside of his office, sometimes ahead of Mr. Obama on hot issues, including same-sex marriage. Ms Harris has not made such missteps, but takes note of the criticism she receives.
Ms Harris is quick to laugh in interviews, a trend that has earned her unflattering headlines. In March, a deceptively edited video that appeared to show her laughing at the plight of children on the southern border gained attention online, frustrating Ms Harris and her relatives. It happened again this week, when she was asked about the border by Mr Holt, and a wave of criticism followed.
“This message was sent out loud that she really doesn’t care,” said Brandon Judd, chairman of the National Border Patrol Council, referring to the NBC interview.
Because she pays close attention to her own media coverage, Ms Harris has addressed her allies with a version of the same question, according to several people briefed on the internal exchanges: Should i ever laugh?
“Women, especially women in leadership positions, are judged much more harshly, and it is a reality,” said Anita Dunn, senior advisor to President Biden. “Of course she is aware of it.”
The President’s advisers say they are satisfied with the progress of Ms. Harris’s trip. Ms Dunn pointed out that Mr Biden called the vice president on Friday, when he was abroad on his first trip abroad, to congratulate her on her work.
“She’ll never have an easy problem,” Ms. Dunn said, “and neither will the President of the United States.”
Zolan Kanno-Youngs contributed reports.