Vice President Kamala Harris‘ team is embarking on a series of course changes that her aides and supporters hope will bolster her public image and reset her political outlook, after a first year in office that some of her supporters say allies, did not meet expectations.
She hired Jamal Simmons, a seasoned political operative and familiar face on cable news, to oversee her communications. She returned alongside President Biden for major events. She ponders a busier media schedule after months of watching such engagements warily. She is seeking the benefit of an expansive midterm campaign schedule that her aides hope will revive Democrats‘ confidence in her political skills and popular appeal.
And after a year in which Biden has often seemed to hand Harris the responsibility for intractable, dead-end problems, she’s suddenly at the center of what, for now at least, is the administration’s top priority: the right. of voting. When Biden gave two of the most high-profile speeches of his presidency on the subject recently, at the U.S. Capitol and in Atlanta, Harris took the floor first and introduced him.
“Years from now our children and grandchildren will be asking us about this moment,” she said in Atlanta. “And let’s tell them that we guaranteed the freedom to vote, we ensured free and fair elections, and we preserved our democracy for them and their children.”
The changes, big and small, come at a pivotal time for the first woman to hold the vice presidency and the first person of Black and Asian descent, according to the White House and vice presidential aides and supporters at the inside and outside the Beltway. Many spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive discussions.
When she was named Biden’s running mate in August 2020, Harris was immediately seen by many Democrats as his heir. But after a series of stumbles on a much-watched stage over the past year, Democrats are faced with a question: Does Harris embody the potential of a diverse 21st-century Democratic party, or will it weaken under the weight of unmet expectations and broken promises?
Simmons declined to comment on planned changes to the communications strategy for this story. Harris has yet to choose a chief spokesperson after the departure of Symone Sanders, who advised her at key times, including on her three international trips. Harris’ communications strategy so far has been marked by a focus on local media with high-profile, often televised interviews scheduled at big times — and with mixed results.
Harris’ first international trip — to Guatemala and Mexico, part of an effort to tackle the root causes of migration in Northern Triangle countries — was colored by an exchange with NBC News’ Lester Holt. in which she awkwardly downplayed the urgency of visiting the border, as Republicans and other critics had urged her to do. Later that month, she gave in to the pressure and paid a visit.
The moment sparked a debate among senior members of the vice president’s team about whether such interviews hurt more than they help, supporters say. For months afterwards, Harris watched those interviews warily, and she’s still breaking out of that defensive posture.
But this week, Harris gave another such interview to Craig Melvin of NBC’s Today Show. And the appearance showed both the potential and the danger of such exposure.
Harris spoke forcefully about the administration’s stance on suffrage, saying no senator “should be absolved of the responsibility to preserve and protect our democracy” — the kind of rhetoric that has won him praise many Democrats.
But she stumbled when asked when Americans can expect to see the administration’s promised coronavirus tests, seeming unsure of the answer. “They’ve been ordered,” she told Melvin. “I have to watch the current information. I think it will be next week. But soon. Absolutely soon. And it is an emergency for us.
Afterwards, White House officials rushed to clarify the timeline to news outlets, saying the tests would be sent out later this month and a contract would likely be awarded within the next two weeks.
It’s not the only bump that has appeared as Harris tries to regain momentum. Simmons, its new communications director, had to apologize last week for years-old tweets in which he asked why immigration officials weren’t detaining “undocumented people”.
Harris supporters have been frustrated for months that Biden handed him politically tense issues — including immigration and voting rights — without giving the vice president enough tools to succeed. Bakari Sellers, a former South Carolina state representative and longtime friend and supporter of Harris, called the portfolio “trash,” saying action on the issues has stalled because Biden doesn’t hadn’t done enough to support her.
A moment that seemed to capture Harris’ fate came last November, when Biden and his top aides spent an afternoon trying to convince House members to vote for his infrastructure bill, the one of his most pressing priorities. Harris was visiting a NASA space flight center at the time, which seemed to underscore his distance from the negotiations.
Harris aides say she had called lawmakers the day before the vote. White House deputy press secretary Sabrina Singh said in a statement that the vice president has been involved in nearly every biggest issue facing the Biden administration.
“Over the past year, the Vice President has worked closely with the President to advance the administration’s goals of protecting the freedom to vote, fighting covid-19, rebuilding our economy, to invest in our nation’s infrastructure, strengthen American leadership, and rebuild America’s relationship with our allies,” Singh said.
While that involvement hasn’t always been apparent, Harris is now enjoying a rare moment when one of his big issues, voting rights, is high on the agenda of the president and the Democratic Party.
Biden and Harris have shown a united front on suffrage in recent days, appearing side by side at major events on Capitol Hill and in Atlanta, projecting an image of partnership and unity. This contrasts with many of Biden’s appearances in the latter part of last year, when Harris was often elsewhere or engaged in a less high-profile event.
Harris staff acknowledges that she faced strong headwinds. She is the most-watched vice president in history, with her own press corps traveling internationally with her and following her opinion polls, not just the president’s. Articles about Harris have obsessed over his laughter, delved into his distrust of Bluetooth headphones and criticized his affinity for expensive Parisian cookware.
Aides say it has been difficult for Harris to shake off a presidential campaign narrative she is struggling to work on. Several articles have criticized his management of staff amid the departure of top aides in the final days of 2021. Critics scattered over two decades have told The Washington Post of an inconsistent and sometimes demeaning boss who burns staffers seasoned individuals who have found success in other demanding, high-level positions.
Harris still faces structural challenges. She entered the White House with a few loyal and longtime staffers, and now has three major vacancies to fill. Of the senior staff in her office as vice president, only two had worked for her before last year: Rohini Kosoglu, Harris’ top domestic policy adviser and former Senate chief of staff, and Josh Hsu, a lawyer for the vice-president and former member of the Senate. leader.
Advocates say many of the attacks on Harris are rooted in racism and sexism, reflecting the bias of people unaccustomed to seeing a woman in power.
Others say Harris faces problems that cannot be solved by one person, even a vice president. Immigration reform, for example, upset a generation of politicians, and the challenge of securing equal voting rights has plagued American society since the 15th Amendment passed in 1870.
“She cannot hold voting rights. No one can own a century-long struggle that defined the country,” said Donna Brazile, a Democratic strategist who ran Al Gore’s campaign in 2000. “It’s a huge mission. It took a civil war, and later a civil rights movement, to get us to where we were before 2020. And it will take a lot more to get us going.
But such assurances have not satisfied activists, who express frustration that Harris asked to be put in charge of voting rights but made little progress. Several voting rights groups boycotted Harris and Biden’s suffrage speeches in Atlanta on Tuesday, saying the golden words were meaningless unless Biden presented a plan to overcome hurdles in Congress and pass effective suffrage laws.
For now, Congress doesn’t seem any closer to that goal. In a floor speech Thursday, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Arizona, reiterated that she would not vote to amend the filibuster, dealing a near fatal blow to any chance of passing suffrage legislation this year. “While I continue to support these bills, I will not support separate actions that aggravate the underlying disease of division that infects our country,” she said.