Vice President Kamala Harris is a pioneer, a political celebrity and — as a media-savvy Gen Xer — a natural successor to the oldest president ever elected. She’s also in trouble.
Harris’ approval numbers have been in steady decline since Inauguration; she has a lower net favorability rating than any of the last four vice presidents. Reports have painted her office as dysfunctional, and several top staff members have left in recent weeks.
It’s not all her fault — her boss’ numbers are slipping too, and she’s been handed a portfolio of friction-filled policy issues like immigration and voting rights. She’s also taken heat from the media in ways that her defenders say is unique to the country’s first female, Black and South Asian vice president.
So … looking ahead to 2024, or 2028, what would it take for Harris to turn things around? Could she follow Biden’s trail to the Oval Office, or is she stuck in Dan Quayle and Al Gore territory? POLITICO Magazine reached out to a group of seasoned political strategists — operatives who’ve guided Bill Clinton, John McCain, Barack Obama and others through the rocky shoals of politics — and asked: What can the vice president do to get her star back?
‘Kamala Harris needs one transformational project’
Douglas Schoen is a political analyst, campaign consultant and former adviser to President Bill Clinton.
Kamala Harris needs one transformational project. It is very unlikely to virtually impossible that she will have any appreciable success with voting rights or immigration, both because of the nature of the problems and the intractable opposition of Republicans. She needs a project to focus on that she can get clear and demonstrable results on, such as encouraging vaccination in hard-to-persuade groups.
Unless she meets achievable goals on problems of central importance to America, she will fail utterly and end up as a marginalized and discredited political figure with little if anything to show for her time in the nation’s second highest office. Her staff departures only confirm that absent a reboot, she is likely to be as relevant as Dan Quayle was in 1992 and thereafter.
‘Allow the Kamala Harris the public fell in love with to break free’
Michelle D. Bernard is a political analyst, lawyer, author, and president and CEO of the Bernard Center for Women, Politics & Public Policy.
Kamala Harris has always been and will always be a star. Regardless of the environment — from San Francisco district attorney to California attorney general, to U.S. senator and now vice president — she understands her duties are to the American people. The only thing that needs to be done to allow her star to shine brightly once again is to allow the Kamala Harris the public fell in love with to break free from the fairy dust sprinkled on her no doubt by some well-meaning handlers.
Unlike some of her predecessors, Kamala Harris is not a sedate, stodgy, older white man. The daughter of immigrants, she is a Black woman of Jamaican and Indian descent. She’s a feminist. And she’s a politician with a background as a former prosecutor who has worked tirelessly to put criminals where they belong, while advocating for the rights and dignity of all Americans. Harris is warm, charismatic and bright. Her laugh is infectious and her rapport with children heartwarming. The Kamala Harris who danced with a marching band and in the rain is the Kamala Harris the public misses. Unleash the Kamala Harris who left former Attorney General William Barr stuttering during a hearing; let loose the superwoman who, during a vice presidential debate, rebuffed Mike Pence’s attempts to cut her off by looking him directly in the eyes and boldly stated, “I’m speaking.” That Kamala Harris was fierce, and women and the public loved her.
Ultimately, staff turnovers are inevitable. Harris should be given the leeway to hire advisers and staffers she knows and trusts and who fully understand her and how she operates so that she can best serve the president’s agenda and the needs of the American people.
‘Get her out of the stagnation associated with Washington’
Michael Starr Hopkins is a Democratic strategist who has served on the presidential campaigns of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John Delaney.
Female politicians are overly scrutinized. It’s an unfair reality. The only way to counteract that cruel truth is to take more political risks and interact with more voters. Kamala Harris should use the midterms as an opportunity to hit the campaign trail and find her voice. Authentic moments have been few and far between for the vice president, so the goal should be for her to drop the notes and allow herself to be in the moment. It’s no mistake that she’s risen through the ranks and made history in such incredible fashion; she is supremely talented. But, from the moment she walked off stage at her presidential launch rally, she hasn’t been able to find her voice. Now is her best chance.
Midterms are a perfect opportunity to remind voters how Vice President Harris ascended to become the first female vice president and why she is next in line for the presidency. Stumping for young, fresh-faced candidates — like Mandela Barnes in Wisconsin or Malcolm Kenyatta in Pennsylvania — would not only be good for Harris’ brand, but it would get her out of the stagnation associated with Washington and create a new, more positive narrative.
‘Voters care about the person and whether they’re three-dimensional and likable’
Liz Mair is a Republican strategist who has worked on campaigns by John McCain, Scott Walker, Roy Blunt, Rand Paul, Carly Fiorina and Rick Perry.
People just hate politicians who read as inauthentic — and Kamala Harris has been steadily exuding that more and more since the first Democratic presidential debate. She needs to figure out who she really is by doing an audit of her closest friends and family and the advisers who got her to the Senate — not the ones who have been working with her as VP. That means a lot more people who knew her well in California, like Ace Smith, and not people who have gotten to know her in the nation’s capital. Some of this can happen right now with staff departures and reshuffles already in the works; it’s actually the perfect time.
Then, she needs to lean in to whoever or whatever that Kamala is — warts and all. It may be that people won’t like that version of her, either. But at least they’ll trust that they’re seeing the real her. As it is, she has developed a reputation for shifting with political winds too much — rejecting her background as a tough prosecutor, for example, which with concerns about rising crime might actually help her.
That audit should focus on non-political qualities and abilities, too. People think it’s sexist to say she might do better by guesting on a cooking show and making jerk chicken, but male politicians have gotten a lot of mileage out of cooking and food-related things, too. (Fun fact: The Harris Teeter in Arlington used to give out free cookbooks stacked with recipes from people like Tom Daschle and Joe Lieberman — it’s actually our family’s favorite and most-used cookbook.) I don’t know if she’s into sports, but that also works. Obama got so much traction and love from people who were not political at all, and not die-hard Democrats, because of his interest in and willingness to talk basketball. The March Madness basketball brackets we ran as part of the 2008 John McCain campaign were massively successful. A lot of people loved that former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice wasn’t just a very smart lady with amazing foreign policy chops, but that she could also play the piano like a virtuoso and was really into football. Voters care about the person and whether they’re three-dimensional and likable. Policy really isn’t what they concern themselves with.
One other concern I hear a lot about Harris is that she’s just not ready to take over as president. So, use this time to get deeper into foreign policy and defense, two areas that are really core to the job of being president. Immigration policy and practice is important. So are voting rights. But neither speaks to the job of being president the way that deeply immersing herself in China issues and policy would.
‘She should fast refashion herself as a West Wing subject matter expert’
Charles Ellison is a political strategist and talk-radio producer and host.
Clearly, current reporting on Kamala Harris contains elements of a very well-coordinated smear campaign that is unprecedented in its scale and level of obsession with the inner workings of a vice president’s office. What elected official isn’t a difficult boss?
Still, quiet as it has been kept, Harris has always appeared to struggle even when she’s been, politically, on the upswing. As a result, her stumbles sometimes seem uncannily reminiscent of the fictitious Selina Meyer, the protagonist in HBO’s “Veep.” Some honesty will be needed on that. Her allies and fans must now put to rest, for good, the gratuitous fascination with being a Black and woman “first.” Conversation must center on competence and intellectual ponderance. She can ably channel both; she didn’t arrive in the White House by accident.
Obviously, she is a vice president, and she can only act at the bidding of her president; that said, she should fast refashion herself as a West Wing subject matter expert and brain trust on a wide range of issues. To date, she has not, but that could be turned around by quietly demanding from Biden that he puts her more in the role of close adviser than human prop. Lastly, Vice President Harris needs coaching on giving stronger and much more earnest speeches that reflect the gravity of the mood and times we live in. We want Harris to be on the center stage but to do away with the constant grin flashes and repetitive head nods of someone who can’t stop being smitten with their new surroundings. Every visible opportunity must offer a public glimpse of a strong and decisive future President Harris.
‘Her fate is intertwined with that of the administration she serves’
Beth Hansen is a longtime Republican political adviser and was the presidential campaign manager for John Kasich.
Former Senator and Ohio Governor George Voinovich had a favorite saying: “Do a good job with the job you have, and the future will take care of itself.”
Does Kamala Harris have some challenges right now? You bet she does: relatively new to Washington; handed a portfolio that includes one of the most difficult issues of our day, immigration; serving a president she contested for the nomination; in a political landscape more aggressively divided than in recent memory; at a time when civil discourse seems to be a lost art; and serving as the first woman and woman of color in national office. But does she have a problem, or are these the realities of one of the toughest jobs in politics?
Her favorability largely tracks that of President Biden, and her numbers are not all that dissimilar from Vice President Pence’s favorability at similar points in his first year in office. I would argue that Harris and her allies should focus on executing flawlessly on those things within their control. In the long run, her fate is intertwined with that of the administration she serves, and being a confident, capable ally of the president is the best way to ‘get her star back’ over time.
‘The repairs must be done a bit at a time, day after day, not by some dramatic “reset”’
Larry J. Sabato is founder and director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.
Kamala Harris’ focus should be almost exclusively on helping President Biden succeed, not least because her fate is directly tied to his. Unless Biden is viewed as a success, it’s nearly impossible to see how she could be.
Like the boss, she has a position that is splendid misery. But none of her rivals has access to the platform she possesses. She has more opportunities than anyone but the president to let voters get to know her — Harris the person as well as the politician. It’s the one thing she can control. Any TV show, newsy or otherwise, would welcome her at almost any time.
Harris is perceived (fairly or not) as synthetic and elitist. She has repair work to do on her image, and except for any high-profile actions in a future crisis or controversy, the repairs must be done a bit at a time, day after day, not by some dramatic “reset” that would be instantly recognized as artifice.