Vice President Harris is forging her own path

OPINION: In the past month, Vice President Kamala Harris has stepped more into the spotlight and seems ready for the presidential campaign ahead.

The Rev. Al Sharpton, Vice President Kamala Harris and Attorney Ben Crump walk and sing across the Edmund Pettus Bridge with others commemorating the 59th anniversary of the Bloody Sunday voting rights march in 1965, Sunday, March 3, 2024, in Selma, Ala. (Photo by Mike Stewart/AP)

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

For three years, I’ve consistently heard this critique of Vice President Kamala Harris: “Where is she? What is she doing in her role?” Although President Joe Biden and his surrogates have consistently branded his policies as the Biden-Harris White House, the notion that the vice president is missing in action seems to persist. 

However, as the 2024 campaign heats up, it is clear that the Biden-Harris campaign is utilizing the vice president in matters international and domestic and making her the face and voice of a more progressive campaign strategy. But it is uncertain if Harris’ recent high-profile events and speeches eight months before the election can undo years of mockery and doubt engendered by temperament and sometimes unintelligible combinations of words and phrases.

Since the role of the vice president has never been clearly defined, this is the time for Harris to be emboldened. The intersection of racism and sexism she has experienced as vice president already placed her in a category by herself. The historic nature of the modern-day threats to our democracy from abroad, at home, and even within our institutions makes her speeches and activities even more pressing and relevant as we near Election Day on Nov. 5.

A few weeks ago, it was Harris, and not Biden, who gave a forceful speech about the Israel-Gaza conflict. Whereas the president (at the time) still was trying to outwardly work with and support Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, it was Harris who more directly called for a ceasefire. It was Harris who recently marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge with civil rights leaders past and present to commemorate Bloody Sunday and evoke the image of a young John Lewis fighting for civil and voting rights. 

Vice President Kamala Harris speaks at a Planned Parenthood clinic, Thursday, March. 14, 2024, in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. (Photo by Adam Bettcher/AP)

As Biden laid out his administration’s support for a woman’s right to choose and upholding the 1973 decision litigated in Roe v. Wade, it was Harris who made history by visiting a Minnesota Planned Parenthood clinic. In doing so, her visit was the first time a sitting U.S. president or vice president visited an abortion provider. 

The role of the vice president never has been easily defined. Traditionally, presidents and vice presidents have been strange bedfellows. President John Kennedy and Vice President Lyndon Johnson were known to have a frosty relationship and different leadership and communication styles. Similarly, the charismatic former-actor-turned-president Ronald Reagan was often more effective in communicating than his second-generation politico and former head of CIA vice president, George H.W. Bush. And Donald Trump notoriously took jabs at his ultra-religious vice president, Mike Pence, even as Pence brought white evangelicals into the Republican fold despite the president’s persistent moral failings in speech and action.

When then-California Sen. Kamala Harris made history by becoming the first woman, first African-American and first South Asian elected to the office, the possibilities for her relationship with Biden were limitless … and unknown. Would she be a partner and counsel to the president as Biden had been to former President Barack Obama? Would she essentially run the White House as Republicans feared, as Dick Cheney had during George W. Bush’s tenure? Would she be a miscellaneous shrub in the White House as many Republicans hoped, like Dan Quayle was during George H.W. Bush’s tenure? Or would she have her own policy portfolio and occasionally serve as a confidante for the president, all while waiting in the wings for her turn to shine, as Al Gore had during former President Bill Clinton’s tenure?

Harris, for much of her tenure as vice president, has been a quiet presence, selling the Biden agenda to HBCUs, women’s groups and younger voters. Harris and Biden had not served for years together in the U.S. Senate and were relatively unknown to one another. Biden knew the role of the vice president well, having served dutifully under someone roughly 20 years his junior (with barely two years of a Senate term under his belt). 

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However, it is apparent Biden has entrusted his vice president with a significant policy portfolio, from the outset, ranging from voting rights to vaccine hesitancy to police reform to immigration reform at the southern border. The initial portfolio was filled with so many diverse and pressing policy initiatives, that I actually wondered if it was a trap or a setup for the vice president, ostensibly stuffing her plate with so many longstanding policy battles that anything short of success would be placed squarely on her shoulders. 

Until recently, fairly or unfairly, the perception of Harris has been that of a person not quite suited for the responsibilities of the vice presidency and definitely not ready for the presidency. Her successes were not clearly articulated by the administration. And her missteps in interviews and the endless memes and clips depicting the vice president as someone who speaks in a litany of word salad did not help to assuage concerns that she was ill-suited for her current job and possibly the bigger job of president. There has been, and continues to be, an air of dysfunction surrounding Harris’ tenure as vice president, whether real or perceived, that has served as an Achilles heel she struggles to shed. 

The intersection of race and gender surely contributes to some of the disdain from certain population segments. If Hillary Clinton, arguably one of the most accomplished presidential candidates in modern history, couldn’t make it across the finish line, it will take a lot more than what Harris is giving to be seen as the true heir apparent to Biden. 

Annie Pearl Avery, left, poses for a photo with Vice President Kamala Harris on Sunday, March 3, 2024, before walking across the Edmund Pettus Bridge commemorating the 59th anniversary of the Bloody Sunday voting rights march in 1965, in Selma, Ala. (Photo by Mike Stewart/AP)

The GOP is already painting the picture for their supporters that an octogenarian president and a Black female vice president more than two decades his junior could result in Harris as president, something that Republicans, and even some Democrats, would find hard to digest. A Black woman becoming president before a white woman does not sit well with many, and a Black woman being elected president before a white woman seems almost impossible for many brains to comprehend.

Thus far, the vice president has not been blamed directly for the shortcomings of the Biden-Harris administration. However, her role in connecting with voters across the country has not necessarily been pushed to the forefront either. As of late, Harris appears to be occupying a space that allows her to take more risks communicating with voters; essentially, she can float what political scientists call “trial balloons” to see if her ideas and speeches resonate with Democratic voters, independents and white women, who by and large, tend to vote for the Republican candidate every four years even when it is directly against their interests.

In the past month, Harris has stepped more into the spotlight and seems ready for the campaign ahead. After Biden’s State of the Union, it appears the Biden-Harris campaign has received the much anticipated B-12 shot needed to galvanize donors and supporters and to put to rest some underlying questions about their “fit” for the years ahead. I am a firm believer of playing the cards in my hand, not the cards I wished I’d received. Now is the time for Harris to remain in the spotlight. Now is the time to convince voters that she has earned her spot as vice president and is ready to serve in whatever leadership capacity is needed. Time is of the essence. If Harris fails to make the case for herself, she best believe her opponents will make a case of their own.

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Christina Greer, Ph.D., is an associate professor at Fordham University; author of “Black Ethnics: Race, Immigration, and the Pursuit of the American Dream”; and co-host of the podcast FAQ-NYC and host of “The Blackest Questions” podcast at TheGrio. She is a 2023-24 Moynihan Public Scholars Fellow at CCNY.