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Washington: In an urgent meeting on the debt ceiling in the Oval Office earlier, Vice President Kamala Harris sat between President Joe Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, symbolically positioned at the centre of the high-stakes talks aimed at staving off a first-ever US default.
Two days later, Harris was on a teleconference with thousands of elected officials and opinion leaders, urging them to ramp up pressure for a deal.
“President Biden and I met with our four congressional leaders on Tuesday here at the White House. We had a productive conversation,” she reported. “We believe that it occurred in good faith, with all the leaders in that meeting agreeing that America will not default.”
US Vice President Kamala Harris arrives for the graduation ceremony of the US Military Academy class of 2023 at Michie Stadium in West Point, NY, on Saturday. Observers have noticed a concerted effort to up her profile.Credit: AP
The public staging of those moments, Democratic operatives say, is part of a concerted effort to bolster Harris’ image in the weeks since Biden announced his reelection. Republicans are already zeroing in on Harris with a sometimes morbid message that couples questions about the president’s longevity with doubts about the abilities of the woman who would succeed him.
Anita Dunn, one of Biden’s closest key political strategists, has recently focused more on the vice president’s schedule and public events, according to people familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive issue. Dunn recently directed the White House public engagement and political teams to help schedule events with Harris, having her promote popular causes like abortion rights and infrastructure spending.
In the three-minute video announcing Biden’s reelection, Harris is featured more than a dozen times, depicted as an engaged leader and Biden’s indispensable partner. On Saturday, she became the first woman to serve as commencement speaker in the 221-year history of the US Military Academy, putting her in a politically resonant setting.
The president and his allies, meanwhile, have made an evident effort to defend Harris and highlight her role in recent weeks, with Biden saying in a television interview that she is “really very, very good”.
The moves reflect the fact that Biden’s fate is entwined with Harris’ in a newly direct way, since his reelection may depend on persuading Americans that she is qualified to step in. Biden would be 86 at the end of a second term, a fact that has not gone unnoticed by voters, let alone Republican adversaries. Meanwhile, Harris’ approval ratings have hovered below 50 per cent, and consistently below Biden’s, her entire tenure.
Republicans, however, are hardly sugarcoating their message.
“I think that we can all be very clear and say with a matter of fact that if you vote for Joe Biden you really are counting on a President Harris, because the idea that he would make it until 86 years old is not something that I think is likely,” former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, who is seeking the Republican nomination for president, told Fox News.
Harris, Haley added in a Fox News op-ed, is one of the “most incompetent elected officials in the country” and is prone to remarks that devolve into “word salad”.
Biden’s allies respond by stressing what they say are Harris’ accomplishments, including helping rally the world against Russia and delivering powerful messages on abortion and voting rights. The Republican attacks on the first woman of black and Asian descent to be vice president, they say, are rooted in racism and misogyny.
Still, Harris’ tumbles over the past two years have vexed Democrats across the country and inside the White House, and aides say there is a nuanced but determined effort at reputational reform.
Several co-chairs of Biden’s reelection campaign said their response to such attacks was simple: dismiss them as a below-the-belt attempt at distraction and stress the progress the nation has made under Biden and Harris.
“We know that race, ethnicity and sexism, all these things have played critical roles in the politics of this country, and there’s a reason we’ve never had a woman president,” said South Carolina Democrat James Clyburn. Referring to Harris’ skin colour, he added, “We’re not going to spend a lot of time apologising for God’s will. That’s beyond our control. We’re going to spend all our time dealing with Joe Biden as president, with the policies that we think are best for the country.”
But Democrats face the reality that polls reflect widespread doubts about Harris. In a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll, 55 per cent said Harris was not qualified to take over as president, up from 38 per cent in 2020.
Individual Democrats said earlier this year that they found Harris’ tenure underwhelming, marked by struggles as a communicator, at times near-invisibility and a naggingly persistent narrative about staff turnover. She is on her second chief of staff, her second chief spokeswoman, and has yet to hire a third communications director after the departure of Jamal Simmons this year. That is a marked contrast with Biden, who has had a steady constellation of advisers for decades.
In a statement, Kevin Munoz, a spokesman for the Biden-Harris 2024-campaign, called Harris “an incredible governing and campaigning partner” and said the Republicans’ criticism was a sign their platform doesn’t resonate with the American people.
“Republicans are resorting to the same tired, failed, and false attacks on Vice President Harris that they’ve used over and over again because they can’t argue on the merits of their unpopular, extreme MAGA agenda,” he said.
Harris joined Biden’s campaign after four years in the Senate and an ill-fated presidential run, and Republicans say she has never found her footing since then. They have seized on one of the tasks Biden gave her – tackling the root causes of irregular migration into the United States. Labelled Biden’s “border czar” Harris was saddled with an issue that has bedevilled generations of politicians from both political parties.
Early in her tenure, Harris stumbled through an interview with NBC News’s Lester Holt as she demurred and then committed to visiting the border, one of several missteps that ricocheted around social media and have been aired repeatedly on Fox News.
Her allies insist that those stumbles have been eclipsed by recent successes. She has been the administration’s voice on abortion rights, a key motivator in the midterm elections, and has had successful foreign trips, including a week in Africa that highlighted her personal ties to the continent and her unique place in American politics.
Harris’ supporters also say the role of vice president makes it all but impossible for her to forge a strong political identity and that her fumbles, if any, occurred when she was new to the job and faced an unrelenting spotlight.
The question for the Biden team is whether it’s too late, analysts said. “We very much deal with sound bites, and her sound bites ended up being Lester Holt and border security . . . staff turnover, that sort of thing,” said Joel Goldstein, a scholar of the vice presidency at St Louis University. “And you don’t have a second chance to make a first impression. Those sorts of early sound bites are what continue to define her.”
Biden, in a television interview this month, argued that Harris has done far more than many onlookers recognise.
“I just think that Vice President Harris hasn’t gotten the credit she deserves,” he told MSNBC. “She was attorney-general of the state of California. She has been a United States senator. She is really very, very good. And with everything going on, she hasn’t gotten the attention she deserves.”
Biden also pushed back in the interview against the notion that he is too old for another term, saying that over the years he has “acquired a hell of a lot of wisdom”. Biden added, “I’m more experienced than anyone that’s ever run for the office. And I think I’ve proven myself to be honorable as well as effective.”
US Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy, left, and Vice President Kamala Harris with President Joe Biden during a debt ceiling meeting in the Oval Office on May 16.Credit: AP
Delaware Democrat Lisa Blunt Rochester, a close Biden ally, said the Republican attacks on Harris were far removed from Americans’ daily concerns.
“Instead of focusing on the policies, people are focusing on the personalities,” Blunt Rochester said. “And really, the focus of this administration has been on how do we make the lives of everyday Americans better? How do we make people safer? How do we make sure that they can, you know, afford their prescriptions, their energy costs?”
The vice president’s allies note that the “President Harris” line of attack is not new. When Biden chose his erstwhile primary rival as his running mate in 2020, Republicans tried unsuccessfully to paint her as a puppet master who would pull the strings of an aged president.
US Vice President Kamala Harris at the Munich Security Conference in February.Credit: Getty
After the vice-presidential debate that year, Trump called her “this monster that was onstage with Mike Pence”. Republicans focused on her laugh, her shopping choices and her relationship with Senator Elizabeth Warren, also a Democrat, in an effort to depict her as unserious, radical or both.
Over the years, both parties have sought to ridicule running mates who were seen as not up to taking over the presidency.
In 1988, when George HW Bush selected an untested young senator named Dan Quayle as his running mate, Democrats circulated images of Edvard Munch’s The Scream with the phrase, “President Quayle”. By 1992, when Bush sought reelection, a majority of Americans– including substantial numbers of conservatives – wanted Bush to drop Quayle from the ticket.
A starker precedent may be the 2008 election, when Republican nominee John McCain selected the relatively unknown then Alaska governor Sarah Palin as his running mate. At 72, McCain would have been the oldest person to become president, but Biden was 78 when he took office.
Like today’s Republicans, Democrats raised questions about McCain’s age and Palin’s competence. “Do we have confidence that if, God forbid, something happened to John McCain, that Sarah Palin is going to know what to do and is going to have her hand on the tiller of America’s foreign policy? What makes her ready to be commander in chief?” Florida Democrat Debbie Wasserman-Schulz said on MSNBC.
McCain’s response at the time to questions on his age sound like an earthier forerunner of Biden’s message today. “I’m older than dirt and have more scars than Frankenstein, but I’ve learned a few things along the way,” McCain said.
Goldstein, the vice-presidential scholar, said Biden might be able to take solace from another historical example, when Democrats warned in 1956 that reelecting Dwight D. Eisenhower, who had suffered a heart attack a year earlier, would mean handing the White House keys to then-Vice President Richard M. Nixon.
Eisenhower won, anyway, and lived well beyond his time in office.
“The irony is that Eisenhower ended up outliving his critics,” Goldstein said. “He served his term, he lived to see Nixon elected in 1968 and inaugurated in ’69, and he outlived them.”
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