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July 21, 2021 Feature

The Kamala Harris Vice Presidency—What Does It Mean?

By Erin Gordon

As a biracial, first-generation American woman who graduated from a historically Black college and university, Vice President Kamala Harris is the very definition of intersectionality, making her election both historically and culturally significant.

Historic Development and Natural Progression from Her Predecessors

“In a real sense, her election was a historic moment. She was elected after 58 elections in which the two people elected were men,” says St. Louis University Law Professor Joel Goldstein, an expert on the vice presidency. “In many ways, her election is more historically significant than the election of the president. She personifies America’s basic ideals: inclusiveness, opportunity, equality. It’s a much different moment than when Al Gore, Dick Cheney, or Joe Biden became vice president.”

Women have long been excluded from serving in the office because the executive branch traces its origins to the military, according to Lara Brown, director of George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management in Washington, D.C. “Our entire notion of the executive branch has had a masculine cast. And Harris’s breaking that barrier is very important.”

Feminist scholar Jo Freeman says Harris’s election should be viewed not as a stimulus but rather as an inflection point. “She’s part of a long-term process,” says Freeman, referring to previous candidates Geraldine Ferraro, Sarah Palin, and Hillary Clinton. “She’s just more visible than others.”

How Harris Earned Her Position

Harris’s “deep, deep knowledge in so many areas of expertise” elevated her among other contenders for the nomination, according to Stephanie Schriock, president of Emily’s List, which works to elect women Democrats. “She was District Attorney of San Francisco, [and] Attorney General of California—which is a huge executive job for a state with the fourth largest economy in the world. Add her strength in domestic and foreign policy from her time in the Senate and she’s the whole package.”

Freeman also notes the importance of Harris’s personal connections in landing the nomination. “That she was a friend of Biden’s son Beau made the difference. And there’s the significance of Harris’s being a[n alumna] member of a Black sorority, a group of women who actively seek to promote their own into office.” Almost all Black women in office were once members of these sororities, according to Freeman.

What Harris Will Make of Her Vice Presidency

Although Harris has finally broken through the glass ceiling that Hillary Clinton famously said had 18 million cracks in it, her success or failure as vice president will depend primarily on President Biden.

“Her opportunities and constraints will be determined by the president, not because of her gender but because of the nature of the office,” which has no decision-making power in and of itself, Brown explains. Nevertheless, Harris is expected to go far in the role, given that Biden has already shown he wants her to be his true partner.

There is already a huge contrast between the Biden-Harris relationship and, say, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, Freeman adds. “JFK and Johnson were mismatched. JFK picked him [solely] because he needed Texas to win, and then he largely ignored Johnson,” she explains. In contrast, “Biden and Harris look a lot more compatible.”

During Harris’s selection, Biden insisted that she would be the last person in the room—the last person he leaves meetings with, the person who could change his mind, Goldstein points out. “I expect her role to develop but to look a lot like Biden’s own vice presidency: a close, across-the-board advisor, a troubleshooter,” he says.

Harris has an office in the West Wing right between Biden’s chief of staff and the national security advisor, which “symbolizes that she’s important,” Goldstein notes. “She also has a weekly private lunch with the president.”

Harris’s particular assignments may be influenced by her intersectionality—the fact that she’s a woman, Black, Indian American, and the child of immigrants.

“Her demographic creates an opportunity for certain diplomatic roles, for different speaking assignments,” Goldstein says. “She has a lot of life experience, so there may be areas where she has additional insights or credibility and can speak with authority.”

Other assignments could include criminal and civil justice, given her background as a prosecutor and a government lawyer, as well as her work on Senate committees, including the Judiciary Committee.

In the past, many vice presidents, such as Mike Pence and Al Gore, were given more domestic responsibility because the president they served with wanted the role of chief diplomat. The Harris-Biden dynamic is different given Biden’s longstanding relationships in Washington, Brown notes.

“The president and vice president are typically about balancing—geographics, factions within the party, and generation,” she explains. “Since Jimmy Carter, the Washington outsider president has picked a Washington insider vice president: Clinton-Gore, Bush-Cheney, Obama-Biden. Now, it’s the opposite situation. Biden is a 40-plus-year Washington insider and our present crisis is domestic. So he may hand foreign policy to Harris.”

Although Biden is the linchpin in Harris’s success or failure, his service as vice president for eight years bodes well for her.

“Most presidents don’t know what it’s like to be vice president, but he appreciates the possibilities of the office and its frustrations,” Goldstein says. “Also, Biden’s signature characteristic is empathy. Those two factors are encouraging for Harris. Biden is likely to be helpful to her as she navigates the office.”

Regardless, the public is likely to grant Harris less margin for error than her male predecessors. “Unfortunately, it’s [still] a fact of our life: Women and people of color are treated differently than white men,” Goldstein notes.

There may be efforts to minimize her role, to conflate it with the role of First Lady, Brown adds. “Her being the first woman to serve as vice president is tricky,” she says. “We saw it with the inaugural coverage. Should we talk about her clothes? Does that trivialize her role? We’re having to reorient our understanding of leadership.”

To survive the added scrutiny, Harris’s primary job is to not make any gaffes, according to Freeman. “It’s hard to say if she will be judged harsher than white men,” she says. “Gore made no gaffes, but he inherited gaffes from Clinton. So, to some extent, she will [similarly] be judged by what Biden does.”

Although it is still the early days for the Biden-Harris administration, it is not too soon for opinions about how Harris is faring.

“What she’s doing right now is what I would expect: She’s spending time with the president, attending briefings, asking questions, establishing the fact that she’s in the room, establishing early on that she has access to the president. That he listens to her makes her a player,” Goldstein says.

“She becomes important to everyone else—to foreign leaders and to others in government,” he continues. “She’s already called foreign leaders in France, Australia, and the Congo. It’s her way of making a contribution and establishing relationships. She’s laying the groundwork.”

Future Impact of Harris’s Vice Presidency

Harris’s historic service will undoubtedly change how the office of vice president is perceived.

“In popular culture—on almost all movies, sitcoms, TV series—women didn’t gain [executive] office by election but rather by some odd turn of events,” Brown notes. “It always raised the question: Should a woman be a legitimate vice president or president?” That ended with Harris’s election.

For watchers of women in politics, it is exciting to know that the vice presidency is, traditionally, the best springboard for becoming president. According to Brown, Biden is already looking to help Harris establish the credentials she would need to be his successor.

If Biden decides not to run in 2024, he could endorse her as his heir apparent like Clinton did with Gore. He could, instead, elect to step back and make it an open contest, like Obama did in 2016. “Usually, the runner-up for the nomination in the previous election is considered ‘on deck’ for the nomination unless the vice president gets the blessing from the president to be the party’s standard bearer,” Brown says.

Biden is already showing signs that he intends to endorse Harris, “though there are always un[fore]seen circumstances,” Brown notes.

This leads to the age-old question: Would Harris, a biracial woman, be electable?

“Political science research shows that women are as electable as men,” Brown says. “The issue isn’t gender but party. Only one person in recent history has won a third term for his party: George H.W. Bush. Harris has a lot better chance of becoming president if Biden doesn’t run again in ’24.”

There is another white man besides Biden who factors into Harris’s future; namely, former president Trump.

“If she’s the candidate in ’24, predictions for her success will depend on whether Trump runs,” Freeman says. “Apart from Trump—and my jaw drops open at his loyal following—I don’t see any truly outstanding Republican candidates, though there are plenty of competent candidates.”

If Harris makes no gaffes and Trump does not run, then her future “falls back on normal political science,” Freeman adds. “The single best predictor of a presidential election outcome is the state of the economy on election day.” More particularly, “it’s the state of the economy for particular voters; in 2016, the economy was in good shape, so Hillary should have won, but the economy was actually lousy in certain battleground states.”

The second most important predictor of an election outcome is voters’ gut feeling about the incumbent and the incumbent party, Freeman says. Harris will have a shot at being the first woman president “if Biden and Harris don’t alienate big groups, if the economy is good, and if she commits no gaffes,” she notes. “Those are lots of ifs.”

No matter where Harris lands after the vice presidency, Schriock expects her serving in the role to have a ripple effect in politics and society at large.

“It’s so hard to be what you can’t see, so it’s hard to underestimate the importance of seeing a woman, a Black and Asian-American woman, as vice president,” Schriock says. “Her presence is critically important for encouraging others to rise up and run for office,” she continues. “We were already seeing a surge in women interested in running since the 2016 election, which is a credit to Hillary Clinton. Others saw Clinton run, saw her attacked, saw her lose, and instead of stepping back, they rose up. And now we see the power of the victory. We were already at a moment of sea change, and Harris’s election threw gasoline on it. This is a generational shift, and Harris took it to the next level.”

Schriock expects this Kamala Effect to transcend politics. “In this country, women and men don’t see women in executive positions. More than 20 states, including California, have never had a woman governor. There still aren’t a lot of women CEOs,” she says. “It’s incredible to have a woman in a visible executive position, and after the pandemic, we’ll see more of her as she begins traveling. Culturally, it’s going to have a big effect.”

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By Erin Gordon

A former lawyer, Erin Gordon is a San Francisco–based legal affairs journalist and the author of the women’s fiction novels Cheer, Heads or Tails, and Beshert.