May 30, 2024
She's performing the traditional political role played by most vice presidents.

The campaign to rehabilitate Vice President Kamala Harris’ image is well under way, suggesting the Democrats have finally recognized the potential problem her low public standing poses for President Joe Biden’s re-election.

“Why Vice President Harris Is Invaluable for 2024,” headlined a nine-page memo from Biden-Harris campaign manager Julie Chavez Rodriguez and Becca Siegel, the campaign’s chief data operative. They argued her stress on issues important to core Democrats outweighs any popular shortcomings.

“ICYMI: Vice President Kamala Harris Takes on Gun Safety Reform and Critical 2024 Role,” headed another release, citing an array of articles about her recent appearances.

Actually, the campaign to spotlight Harris coincides with signs that she has found more of her political bearings, though it’s not yet apparent in the polls. Serving as the administration’s spokesperson on abortion, gun control and racial issues suits her a lot better than her initial assignment on immigration.

Harris downplays that there’s been a change. “It’s not as though I’ve just found myself,” she told Politico in a recent interview. “I’ve always been here and never went away.” But she has lately shown greater willingness to challenge the Republicans, while shedding some of the caution that marked her first two years as vice president.

In a sense, Harris is performing the traditional political role played by most vice presidents from Richard Nixon to Joe Biden, serving as something of an attack dog on the opposition’s perceived weaknesses.

Biden has also not hesitated to take on the GOP politically, making frequent references to “MAGA Republicans” and singling out Republican foes like Alabama Sen. Tommy Tuberville and Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson.

Harris’ initial struggles were hardly surprising. Picked to provide racial and ideological balance and fulfill Biden’s pledge to pick a female running mate, she was far less experienced than the president, a veteran of five decades in Washington.

She had been a senator for only two years and spent much of it running for president and then vice president. And she lacked a close personal relationship with Biden.

Besides, the president had a well-established coterie of mostly male senior advisers from his years in the Senate, as vice president and his presidential campaign.

One of her two original assignments was to help pass broad-ranging voting rights legislation to counter restrictive GOP state laws, a no-win proposition because of the Senate’s filibuster rule and Biden’s unwillingness to change it.

The second was immigration, but mainly finding ways to counter the impact of Central American poverty and crime on the refugee influx into the United States.

As a result, she forswore a visit to the U.S.-Mexican border as outside her realm of responsibility, looking foolish in the process and prompting predictable Republican criticism that she was ignoring the impact of administration policies on the problems there.

Turnovers in her senior staff underscored her reputation for personnel problems. And her ability to represent the administration around the country was limited by the need to stay in Washington to break ties in the 50-50 Senate.

That remains a problem, since the Democrats’ 51-49 margin has been hampered by the independence of Sens. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia and the frequent absence of ailing 90-year-old California Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

However, the Supreme Court’s 2022 decision overturning its 1973 ruling legalizing a woman’s right to an abortion has given her a natural issue on which to take the administration’s lead.

A second area tailor-made for Harris was the campaign by some GOP presidential candidates, notably Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, against teaching “woke” policies like the history of racial and sexual equality.

When the Florida Board of Education adopted new Black history standards to meet legislation pushed by DeSantis, she promptly flew to Jacksonville to denounce them, showing a flexible and aggressive response often lacking in her first two years.

Though she rejected the Florida governor’s invitation to debate the issue, her more outspoken role produced a spate of positive stories and columns, which the Biden-Harris reelection campaign was only too happy to publicize.

“ICYMI: Washington Post: Column: With passionate case against MAGA, Harris comes into her own,” headlined a press release citing a Jennifer Rubin column contending the former California attorney general “has always shined when bringing the goods on an opponent, formulating a winning argument and delivering it with relish.”

But Harris has a long way to go to overcome the widespread skepticism within Democratic Party ranks and the country at large over her qualifications to be president, something GOP candidates often raise.

“Joe Biden is the oldest president in history and, if he’s re-elected, we could end up with a President Harris,” said former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley.

A Los Angeles Times average of polls measuring the vice president’s popularity shows 40% of registered voters with a favorable opinion of Harris and 53% an unfavorable opinion, a tad lower than Biden’s approval level.

Campaign officials, unsurprisingly, stress her positives.

“More than any approval polling,” proclaimed the Rodriquez-Siegel memorandum, “is that the Vice President has established herself as a fearless voice on many of the issues that are most important to voters in the Biden-Harris coalition. “

They also count on the fact that, historically, vice presidential nominees play very little role in determining presidential voting choices. Only the election itself will show if that differs for the running mate of an 80-year-old candidate.

Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. ©2023 The Dallas Morning News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency.