Ever since she became vice president, critiques — both fair and unfair — have plagued Kamala Harris.
There have been questions about how she’s represented the administration as a spokesperson, concerns about staff turnover, and most recently, worries about whether she’s been effective as a VP, and what that could mean for her future as a leader of the party.
The latest wave of criticism featured a number of unnamed Democrats disparaging her and worrying that she wouldn’t be able to win an election at the top of the ticket. As a particularly stinging line in a February New York Times piece put it: “Even some Democrats whom her own advisers referred reporters to for supportive quotes confided privately that they had lost hope in her.”
Such intense scrutiny has been driven, in part, by a heightened focus on Harris as President Joe Biden’s successor. Given the president’s age, and the possibility that Harris may actually have to step into the presidency, there’s been a much bigger spotlight on her record than there otherwise might be. Harris’s identity — she’s the first woman, first Black person and first South Asian person to hold the VP’s office — has also contributed to an unprecedented level of attention relative to her predecessors, historians told Vox.
To better understand Harris’s performance as vice president, and what to make of these critiques, Vox spoke to more than two dozen sources, including White House officials, top Democratic strategists, activists, and academic experts. The White House did not respond to a request for comment and the vice president’s office pointed to a public statement from press secretary Kirsten Allen, who highlighted what Harris has done so far in a Twitter thread.
As we've seen over the past week there is no shortage of people willing to anonymously or publicly tear down the vice president. So since no one seems to know what she has done or is doing I'll put in all in one place:— Kirsten Allen (@KirstenAllen46) February 6, 2023
The conversations revealed four things fueling the criticisms against Harris. First, she’s had a few early public missteps and gaffes. Second, there are lingering questions about how she’s defined her role as vice president. Third, Harris has been held to a higher standard than other VPs, given both her identity and the expectation she may succeed Biden (either imminently or in 2028.) And fourth, some of the criticisms against Harris have overlooked the inherent limitations of the vice presidency.
In response to her detractors, Harris’s supporters note that she’s had several big accomplishments — including serving as the administration’s lead on reproductive rights — that have been overlooked, and they raise another issue: that there’s an outsize focus on her due to racism and sexism.
Ultimately, there are valid critiques of Harris that speak directly to how she would lead as president, and how responsive a Democratic Party led by her could be. At the same time, the discourse on her record doesn’t always capture the full scope of what she’s achieved in the role, or the nuances of the job itself.
The critiques of Harris, briefly explained
Questions about Harris’s effectiveness as a spokesperson reached their peak early during a June 2021 interview with NBC News’s Lester Holt, when she was repeatedly pressed about going to the southern US border during a visit to Guatemala, and offered a confusing response.
“At some point, you know, we are going to the border. We’ve been to the border. So this whole thing about the border, we’ve been to the border. We’ve been to the border,” Harris said when asked about the issue. At the time, Harris had not yet visited as vice president, prompting Holt to note, “You haven’t.”
Since then, other Harris statements have been pilloried. In October 2022, the Daily Show mocked her as serving up a “word salad” when discussing climate change or talking about broadband access.
Harris’s stronger rhetorical performances, like an address about the urgent need for police reform at the funeral for Tyre Nichols, or a fiery speech that marked the 50th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, haven’t received as much attention. This has helped calcify some Democrats’ perception that she’s a poor public speaker. “It doesn’t help that she’s not [that] adept as a communicator,” Jacquelyn Bettadapur, a former head of Georgia’s Cobb County Democrats, told the Washington Post in January, for example.
Beyond questions about these public appearances, critics claim that they don’t know what Harris has done — and that she needs to carve out a niche. “She has to find an issue she owns,” a Democratic strategist told the Hill in January. “She’s not the Recovery Act person or the COVID person or the voting rights person. She could be the champion of women’s rights. But she and her team have to be dogged in approaching that.”
White House officials note that Harris has led both publicly and privately on reproductive rights and voting rights, pointing to the 40 public events she’s held on the former and the 60 engagements she’s had on the latter. And that she’s launched a new effort to address the root causes of migration from Central America.
Still, for some, confusion about Harris’s contributions seems to be driving disenchantment with her vice presidency. “I think some Democrats are disappointed. There was a lot of excitement around her candidacy and the historic nature of her candidacy. And since she’s taken office, that excitement has fallen flat,” says Carly Cooperman, a Democratic strategist.
Staff departures and statements from anonymous sources have also fueled longstanding concerns about Harris’s management skills. In July 2021, former staffers, including some from her time as California’s attorney general, anonymously complained to Business Insider about what they described as a difficult work environment. And amid a presidential campaign that reportedly had some top-level management issues, Harris’s state operations director cited poor staff treatment as a reason for her decision to resign in late 2019.
In June 2021, roughly six months after inauguration, a person with direct knowledge of the office told Politico that it was “not a healthy environment and people often feel mistreated.” This included a culture of blame that stemmed from the top, the person said.
In December 2021, chief spokesperson Symone Sanders, and three other staffers left their roles. And since then, any personnel changes that have occurred have been put under a microscope.
The White House has argued that these departures are standard for roles that are fast-paced and susceptible to burnout. Former staffers who immediately transitioned from the campaign to the administration, for example, said that they needed a break from the constant grind or wanted to spend more time with their families. Multiple former staffers also told Vox that Harris held staffers to a high standard, but was a fair boss.
Harris’s office also isn’t the only one to have senior staff depart after one or two years. The Biden White House overall has seen 8 percent of senior staff leave in the first year and 32 percent leave in the second year, according to an analysis by Brookings Institution fellow Kathryn Dunn Tenpas, a turnover rate on par with that of President George W. Bush’s and President Bill Clinton’s. Vice President Mike Pence’s team also saw several high-level departures in his first year including the exodus of his chief counsel, chief of staff, domestic policy adviser, and press secretary.
Kelly Dittmar, a political science professor at Rutgers, said it was vital to hold elected officials and lawmakers accountable for how they treat their staff. But she added that women, particularly women of color, faced outsize attention for issues related to management. “We see women who are managers in these roles, who get scrutiny of treatment of staff and turnover,” says Dittmar. “That’s a fair critique, but are we making the same critique of Mike Pence, of Joe Biden, of anyone who’s holding these roles?”
Is Biden’s age a problem for the 2024 election?
Harris isn’t the first vice president to make public missteps. During his time as vice president, Biden, a self-proclaimed “gaffe machine,” was constantly making life difficult for his administration.
She is, however, different from other vice presidents in that she’s serving alongside the oldest president ever. Biden will turn 81 this November. Trump was 72 at this point in his presidency; Obama was 49. Biden’s advanced age puts pressure on Harris: perhaps more so than any vice president in recent history, there’s a real chance she’ll need to step into the role of president.
That’s led to her being evaluated not just as a vice president, but as a potential president. But the vice presidency isn’t set up to spotlight presidential skills — it’s a support role, at best.
“I think it’s nearly impossible as a vice president to use the position to your political advantage in a calculated way,” says Kate Andersen Brower, a journalist and author of First in Line, a book on the vice presidency. “The most successful modern vice presidents, Dick Cheney and Joe Biden, were devoted to the presidents they served.”
Despite the Biden administration’s attempts to elevate Harris by referring to the executive branch as the “Biden-Harris administration,” achievements like the Inflation Reduction Act tend to be solely attributed to Biden. That doesn’t mean Harris had nothing to do with those successes, as White House officials repeatedly pointed out in interviews.
Biden’s outgoing Labor Secretary Marty Walsh, for instance, told Vox, “When you think about all these legislative pieces that were passed in Congress, the vice president was part of the conversations with the president, with the Cabinet, whether it was the infrastructure bill, or the IRA, or the CHIPS bill.”
Other officials stressed that Harris pushed people internally to consider the full range of responses to issues that had no hope of legislative solutions, like the end of Roe. “She’s been the one who is always asking the question, ‘Have we thought of everything? Are we doing everything we can, you know, running down every policy?’” one official said, adding that she was deeply involved in discussions about executive actions on reproductive rights.
Outside groups that work on voting rights and reproductive rights offered similar thoughts: “What I don’t think she gets enough credit for is all the work she’s doing behind the scenes. And in some ways that’s the role of the VP,” says LaTosha Brown, a cofounder of Black Voters Matter, who pointed to Harris wielding her influence to make sure voting rights stayed a priority inside the White House and on Capitol Hill.
But because she is a second-in-command, doing much of her work “behind the scenes,” some of these contributions have been less visible. Needing to serve as the tie-breaking vote in the Senate, until recently, also meant that she’s been tied to DC and unable to travel more widely.
There have been some vice presidents who have stepped out of the traditional support role and taken more obvious control of an issue. Vice President Dick Cheney, a former secretary of defense, for instance, had so much influence on the war on terror and national security that he was seen as running a shadow government at times.
For a VP to take on such a prominent position is uncommon, however. Biden was perhaps more typical, serving as a key congressional liaison during the Obama administration. Harris, experts say, is an important envoy on the issue of reproductive rights, including rallying voters ahead of the midterms. However, that role doesn’t give her the sort of concrete legislative victories Biden’s work on the Hill gave him during the Obama era, like the passage and implementation of the administration’s Recovery Act stimulus package.
As a woman, and a woman of color, Harris also faces standards that other vice presidents have not. “There were a lot of expectations heaped on her as the first woman, the first Black person, the first Asian person in this job,” says University of Maryland public policy professor Niambi Carter.
Those expectations have been evident in the volume of negative stories she’s faced, the response to her gaffes, as well as gendered and racist attacks against her. Republicans, for instance, have repeatedly tried to paint her as the cause of problems along the border, even though she’s not singularly responsible for these policies. Both the attacks and the heightened scrutiny Harris has encountered are classic examples of misogynoir, a compounded form of misogyny and racism that Black women face, as Vox’s Fabiola Cineas has previously reported.
“I just can’t recall a single story that’s been written about her predecessors at the volume and persistent basis that she’s seen,” said Laphonza Butler, the president of Emily’s List and an adviser for Harris’s 2019 presidential campaign.
When it comes to Harris’s approach to the role itself, there’s a constant catch-22, former staffers say. If she is too vocal and visible, coverage would suggest that she’s trying to control the presidency, something her predecessor Cheney was accused of. If she’s not visible enough, coverage focuses on what she’s not doing, as is her problem now. If she picked a single policy lane, they say, she’d be perceived as unable to handle issues outside that subject.
What can the vice president actually do?
Harris’s supporters have one consistent rebuttal to her critics: stop treating the vice presidency as something that it’s not. “I actually think they’re kind of funny,” said Walsh. “Anyone who’s being critical of this vice president could be critical of any vice president for what their role is.”
Modern vice presidents typically follow the approach to the job pioneered by Vice President Walter Mondale, who worked under President Jimmy Carter in the 1970s, according to Joel Goldstein, a law professor at Saint Louis University who’s written a book on the vice presidency. Goldstein said Mondale created “a vision of the vice president as an across-the-board adviser and troubleshooter.”
Those who’ve worked in the White House say that’s what Harris is for Biden. “I think that the president, in my experience, sort of recognizes the comparative advantages that the two of them have, and has in the past sought out and taken to heart the vice president’s counsel on a wide range of different issues,” says one former White House official.
Stepping into such a role, however, creates an awkward tension between being vice president and bolstering your own political prospects down the line. There’s a reason only three former vice presidents have been elected president in modern times, despite more than a few attempts. In some ways, a VP job is the ideal springboard for future political ambitions given both the experience and exposure; Biden and Vice President Al Gore are among those who’ve tried to use it in this way. In others, it’s a very limiting job, because it’s a role with little opportunity to tout your own accomplishments.
Harris does have accomplishments under her belt, like launching and overseeing a program known as Central America Forward, which includes helping secure over $4 billion in investment commitments from businesses in hopes of improving living conditions in the “Northern Triangle” countries, and reducing the number of US-bound migrants from the region. She’s also been engaging in high-profile diplomacy abroad, and has been credited with mobilizing women, voters of color, and young voters over the last two cycles.
Barring any major changes, and based on comments Democrats have made to the press, as well as the general perception of her — according to the FiveThirtyEight polling aggregator, her approval rating is at 38 percent as of March 24 — those accomplishments seem unlikely to clear the way for her to clinch the presidential nomination unchallenged in the future, however.
“Look, for the nomination, there is absolutely no way that the ambitious Democrats who ran in 2020, or those who want to run for the first time, will stand by and say, ‘Well, it’s her turn,’” says University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato. “She will have to work for it, no question about it.”
As of now, though, two things can be true. Like any public official, Harris can and should be held accountable for her record and how she operates her office. But she’s also getting judged more harshly than her predecessors, and facing unreasonable expectations that the limitations of her role prevent her from meeting.