In Search of Kamala Harris

All the conditions seemed right for a chance to reset the narrative.

At the Munich Security Conference in February, amid rising international angst about Russia’s war in Ukraine, Vice President Kamala Harris led a delegation of Americans, including around 50 lawmakers from both parties. She spent her first day in Germany in seclusion, preparing for the next 48 hours: meetings with European leaders the first day and a keynote speech the next in the ornate ballroom of the Hotel Bayerischer Hof. When she emerged, head high and shoulders back, Harris exuded what her staff members have argued is a particular comfort with her role on the international stage. There, they say, she is respected.

“I spent the majority of my career as a prosecutor,” Harris said in her speech, in which she announced that the United States had formally concluded that Russia had committed crimes against humanity. “I know firsthand the importance of gathering facts and holding them up against the law.”

As I scanned the crowd from a balcony in the ballroom, its makeup was a visual reminder of the shattered glass ceilings in Harris’s wake. They were nearly all men; she’s a woman. They were nearly all white; she’s Black and South Asian, a first-generation American from the Bay Area.

In 2017, when Harris arrived in Washington as a senator from California, these contrasts were supposed to make her the Next Face of the Party, the rising star with an inside track to be the next Democratic presidential nominee. But after a disappointing 2020 campaign, and the reputational sting that has lasted ever since, Harris has often been a politician in search of a moment, rather than a leader defining this one.

In Munich, it was another case of what could have been. Harris’s stilted delivery of her speech caused the international audience to miss certain applause lines. Her chief of staff, seated in the front row, tried to start some clapping herself, but the members of the Biden administration in the audience only tepidly joined her efforts. Harris returned to Washington a day earlier than originally scheduled. Later, the reason for the switch became clear: President Biden was secretly traveling to Kyiv. The impact on the vice president was all too familiar. Her three-day trip to Munich, intended to be a showcase, would be largely ignored.

Biden and Harris should — theoretically — be entering the 2024 contest riding high. Democrats staved off a “red wave” in the 2022 midterms and continue to perform well in special elections and on ballot referendums, driven by a backlash to the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. Instead, poll after poll shows Biden, who will be 81 in November, locked in a close race with his most likely opponent, Donald Trump, and hounded by voter concerns about his advanced age and his ability to complete a second four-year term.

But if Biden’s age is the Democrats’ explicit electoral challenge, Harris, 59 this month, is the unspoken one. Three years after she and Biden were presented as a package deal, a two-for-one special that included a younger, nonwhite candidate to counterbalance Biden’s shortcomings, Democrats have not embraced the president in waiting. In interviews with more than 75 people in the vice president’s orbit, there is little agreement about Harris at all, except an acknowledgment that she has a public perception problem, a self-fulfilling spiral of bad press and bad polls, compounded by the realities of racism and sexism. This year, an NBC News poll found that 49 percent of voters have an unfavorable view of Harris, with the lowest net-negative rating for a vice president since the poll began in 1989.

Harris and Biden at a table.
Vice President Kamala Harris and President Biden during a recent meeting with the presidential advisory board on historically Black colleges and universities.Susan Walsh/Associated Press

Republican presidential candidates like former Ambassador Nikki Haley have already argued that a vote for Biden next November is a vote for a President Kamala Harris. Trump recently gave an interview to the former Fox News host Tucker Carlson in which he mocked Harris’s speaking style and also said aloud what many people seem to be whispering: that the closer Harris gets to the presidency, the further she has become from convincing the country that she is presidential.

“This is not a president of the United States’ future,” Trump said in a preview of Republican attacks against her in the coming election. “And I think they probably have some kind of a primary and other people will get involved.”

Trump isn’t the only one floating a Harris-replacement scenario. In September, New York Magazine published “The Case for Biden to Drop Kamala Harris,” and a Washington Post column argued that “Biden could encourage a more open vice-presidential selection process that could produce a stronger running mate.” In the same week, two Democratic House members — Representative Jamie Raskin of Maryland and former Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic Party titan and fellow Bay Area native who has known Harris for decades, though the two are not particularly close — evaded saying on CNN whether they thought Harris remained the strongest running mate for Biden in 2024. (Raskin, after receiving backlash, later went on a different network to clarify his support).

Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, the progressive who ran against Biden and Harris in the 2020 Democratic primary, demurred early this year when asked by a local radio station if Biden should keep Harris as his running mate in 2024, saying, “I really want to defer to what makes Biden comfortable on his team.” (Warren later called Harris twice to apologize. Harris initially ignored the calls, CNN reported at the time.)

The doubts have prompted a public-relations blitz. Harris was featured 13 times in a video announcing Biden’s re-election bid. White House senior advisers have exhorted Democrats to stop criticizing Harris to the press, on the record or off, telling them that it’s harmful to the overall ticket. Emily’s List, the liberal advocacy group that supports Democratic female candidates who champion abortion rights, pledged to spend “tens of millions” of dollars in 2024 specifically to support Harris. The communications department of the Democratic National Committee has made a point to blast out announcements of her public events.

And the people closest to Harris, the tight-knit group of Black women in national Democratic politics who helped make her Biden’s choice for vice president, are increasingly becoming incensed with how she’s being treated. Their disgust is as close as you’ll get to hearing it from Harris herself.

Laphonza Butler, a former adviser of the vice president and the president of Emily’s List until Gov. Gavin Newsom of California appointed her to the U.S. Senate after the death of Dianne Feinstein, said the Harris naysayers in her party need to “cut the bullshit.” “It’s disrespectful,” Butler told me in an interview before her Senate appointment. “And the thing that makes it more disrespectful is that we’re talking about a historic V.P. who has been a high-quality partner and asset to the country at a time when everything is at stake. Right now is the time to respect what she’s done and what she brings.”

LaTosha Brown, a founder of Black Voters Matter, went a step further. She said she’s convinced that some in the party — and in the White House — do not want Harris to succeed. “I think there have been saboteurs within the administration,” she said. “I think that they are worried about the age contrast. And they are worried about Kamala outshining Biden.”

Over eight months of reporting this article, I conducted interviews with Harris’s former staff members, advisers, childhood friends, family members, senior figures in the Democratic Party and key players in the White House and Biden’s re-election campaign — many of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid antagonizing the vice president and the White House.

I called top Democratic pollsters to gauge whether a Harris-led party kept them up at night. I talked with members of Biden’s vice-presidential selection committee to ask the question I’ve always wanted to know the answer to: Was Kamala Harris really chosen as a running mate because she had the right identity at the right time, the highest-profile diversity hire in America?

In nearly three years in office, Harris has stood dutifully by Biden’s side. But in terms of her own political profile, she has remained a vacuum of negative space, a vessel for supporters and detractors to fill as they choose, not least because she refuses to do so herself.

“My career, for the most part, has not been one of being focused on giving lovely speeches or trying to pass a bill,” Harris said to me in an interview in Chicago after an event for Everytown for Gun Safety, an advocacy group that has endorsed Biden and Harris for re-election. “And so that’s how I approach public policy. I’m probably oriented to think about, What does this actually mean, as opposed to how does this just sound?”

Harris has leaned on this sentiment for years, even as lovely speeches are considered core to the job of president. It reflects a figure who is fundamentally uncomfortable with having to make an affirmative case for herself to the public — and feels she shouldn’t have to. Since 2019, the year I first covered Harris for The Times, I have often asked her variations of the same questions about her vision for the future and where it fits within the Democratic Party. Sometimes I can sense the frustrations of an elected official who clearly is skeptical of the press — a career prosecutor who is more comfortable asking pressing questions than giving straightforward answers.

In Chicago, I directly placed in front of her the question others had only insinuated.

“When someone asks, ‘What does Vice President Kamala Harris bring to the ticket?’ what is that clear answer?” I asked. Her team made clear it would be my final question.

“Were you in this room of 2,000 people?” she asked. I nodded.

“Did you see them cheering and standing?”


That’s what I say.”

She stood up and walked out of the room.

The unofficial end to Kamala Harris’s presidential campaign came four months before she formally dropped out. In late July 2019, at a Democratic presidential debate in Detroit, the California senator faced an unexpected attack from Representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, who has since left Congress — and the party.

“The bottom line is, Senator Harris, when you were in a position to make a difference and an impact in these people’s lives, you did not,” Gabbard said to Harris, arguing that the former prosecutor, who had criticized Biden for creating policies that contributed to mass incarceration, was also part of the problem. ‘‘She put over 1,500 people in jail for marijuana violations and then laughed about it when she was asked if she ever smoked marijuana.’’

The left-wing critique that “Kamala is a cop” had been raging on social media for months, complete with a meme that depicted Harris handcuffing a child, a viral interview where she laughed about smoking marijuana and a photo in which Harris donned a police jacket during her time as California’s attorney general. But Harris was rarely forced to answer it directly, and not in such a public setting, from a candidate she considered beneath her. “I am proud of making a decision to not just give fancy speeches or be in a legislative body and give speeches on the floor but actually doing the work,” Harris said onstage, broadly defending her record, citing the re-entry program she started as attorney general. Gabbard came back at her: “People who suffered under your reign as prosecutor — you owe them an apology.”

After the debate, Harris was more dismissive. “This is going to sound immodest, but obviously I’m a top-tier candidate, and so I did expect that I’d be on the stage and take some hits tonight,” she said on CNN. “When people are at 0 or 1 percent or whatever she might be at.”

Biden and Harris during a Democratic presidential primary debate in July 2019.Erin Schaff/The New York Times

Her response did little to quell the line of criticism, but it did expose a fundamental fact about Harris: In the last five years, as social movements have shifted the Democrats’ message on criminal justice and public safety leftward, the figure whose career seems to speak the most to that conversation has refused to lead it.

In 2019, when Harris was running for president, she released a criminal-justice plan six months into her campaign, after rivals like Biden, Warren, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey had already done so, setting the terms of the debate. Advisers privy to campaign details said the delay was caused by the candidate’s tendency to get pulled in multiple directions from outside voices, even on the issue to which she had dedicated her career. Some of this spilled into public view, including when Harris was asked in April 2019 whether convicted felons should be able to vote from prison.

“I think we should have that conversation,” she said on CNN, only to back off the next day.

The episode was an outward expression of an inner conflict. Unlike Biden, who also faced questions about his tough-on-crime past during the 2020 presidential primary, Harris craved the approval of the party’s left wing, particularly the class of liberal, college-educated women who had grown more interested in Warren’s unabashed progressivism.

Brown, of Black Voters Matter, said Harris is “absolutely a progressive.” Maria Teresa Kumar, president and chief executive of Voto Latino and a longtime political ally in California, said Harris is neither a moderate nor a progressive, but “ideologically pragmatic.” Jamal Simmons, who served as Harris’s communications director before leaving the role at the beginning of this year, suggested that her identity lies elsewhere. “She’s a Christian, but strength is her religion.”

In September 2019, Harris told me in an interview that the criticism of her record had taken an emotional toll. It feels “awful,” she said. “I understand it intellectually. Emotionally, it’s hurtful,” Harris said at the time. “I know what motivated me to become a prosecutor, I know what motivated me to do the kind of work we did, and I know that it was groundbreaking work.”

The problem is, outside her record in law enforcement, Harris does not have much of a legislative history to be judged on — even Barack Obama served eight years in the Illinois Statehouse. She was elected to the Senate on the same night in 2016 that Trump beat Hillary Clinton. After just two years in the Senate, she was already a presidential candidate — pitching herself as a bridge between the party’s progressive and moderate wings. In her current role as vice president, Harris is a professional support act, in a position that has both made her more visible and given her less of a distinctive voice.

“I love my job,” Harris told me in Chicago. “There are certain opportunities that come only with a position like being vice president of the United States to uplift the voices of the people in a way that I think matters and makes a difference.”

When Harris’s name was first introduced on the national political stage in 2009, it was accompanied by a set of sky-high expectations. The week before Obama was inaugurated as president, the PBS journalist Gwen Ifill name-checked Harris during an appearance on the “Late Show With David Letterman,” adding rocket fuel for Harris’s political ambitions. Ifill said Harris, who was the San Francisco district attorney at the time, was “brilliant” and “tough.” Then she went further: “They call her the ‘female Barack Obama.’”

But that label, and the expectations that came with it, would also have a downside. Harris was not the “female Obama,” nor was she the mixed-race Hillary Clinton, the only other woman who has come this close to the presidency. Without a clear ideological brand, and because she has avoided the issue with which she has firsthand expertise, the historic nature of Harris’s role seems to have boxed her in. A year away from the election and a heartbeat away from the presidency, Harris is an avatar for the idea of representation itself, a litmus test for its political power and its inherent limits.

Harris in 2004, when she was the San Francisco district attorney.Paul Chinn/The San Francisco Chronicle, via Getty Images

To that end, the facts of her life — born to immigrant parents who met as activists in Berkeley, raised in the Bay Area amid the Black Power movement of the 1960s and 1970s, studied at Howard University, one of the country’s premier historically Black institutions — help explain why this vice president not only looks different, but is different too.

She wears her self-belief with pride. And she always has, according to family members who attend her Sunday dinners, childhood friends who grew up with her in Oakland and Harris herself. “I grew up when Aretha Franklin was telling me I was young, gifted and Black,” Harris told me. “I will tell you this, and maybe it’s a radical notion. I have never believed that I don’t belong somewhere, and I was raised to believe that I belong anywhere that I choose to go.”

Harris, in this way, is the antithesis of Obama. While he was defined by a sense of alienation growing up among his mother’s white family and found refuge in Black communities as an adult in Chicago, Harris’s journey bears no such resemblance. Her Bay Area childhood was rooted in Black affirmation and community, even as her mother, Shyamala Gopalan, remained close to her family in India and kept Hindu traditions in the home. If anything, Harris’s childhood stands out for its insulation from whiteness, more multiracial and multiethnic than strictly Black and white. “I remember we were in middle school just sitting on the bed, and she walked me through her name, K-a-m-a-l-a D-e-v-i H-a-r-r-i-s,” says Cynthia Bagby, a childhood friend from Oakland. “She was very clear about her heritage, where her mother was from and what it meant. She’s always been one of those people that’s like, ‘This is who I am. Deal with it.’”

But Harris is also conscious of being “ghettoized” — which is how one close Biden adviser described her fear of being put into a box that was solely ascribed to her race or gender. Throughout the majority of her career, the substance was never in question: She was a prosecutor, a similar early career track as other Democratic women in the Senate, including Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada. But Harris always came with an air of star power — Ifill’s label, a network of Bay Area donors and her 2009 book, “Smart on Crime,” which introduced her to a national audience by highlighting her criminal-justice philosophy.

“I came up with the phrase,” Harris proudly reminded me during our interview in Chicago. “I proposed we should ask, Are we smart on crime? And in asking that question, measure our effectiveness similar to how the private sector does,” she said. I told Harris that I read the book and came away struck by how differently she — and Democrats — talk about criminal justice now, 14 years later. And like Gabbard, I decided to ask her how I should think about the changes in her philosophy. Were they “an evolution based on new evidence? Or is that a kind of tacit admission that the view from 20 years ago might have been incorrect?” I asked.

“Why don’t we break it down to which part you’re talking about, and then I can tell you,” she said, leaning forward.

I mentioned the elimination of cash bail, which Harris embraced during her run for president but never during her time in California.

“I think it depends on what kind of crime you’re talking about, to be honest,” she said.

I tried to ask another way.

“When you think about what changed from then to now, is there anything you look back and say, I wish we did differently?”

“You have to be more specific,” Harris said.

By this point, the vice president would not break eye contact, and suddenly I had more in common with Jeff Sessions and Brett Kavanaugh than I ever expected. Just as in those Senate confirmation hearings, Harris’s tone was perfectly pitched, firm but not menacing — confrontational but not abrasive, just enough for you to know she thought these questions were a waste of her time.

I asked her where she would define herself politically on a spectrum of moderate to progressive.

Harris during Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation process in 2018, when she served in the Senate.Damon Winter/The New York Times

“Why don’t you define each one for me, and then I can tell you where I fit,” she responded. “If you want to say, for example, that believing that working people should receive a fair wage and be treated with dignity and that there is dignity in all work, well then, I don’t know what label do you give that one. If you believe that parents should have affordable child care? I’m not sure what the label is for that.”

“The labels are used as kind of proxies for kind of root-cause conversations,” I said. “Progressives believe that structural inequality is such that it has to be upended. Liberals are thinking more about working within a system.”

“Well, name the issue and then I’ll tell you,” she said.

“OK, inequality,” I proposed.

“Let’s just take the African American experience from slavery on. And we don’t have to even go back that far to to understand where the inequality came from,” she said, listing redlining, the Tulsa riots, the G.I. Bill. “There were issues that were about policy and practice that excluded, purposely, people based on their race.”

“But one of the quotes I most remember from your presidential run was you saying, when asked what you believe in, that you weren’t trying to restructure society. How do you solve those kind of deep systemic inequalities?”

“I think you have to be more specific,” she parried, “because I’m not really into labels.”

The words had barely left Joe Biden’s mouth before Representative Maxine Waters picked up the phone. “What are we going to do?” she asked Leah Daughtry, a longtime operative at the Democratic National Committee and, more important, one of the chief conveners of the party’s informal network of influential Black women. It was March 2020, during the final Democratic presidential debate between Biden and Bernie Sanders, in which Biden tried to wrap up the nomination with an explicit appeal to the party’s base. “Biden just said he was going to pick a woman to be his running mate,” Waters informed her, before repeating her question. “What are we going to do?”

The phone call was the origin point of a two-pronged plan, Daughtry told me, recounting their conversation for the first time for this article. They didn’t want just any woman — they wanted a Black woman — and they were determined to make the case on multiple fronts. To the Biden campaign directly, in the kind of back-room jockeying among political insiders that has long defined the vice-presidential sweepstakes, but also to the public, hoping to create a political environment in which the Biden campaign felt it had no other option.

Their work would culminate in the most public lobbying effort for a vice-presidential selection in modern American history. There were public letters, planted news stories, cable-news segments and statements of support from celebrities like Sean (Diddy) Combs and Ty Dolla $ign. ‘‘As soon as it sounded like it was something that could really happen, we definitely wanted to weigh in,” said Melanie Campbell, an activist whom Daughtry turned to for help and who organized the first open letter calling for a Black woman on the ticket.

For a while, the Biden campaign kept its distance. Advisers held a phone call in early May with some activists who signed onto Campbell’s letter — but they also dispatched allies to make clear that Biden was also considering white candidates, like Warren, Klobuchar and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan.

But between Biden’s initial pledge to select a woman and when it was time to announce his choice, ahead of the Democratic National Convention in August, the world had effectively turned on its head. Suddenly, amid the coronavirus pandemic and travel restrictions, there was no campaign trail, and most of the meetings to discuss selecting the vice president were happening on Zoom. The killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis that May would spark nationwide protests calling for racial justice. And in the absence of in-person politicking, social media took on more importance, helping push the conversation about Biden’s running mate to explicitly racial terms.

Biden’s vice-presidential selection committee would eventually contact a smaller group of Black women — including Campbell, Daughtry, the former Democratic Party chairwoman Donna Brazile and the longtime Democratic strategist Minyon Moore — with a more specific request: The next time they met, Biden’s team wanted to hear a case for one individual candidate, not a general call for a Black woman.

At the time, after Harris ended her own presidential campaign the previous December, she was experiencing a spate of good will with many of the same activists who once preferred other candidates. Brown, of Black Voters Matter, for example, publicly endorsed Warren in the primary but told me she felt that she had misjudged Harris and that championing her as Biden’s running mate was a kind of spiritual mea culpa. Others held Harris up as a victim of Democratic racism and sexism, particularly when what had begun as a historically diverse field winnowed to Biden and Sanders, two white men over age 75.

But not everyone who had Biden’s ear agreed with the public efforts, including the dean of Black Democratic politics in Washington. Representative James E. Clyburn, the influential lawmaker whose well-timed endorsement of Biden helped him win the South Carolina primary, and in turn, the Democratic nomination, told me that he always told Biden that selecting a Black woman as a running mate “was a plus, not a must.”

But by the time Biden was in the final stages of his selection, even more traditional party figures were telling the campaign to heed calls to choose a Black woman. Howard Dean, the former presidential candidate and party chairman, said he would have preferred for Biden to select a Black woman as his running mate without a public pledge at the debate, because “when you start picking people by category, it’s important to talk about qualifications first,” he told me.

Dean, however, compared the summer of 2020 and the moment Biden was in to the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, when protests over the Vietnam War forced the party to reckon with its relationship to an emerging generation of voters. Biden needed to show that Democrats value the party’s Black base, Dean said, whichever way he could. Selecting a Black running mate “became a way of healing the country — of saying, ‘White Democrats don’t have a good record on this issue, and I mean business,’” he said.

Inside Biden’s camp, represented by longtime aides like Steve Ricchetti, Mike Donilon, Anita Dunn, Ron Klain and Jen O’Malley Dillon, multiple discussions were happening. The traditional vetting process, led by the search committee, eventually narrowed a broader short list of 11 down to four finalists: Harris, Warren, Whitmer and Susan Rice, who served as Obama’s national security adviser and is also a Black woman. Biden, who is known to dial up trusted voices and ask for input, the more the better, was leading his own line of inquiry.

After Whitmer impressed Biden during an in-person meeting in the veepstakes’ final stages, one question rose to the top: Could two white Democrats win?

Campaign research said yes — Biden could win with any of the four. Klain argued for Harris specifically. Obama played the role of sounding board, weighing the pros and cons of Biden’s options rather than backing anyone, including Harris, according to a person familiar with the conversation. But Harris was the only candidate who had the full complement of qualifications: She had won statewide, was a familiar name with voters because of her presidential run and enjoyed a personal connection with the Biden family, having been a close working partner of Biden’s son, Beau, when he served as attorney general of Delaware.

And she was Black, meaning the announcement would be met with enthusiasm rather than controversy. On Aug. 11, the day the campaign announced Harris as the running mate, it raised $26 million in 24 hours.

Biden’s advisers say he selected who he felt would be the best governing partner, independent of race, gender or future political considerations. Because of Biden’s age, however, and his promise to be “a bridge’’ to ‘‘an entire generation of leaders,” Harris’s selection was immediately interpreted as a sign that a nominee who might serve only one term was already setting up his successor. “By choosing her as his political partner, Mr. Biden, if he wins, may well be anointing her as the de facto leader of the party in four or eight years,” read the Times article that announced her selection in August. But that was not the campaign’s thinking, Biden advisers told me, arguing that he chose Harris as a running mate for 2020 and a governing partner for his first term — not necessarily as a future president.

“It was a governing decision,” Dunn said to me during an interview. “Who can be president, if necessary? But really, Who can be a good partner for me in terms of governing and bringing this country back from the precipice?”

Two days after the announcement, another Times article quoted Harry Reid, the retired Democratic Senate leader from Nevada, who said approvingly that Biden selected Harris because “he came to the conclusion that he should pick a Black woman.”

“I think that the Black women of America deserved a Black vice-presidential candidate,” Reid said.

For years, Moore, Daughtry, Brazile and Yolanda Caraway, a political strategist, have formed what is colloquially called the Colored Girls, a group of Black female insiders in Democratic politics. Brazile said that when Biden selected Harris, the group “committed themselves to helping him get elected, but we also committed ourselves to her.”

Harris greeting supporters at a celebratory rally in Wilmington, Del., after the 2020 presidential election was called in the Democrats’ favor.Robert Deutsch/EPA, via Shutterstock

Their investment in Harris speaks to why the diversity-hire framing is too simplistic. There is power in being the first, even if there are limits in being the only. Brown dismissed the idea that the public lobbying efforts for Harris’s selection created the impression of an affirmative-action hire: “When don’t white people think that?” she asked.

During our interview in Chicago, I tried to ask Harris whether quotes like Reid’s bothered her, reducing her selection to her identity rather than her record.

“I don’t think I understand your question,” Harris said.

“I’m saying, does it matter — that kind of narrative around Biden needing to choose a Black woman as running mate still exists and that has hovered over your selection?”

“He chose a Black woman. That woman is me,” Harris said. “So I don’t know that anything lingers about what he should choose. He has chosen.”

The Biden-Harris administration never got to enjoy a honeymoon period. Amid the pandemic, the attempts by Trump and his allies to overturn the election and the shock of Jan. 6, Kamala Harris the presidential candidate didn’t get much of a chance to reintroduce herself to the country as Kamala Harris the vice president.

Just when she was most in need of trusted counsel, becoming Joe Biden’s No. 2 had the effect of cutting Harris off from the political operation that had most closely guided her to that point. Almost none of Harris’s top advisers from California joined her in the Biden campaign or in the vice president’s office, planting the seeds of isolation. Harris has often cycled through senior staff at a far greater clip than her contemporaries (her policy director, Carmel Martin, left the role last month). And while Biden’s senior staff includes fixtures like Donilon, who has worked with him since 1981, few of Harris’s senior staff members date back to her time in California — or even her presidential campaign.

By June of her first year in office, Politico had already declared that Harris’s office was “rife with dissent” and quoted an anonymous source claiming it was “an abusive environment.” A slew of staff departures fed a stream of headlines that only seemed to confirm the waywardness that had defined her presidential campaign. Her initial communications director, Ashley Etienne, left in less than a year. Simmons, her successor, stayed only a year and is now a commentator for CNN. The New York Post published a tally of Harris’s staff departures — 13 within 13 months. They included members of the advance team, her longtime policy adviser, her first chief of staff and her high-profile press secretary, Symone Sanders-Townsend, who now hosts a show on MSNBC. (Harris has yet to appear.)

In June 2021, Harris would compound her problems with a widely panned interview with NBC’s Lester Holt in which he repeatedly asked her why she had not been to the border. “And I haven’t been to Europe,” Harris said. “And I mean, I don’t understand the point you’re making.”

The Holt interview would publicly set the tone for Harris’s first two years. The flood of criticism stung Harris deeply, and she mused in private conversations about worrying that she had let down Biden and the White House. Over the following year, Harris traveled less often, and she mostly avoided further media interviews, preferring friendly settings like “The View” and a show on Comedy Central hosted by Charlamagne tha God.

Harris’s staff argues that she had to carefully schedule her travel during this period because she often served as the tiebreaking vote in the Senate, with the chamber split 50-50 at the time. In private conversations, however, some Democrats close to Biden say that they encouraged her to stay visible and that it was Harris’s decision alone to step back, over the advice of her chief of staff and Biden’s senior advisers.

Her public absence would not go unnoticed. In November of that year, The Los Angeles Times ran a column declaring Harris “the incredible disappearing vice president.” In January 2022, on the anniversary of her ascent to the office, the BBC ran an article that painted a dire picture of a flailing politician with the headline: “Kamala Harris one year: Where did it go wrong for her?”

In that first year, she also had the opportunity to select several issues to fill out her policy portfolio, a chance for a vice president to own a signature policy lane. According to several people familiar with the discussions, though, Harris had no interest in taking on criminal-justice reform and policing, her area of career expertise.

Instead, Harris insisted that she would take on voting rights after consulting with Black leaders in the party, including the team of Stacey Abrams of Georgia, who had previously made no secret of her desire to be Biden’s vice president, according to a person familiar with the discussions. The issue bears a civil rights legacy and is embraced by all sides of the party. One Biden adviser, however, said they made clear to Harris at the time that there was little chance that meaningful legislation could pass on the issue given the deadlocked Senate.

Within a year, the prediction would come true. After Biden made an 11th-hour trip to Atlanta to give a speech exhorting the Senate to pass the administration’s expansive bills on voting rights and election reform — a speech some activists and even Abrams chose not to attend — it would be clear that the legislation would not go forward.

Harris touring a Customs and Border Protection processing center in El Paso in June 2021, after facing criticism for not having visited the Southern border.Patrick T. Fallon/AFP, via Getty Images

Harris also received an assignment she didn’t want, according to White House officials familiar with the discussions. The president charged her with addressing the root causes of migration in Central America — coordinating public and private funds that could support people in their home countries before they tried to flee for the United States. Some of that nuance was lost in June 2021, however, during the same international trip when she sat for the interview with Holt.

In Guatemala, Harris warned migrants “do not come” to America, repeating the phrase for emphasis at a news conference alongside President Alejandro Giammattei. While the message wasn’t unique — other administration officials had communicated a similar stance — the messenger was, and it earned Harris the ire of some pro-immigration groups and progressive lawmakers.

“This is disappointing to see,” Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wrote in response on Twitter. “The US spent decades contributing to regime change and destabilization in Latin America. We can’t help set someone’s house on fire and then blame them for fleeing.”

Republicans also seized on the controversy, depicting Harris as the Biden administration’s unofficial “border czar,” overseeing a constant stream of migrants bringing fentanyl to the United States. Representative Ronny Jackson, the former White House doctor closely aligned with Trump, has twice introduced legislation that would remove Harris from a role she doesn’t have.

This month, the Biden administration authorized the construction of up to 20 miles of wall along the Southern border, highlighting its failure to curtail migrant crossings into the United States. The issue is sure to be a centerpiece of the 2024 election — particularly as Republicans say Democrats can’t address a crisis they refuse to acknowledge.

In our interview, Harris made the case that the money that has been invested would be an important stopgap in the absence of congressional action. “We have raised over $4.2 billion dealing with issues like what we can do to support agriculture, which is a main facet of the economy of a lot of these countries,” Harris said.

“I get the roadblocks in Congress, and I get that your root-cause work is long-term,” I responded. “I’m saying, if you’re a voter in the short term who is saying, ‘Is our border secure?’ And what is this administration’s answer to that? What’s that answer?”

“The answer is that we are absolutely making it secure and putting resources into it to do that work,” Harris said.

When Harris speaks in an interview or to an audience, it can sound as if she’s editing in real time, searching for the right calibration of talking points rather than displaying confidence in her message. It has contributed to a reputation as a politician who delivers “word salads,” but Simmons — her former communications director — argued that it’s a consequence of her career as a prosecutor and attorney general, law-enforcement roles that did not ask Harris to communicate with the press and the public in the same way. Even in Harris’s presidential race, staff members had to push her to share details about her life, family and career motivations. It was not always successful.

“Often in the White House, national leaders have to base their arguments on emotion and gut — and as a prosecutor that’s not the job,” Simmons told me. “So she’s getting more comfortable speaking about herself, her beliefs and the president’s beliefs — answering the ‘why’ question of what they do, not just what the policy is.”

But Harris has not been a prosecutor since 2016, and many of her rhetorical quirks extend beyond policy — the unbridled laugh (Harris has become the face of a new internet term, IJBOL, for “I just burst out laughing”); her passion for Venn diagrams (she mentions them so much that the G.O.P. has made a one-minute compilation video); and even her dance moves have become punchlines, shrinking Kamala Harris the vice president to Kamala Harris the meme.

The internet caricature comes as Harris has sought to recast herself as a consequential force within the party and the administration. When the Supreme Court overturned federal protections for abortion rights in June 2022, Harris and the White House saw an opportunity for the vice president to speak authoritatively on an issue that has proved critical to Democratic voter turnout. This year, Harris has made protecting abortion rights a central tenet of her campaign message, her stump speech and her Fight for Our Freedoms College Tour.

Jennifer Palmieri, the former Obama White House communications director, says she believes that the issue has given Harris an area of focus at a critical time and that the press coverage of Harris is too focused on previous missteps and not what lies ahead. This summer, after a different Washington Post op-ed praised Harris as an electoral asset, Palmieri phoned senior members of Harris’s team to offer congratulations, confident that they had turned a narrative corner.

Now, even after open speculation about dropping Harris from the ticket, Palmieri is adamant that Harris is “the most valuable running mate for a ticket in recent history.’’

“Nothing that has happened to her has surprised me,” Palmieri told me. “I knew, like, this is going to be a very hard road, no matter how talented you are. It is not a situation that’s set up to fail. But it is not a situation where you will be set up to succeed.”

This month, in a swearing-in ceremony conducted by Harris, Laphonza Butler became only the third Black woman ever to serve in the United States Senate, following in the footsteps of her ally and mentor. Newsom’s decision to appoint the Emily’s List leader surprised many Democrats, but it shouldn’t have — in addition to her activism, Butler was a former partner in Smith and Clegg’s consulting group, which has close ties to the governor and the vice president.

Newsom, like Biden, was also under significant pressure to appoint a Black woman in the role after he made a public pledge to do so in 2021, amid speculation about Feinstein’s possible retirement. Such pledges have become more common in liberal politics, a way to signal solidarity with an increasingly diverse electorate, and a go-to move for white male Democrats in particular.

Harris swearing in her longtime friend Laphonza Butler to the U.S. Senate this month.Anna Rose Layden/Getty Images

Dunn, the president’s senior adviser, said Biden’s pledge to pick a woman as his running mate was born of a desire “to be very clear with people that he felt it was time.” And while Dunn acknowledged some initial difficulties for Harris during the first two years in office, she also said the vice president “has found her voice, and she’s found her role,” as issues like abortion rights and gun safety have given her a clearer message heading into 2024.

Dunn’s confidence reflects that of the administration at large and serve as a reminder that the Harris-replacement scenarios amount to political wish-casting. Even off the record, Biden’s senior advisers say that there’s no desire to oust her and that the idea was never floated. One person in Biden’s inner circle suggested that the president would be personally offended by the suggestion: Obama’s campaign conducted polling on replacing Biden ahead of the 2012 election, and the subject stings the former vice president to this day.

“This administration has never polled it,” Dunn said to me unequivocally. “Never thought about it. Never discussed it.”

Jeff Zients, Biden’s chief of staff, said that Harris and Biden enjoy a close relationship and that she is often the last to leave the Oval Office after a meeting, just as Biden was during his time as Obama’s No. 2. “She has an uncanny ability to really drill down to what matters, clear out what doesn’t matter and hold people accountable for results,” he told me.

“She can prosecute a case extremely well,” Dunn confirmed. “In a meeting, she will say, ‘But no, really, is that going to work?’ Or, ‘Oh, really, explain this,’ and she’s very effective. And it’s interesting to watch them together. Because sometimes it’s almost like, she’ll ask something, and he will look at her like, That’s exactly what I would have said.”

But the confidence of the White House sets up an inevitable collision course. Even if Biden wins the election, he will only get older — and the concerns of the American public about his age and the prospect of Harris’s stepping in as president will most likely persist. Allies like James Clyburn believe that sentiment will shift if the Washington whisper machine were to pull back and decide to appreciate Kamala Harris for who she is, rather than deride her for what she is not. Clyburn said Harris’s “problem” is simple: Her race and gender have made her a Washington outsider. “Her only problem right now is what she looked like when she was born,” he said to me. “That’s what these people are holding against her.”

Rashad Robinson, the president of the racial-justice advocacy group Color of Change, who traveled with Harris this year to Africa — a trip that included stops in Ghana, Tanzania and Zambia and face time with prominent Black celebrities and activists, including the director Spike Lee and actors like Sheryl Lee Ralph and Idris Elba — said he feels that American media outlets refuse to cover her success, including the images from that trip. “When we arrived to Black Star Square in Ghana, there were upwards of 10,000 people who were excited to see her,” Robinson said. “And I thought, What’s the other vice president that could get that type of crowd outside the United States — or even inside the United States?”

But not everyone agrees with these supporters, including a number of Democrats — when granted anonymity to speak freely. A top Democratic consultant said that “she has a little Ron DeSantis in her,” in terms of the disconnect between political talent and expectations. One major donor said there’s an agreement among the party’s heavy hitters that having Harris as vice president to Biden “is not ideal, but there’s a hope she can rise to the occasion.” Sometimes the arguments against her feel more petty: A member of Harris’s staff remarked on the amount of down time the vice president schedules on trips, which includes an inordinate amount of time dedicated to hair care.

Harris is largely absent from the post-Biden jockeying that is already taking place among prospective candidates and donors. One major donor told me: “I’ve gotten invites from people like Whitmer and Booker. And even people like Buttigieg and Ro Khanna are cultivating meetings and donors. It’s radio silence from Kamala and Kamala World. They’re not keeping alive the network of people that supported her.”

This summer and fall, Harris has sought to answer critics with a travel-heavy schedule that highlights her connection to key blocs in the Democratic coalition. She inaugurated her Fight for Our Freedoms College Tour at Hampton University, the historically Black college in coastal Virginia; the tour also includes lesser-known schools with large Latino student populations, like Reading Area Community College in Pennsylvania.

It was easy to see Harris as an underappreciated electoral asset for Biden at a gathering of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Orlando this August. In a crowd numbering thousands of older, predominantly Southern Black churchgoers, there was palpable pride in Harris, evident from the hundreds who lined up for pictures or the group of senior bishops who privately prayed for her.

In a speech, Harris took direct aim at new statewide education standards restricting how race and Black history could be taught. “Right here in Florida,” Harris said, her voice rising in outrage, “they plan to teach students that enslaved people benefited from slavery.”

The members of the audience rose to their feet in anticipation of what they sensed was coming next: a smackdown of Gov. Ron DeSantis, who had sent a public letter that week challenging Harris to a debate. “Well, I’m here in Florida,” she said defiantly, “and I will tell you, there is no round table, no lecture, no invitation we will accept to debate an undeniable fact: There were no redeeming qualities of slavery.”

The roar of approval served as an audible reminder — to DeSantis, the Republican Party, the Beltway press corps and even some Democrats too: Writing off Kamala Harris is a mistake, as overly simplistic and premature as the “female Barack Obama” label that once followed her.

“When you are the first, serving at the national level, it is a significant responsibility and weight on your shoulder,” the Massachusetts attorney general, Andrea Campbell, said at the annual N.A.A.C.P. convention this summer. She made it a point to stress that Harris, with whom she was in conversation at the event, was “our” vice president — implying Black people specifically. Campbell continued: “We were remarking, you know, ‘They’re coming for us.’ And what that means is that you have to sustain yourself. Of course, be protected, but also do the work.”

She then asked the audience to rise, a manufactured standing ovation with a clear message: Harris needs your support.

“As we go into this round of applause for our vice president, really thinking about what elected officials, particularly people of color, are going through in this moment in time,” Campbell said, “I ask everyone to just stand up — I’m going to do the same — and give our vice president a round of applause for the work she does every single day.”

Harris and Biden in the White House Rose Garden in May.Doug Mills/The New York Times

The crowd rose to its feet — but it felt more like an act of politeness. Unlike in Orlando, where the audience was at rapt attention, the version of Harris in Boston more resembled the version I saw in Munich. It served as a reminder that Black communities are not a monolith and that their assumed kinship to Harris — or to the Democratic Party — cannot be taken for granted.

During our interview in Chicago, which was supposed to be the first of two, I asked Harris about the party’s relationship with Black Americans and the policy priorities that matter most to them. I asked whether the administration’s ineffectiveness on voting rights was indicative of a broader pattern on things considered to be “Black issues” — lots of promises during the election season and lots of excuses during the time in office.

“Has there been enough substance that the administration has put on its inequality agenda?” I asked, pointing out that Black turnout had softened for Democrats in the 2022 midterms. “Has that promise made to Black communities been kept?”

Harris launched into a recitation of talking points: the amount of money the administration has invested in historically Black colleges and universities; how the capped price on insulin would help Black seniors; the new federal restrictions on no-knock entries and chokeholds by the police; Housing Secretary Marcia Fudge’s work on affordable housing.

Her answer spoke to a fundamental tension facing Democrats ahead of next year’s election: No matter the administration’s policy accomplishments, which are real but often incremental rather than sweeping, they are not yet galvanizing the voters they most need.

By this point in the interview, the window that was slightly open when Harris sat down felt as though it had been firmly shut. Over the weeks that followed, the vice president’s aides would repeatedly postpone the second interview that had been agreed to for this article. But here, while I still had the chance, I wanted to try once more to get at this important question: Maybe people are yearning for something policy can’t provide — not just a fancy speech, but a more forcefully declared vision.

“What’s the disconnect then, between all that and it translating to more Black votes?” I asked, pressing further.

Harris refused to entertain the scenario. Instead, she had a question for me.

“Why don’t you talk to me after 2024?”

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