The Vice Presidency Is Hard. Harris Has It Harder Than Most.
When Joe Biden tapped Kamala Harris to be his running mate in 2020, it was perhaps the most easily predicted vice presidential choice in recent memory. Biden had made it clear that after emerging from the most diverse Democratic presidential candidate field in history, he would select a woman to join him on the ticket. The dynamics of the Democratic Party, which relies heavily on the votes of African American women to win elections, made it seem likely that Biden would select a running mate from this demographic group, especially as the murder of George Floyd brought race issues to the top of the public agenda. She is also the first Asian American to be nominated on a major presidential ticket or serve as vice president. For her part, Harris brought a number of traits to the ticket other than her race and gender — first and foremost, her high profile as a first-term senator who was considered a strong candidate for the presidential nomination herself.
Harris’ candidacy was well-received at the time. But since taking office, her vice presidency has been a much bumpier ride. There have been rumblings about Biden replacing her on the ticket in 2024, though this most likely amounts to the usual speculation among pundits while we wait for something real to happen during election season. According to a recent poll, only 13 percent of Democrats would want to see her run in 2024 if Biden were unable to run. And while Harris has struggled with higher net unfavorable ratings than some recent predecessors, no one is exactly sure why. What does political science have to say about this?
Scholarship on the vice presidency, the presidency and American politics points to the possibility that Harris serves at the tricky crossroads of two developments that cut in opposite directions. On the one hand, the vice presidency has been strengthened over the course of the past 40 years, raising expectations for how much power and influence she should wield in the job. On the other, party dynamics mean that vice presidents are tasked with enhancing the appeal of presidential administrations to different elements of their parties, and partisan polarization makes it unlikely that they’ll do so while attracting much cross-aisle support.
In other words, the vice presidency is two things at once — a party office, and also an executive branch office. And sometimes on top of that, it’s a third thing, too, which is a legislative office, as it was during Harris’ first two years when she was frequently needed to show up on Capitol Hill to cast a tie-breaking vote in the Senate. It’s a lot to do at once.
What’s more, these roles sometimes conflict. The institutional role of the vice presidency is all about bolstering the White House and participating in the type of governance that often happens out of sight — advising, management and negotiation. The party aspect of the job, by contrast, is public, often symbolic, and demands broadening the scope and reach of the White House, rather than narrowing the focus to achieve administration goals.
Like other vice presidents before her, Harris is an important party liaison. Part of the idea behind selecting Harris was to make up for criticism within the Democratic coalition that Biden was too old, too centrist and too much like the last 40-some presidents — and too little like the modern Democratic Party demographically. Recent research on the impact of vice presidential candidates suggests that while no one votes for the vice president, exactly, the choice of running mate can affect how voters see the presidential candidate’s priorities. The selection of Harris said that Biden valued diversity and understood who the key groups in the Democratic Party were.
Harris is hardly the only vice president to step into this kind of role — Dan Quayle was chosen partly for his credibility with social and movement conservatives, a group that didn’t really trust George H.W. Bush as one of their own. But it’s notable that Quayle’s vice presidency wasn’t considered especially successful. He invited controversy and even ridicule by wading into the culture wars. His role connecting the White House to conservatives did little to enhance his status as a trusted advisor on administration priorities like foreign policy, illustrating the potential tensions between vice presidents’ roles as public liaisons and high-level advisors.
Harris also serves in a different context, in which partisan polarization runs deep, and identity issues are at the center of many of these disagreements. Her outreach to key Democratic groups carries the expectation of what political scientists call “descriptive representation” — that she’ll be able to effectively translate the concerns of women and people of color into governing priorities and achievements.
And that’s where things get much more difficult.
The growth of the modern vice presidency is usually traced back to Walter Mondale, who served under Jimmy Carter from 1977 to 1981 and transformed the vice presidency into an office with much more power, proximity to the president and policy influence. According to legal scholar Joel Goldstein, who has written extensively about the vice presidency, Mondale amplified his influence by taking on “troubleshooting” in a wide range of difficult foreign policy, domestic policy and political problems from Middle East peace to Ted Kennedy’s decision to run against the president in the 1980 Democratic primaries. Mondale also enhanced his role in the administration by avoiding being pigeon-holed into “line assignments,” or specific policy portfolios or specially created task forces.
The vice president most closely associated with the growing executive power of the office is probably Dick Cheney, and he is so far an exception — someone who came in with a fairly long resume of foreign policy experience and was suspected to be more powerful than the president in some areas. While Cheney was a long-serving and loyal Republican, his role in the Bush White House wasn’t especially public-facing or directed at shoring up support among key party groups.
So far, no other vice president has reached Cheney’s level of influence or advocacy for strengthening the executive branch. But since Mondale’s vice presidency in the 1970s, all veeps have expected to do some troubleshooting, be taken seriously as a presidential advisor on major and difficult decisions and have had the physical infrastructure — a permanent residence at the Naval Observatory and an office in the West Wing to base their work.
Vice presidents have become much more integrated into the executive branch, and, with few exceptions, the president’s inner circle. As political scientist Jody Baumgartner points out, the expanded vice presidency is a response, in part, to a problem laid out in the 1937 Brownlow Report, which concluded “that the modern president ‘needs help’ in the execution of his duties.”
Harris fits into this model pretty clearly — she’s been given important and difficult issues to address. Like some other post-Mondale vice presidents — Al Gore for example — she’s been assigned to head up specific policy areas, like abortion and reproductive rights, voting rights and immigration, as well as some other foreign policy assignments. She’s also leading the National Space Council.
In other words, Harris has been identified with a portfolio that’s connected to key Democratic priorities and is also consistent with the descriptive representation expected of her.
Some have cautioned that Harris’ mere presence in the administration, however, does not guarantee progress on issues important to women and communities of color — in writer Mikki Kendall’s memorable phrase, “we must not take advancement as achievement.” So Harris faces additional pressure in this area, as well as potential backlash. As numerous experts have observed, Black women in politics experience a “double bind” of racism and sexism and receive additional scrutiny of their public images, including their appearances. Harris has to navigate all of this terrain, all while operating in an office with an ever-evolving job description.
For one thing, representation and the executive branch are always a tricky combination. Scholars have devoted a great deal of attention to figuring out how descriptive representation works in Congress and state legislatures, where representation is a much more direct part of the job description. In a classic article on descriptive representation, political scientist Jane Mansbridge argues that descriptive representation works when someone from an underrepresented group introduces a new perspective that had previously not been considered. (She cites an example from the 1990s about then-Sen. Carol Moseley Braun (D-Ill.). Congress was considering a patent for a flag representing the United Daughters of the Confederacy which featured the Confederate flag. As Mansbridge describes, Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) attempted to attach the renewal of this design patent to an unrelated bill, and Moseley Braun raised objections — defeating a measure that might otherwise have passed without debate or notice.)
But these moments are much easier to observe in a legislative body. The vice president has likely served this function in executive branch discussions. But the nature of those discussions means that we probably won’t know about that until much later, if ever.
There’s another tension between representation and coalition outreach: They conflict with consolidating the White House agenda.
We’ve seen this tension in the issues Harris has worked on, with varying results. On abortion, Harris has become an important spokesperson and enjoys more credibility than Biden — partly because of her gender and partly because Biden has recently been to the right of his party on the issue. On abortion, Harris’ various roles — descriptive representation, the party’s position and the administration’s stance — are in relative harmony, and reflect the views of a large segment of the public.
On immigration, however, this has been much messier. Harris has to voice the White House position on issues, and caught flak from both the left and the right for her statements about the border and migration from Central America. Harris’ parents might be immigrants, but that doesn’t mean the Biden administration will be able to solve a difficult issue that has eluded many past administrations. Same with voting rights — Harris has been tasked with leading on this issue, but the real problem is that the party doesn’t have the votes in Congress to pass proposed bills that strengthen federal protections.
Bottom line: On some of her main troubleshooting assignments, there’s little she can do to advance the issue.
Does all of this explain Harris’ flagging public support? Kind of. Vice presidential approval started reflecting hyper-partisanship starting with Joe Biden, and Harris’ latest numbers actually look pretty similar to Biden’s (as vice president) early on: approval in the 70s with Democrats, and lower than 20 percent with Republicans. Harris actually fares better than Biden did — nearly 80 percent approval to Biden’s 72 percent (in October 2009). More detailed recent polling from YouGov allows us to compare her approval as vice president with Biden’s as president: As of May 15, she’s underwater with both men and women, while Biden breaks even with women and is about 6 points behind with men.
Where we see a big demographic difference is in race: Harris’ net approval-disapproval with whites is -21 to Biden’s -15, and it’s not clear she makes up the difference with Black voters — she and Biden are both fairly popular among African Americans, but Harris’ approval has dropped some since the 2020 campaign and seems to bounce around a bit. In other words, it’s possible she’s paying the price of negative reactions to her racial background, but without a consistent benefit from groups more favorably disposed to the administration agenda.
In sum, Harris faces all of the usual problems that vice presidents do — a murky official role, with her personal political project subsumed by the administration’s goals, and no guarantee that loyalty to those goals will be rewarded with status or political clout. She inherits the baggage of the Biden administration, including its partisan baggage, but without the benefits or prestige of the presidential seal. But her historic role is also a very challenging one: She’s charged with bringing descriptive representation to the White House, but it’s not clear that she’s enjoying especially strong favor with the underrepresented groups she belongs to, even as she has weathered racist and sexist attacks and possibly lost support as a result.
Being tasked with these jobs may not have undermined her status in the Biden White House, but the recent record suggests that more successful vice presidents are those able to work behind the scenes. Carving out a public role is riskier, but Harris has little choice in needing to take this approach to the vice presidency. Unlike Cheney or Biden as VP, she isn’t the one bringing experience to the administration. Biden’s age has also meant that younger members of his team have faced pressure to be the new face of the Democratic Party, while still fulfilling the obligations to serve in the administration and articulate its priorities. This limits their ability to carve out their own priorities and political identities.
It’s also not entirely clear how much of her political struggles are real, and how much are simply media hype. “Word salad” is a common headline in conservative media after her speeches; while she’s hardly the first politician to face this problem, the defenses from Democratic corners are less robust than those from the Republican side for, say, the speaking styles of George W. Bush or Donald Trump. High turnover in her staff, especially early on, invited criticism. Instability and staff treatment are important issues. But experts also note that staff turnover can be common in high-level positions, and that these kinds of stories are especially susceptible to double standards for women and people of color.
The vice presidency has long been a challenging office for politicians, and not always a friendly place to cultivate presidential ambitions. Harris has had an even harder time than her recent predecessors. Polarized politics have something to do with this — she inspires vocal, often harsh objection from political opponents, and defenses from her own party tend not to match the intensity of the criticism. This despite her clear choice as a party politician intended to appeal to key groups in the party and carry the banner on signature issues — roles that don’t obviously go with the terrain of the vice presidency.
In the final analysis, her political difficulties, and their causes, are nebulous and hard to pin down. Kind of like the vice presidency itself.