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The sabotaging of Kamala Harris Joe Biden's reputation has been shored up at the expense of his party's future

Eyes on the prize. Kamala Harris watches Joe Biden. Credit: Roberto Schmidt/AFP/ Getty

Eyes on the prize. Kamala Harris watches Joe Biden. Credit: Roberto Schmidt/AFP/ Getty


July 12, 2021   5 mins

Kamala Harris began her vice-presidency in a mist of excited commentary about her role in making history. She has turned out to be isolated, frustrated, unpopular and ineffectual in office — and, right now, that suits Joe Biden’s team down to the ground.

Harris has been getting it in the neck for being tetchy, ill-prepared and mishandling the immigration brief she was assigned by the President, while he has sailed through unscathed. Her own camp has been riddled with factionalism and leaks. An article in Politico describes her office as riven with tension, with staff complaining of “being treated like shit”, while the media marvels at Biden’s own leak-free operation.

Has she behaved well? No, not particularly. She has been unable to hide her resentment that the job of vice president hasn’t turned into a smooth glide path for her ultimate ambition. She is the author of her own misfortune. But she hasn’t been helped by Biden and his aides, who have been sighing and rolling their eyes about Harris’s performance, yet who also set her up to fail.

Biden knew all about her political shortcomings after watching her implode during the campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination — but went on to select her as his running mate, regardless. The optics of having the first woman, first black and first Asian vice-president at his side were too good to resist. And then, as President, he handed her two unwinnable assignments — solving the “root causes” of the migrant crisis (created by his own open door to families with children), and fending off Republican attempts to reform statewide voting systems (over which she has no power).

“Maybe I don’t say no enough,” Harris joked last weekend, when asked if she had been given too many tasks, but she didn’t seem that amused. “It’s just a lot of hard work, but that’s why we’re here and that’s what people wanted. Right?'”

Tough luck, insiders say. Vice presidents always get the worst jobs. There was no love lost between Joe Biden and Barack Obama, either, who haven’t seen each other for months despite their supposed closeness. There is, though, more to it than that. The reputation of the “big guy” — as Hunter Biden likes to call his father — has been shored up at the expense of Harris in the hope of neutralising any threat to the now 78-year-old Biden running again in 2024.

As a bonus, the stitching up of Harris has put paid to all those wounding accusations, from Donald Trump and his supporters, that Biden was merely a doddery placeman, whom she was eying up for lunch and bound to dispatch on the grounds of senility at the earliest opportunity. The ploy has worked. With her approval ratings on 44%, according to the latest YouGov/Economist poll, Harris is no longer seen as the heir apparent to the President. With her presidential hopes torpedoed, the path has been cleared for Biden to stand for a second term, if he can possibly do so. The trouble is, he does need to govern competently in the meantime.

Biden has several experienced, trusted aides, including his chief of staff, Ron Klain. But they can’t make up for the leadership vacuum at the top. Every time Biden emerges from the White House, Democrats are on high alert. The merest fumble of his script guarantees a new round of anxiety as to whether he is up to the job.

What nobody expected is that every outing by Harris would be greeted with the same level of apprehension. Even a visit last April to a cake shop in Chicago ended in a damaging “bakery versus the border” row about why she was so reluctant to make a trip to the border to see the immigration crisis for herself. Biden’s press secretary, Jen Psaki, let her irritation show. “Like many Americans, she got a snack,” she snapped. “I think she’s allowed to do that.”

Inside the White House, it doesn’t help that Harris has a strained relationship with Jill Biden. The President is said to be the forgiving type, but the first lady isn’t. According to Battle for the Soul, a new book on the Democratic campaign by Edward-Isaac Dovere, Jill Biden fumed “go fuck yourself” about Harris after the latter accused her husband, then a rival for the nomination, of cosying up to racist senators and opposing school bussing in a televised debate.

“With what he cares about, what he fights for, what he’s committed to, you get up there and call him a racist without basis?” Jill Biden complained to a group of supporters. She was particularly affronted because Harris, a former attorney-general for California, had been a friend of Biden’s late son, Beau, the attorney-general for Delaware. That anger, says Dovere, was “real and it doesn’t fade for her. She is very protective of her husband.”

I’m told that Biden, who used to rely on his sister Valerie for policy advice, has come to depend more and more on his wife as a sounding board in their private quarters at the White House. It is not unusual for first ladies and VPs to compete for the President’s ear — Hillary Clinton and Al Gore bitterly mistrusted each other — but with Jill Biden, it’s personal.

A fawning recent article on Jill Biden in Vogue revealed for the first time her burgeoning policy role. Describing the first lady as “a key player in her husband’s administration, a West Wing surrogate and policy advocate”, the magazine gushed about her transformational impact on education and child poverty, and claimed she was selling “a new vision for how our fundamental institutions ought to work — infrastructure, education, public health.”

No wonder Harris has been sounding snippy. Isn’t she, as vice president, supposed to be the key player and policy advocate in the Biden administration? Instead, the immigration brief has become such a “sore spot” for the VP that some Democrats are speculating that Biden himself may have told her not to go to the border, leaving Republicans free to lob missiles at her for months for avoiding the issue — until she was bounced into showing up in Texas because Trump announced he was visiting.

In any case, it was always highly doubtful she would be an effective vice president. During her botched run for the Democratic presidential nomination, Harris frequently got into a muddle on policy. Was she a progressive or a centrist? Nobody knew for sure, not even Harris herself, it seemed. It was never clear whether she was proud or embarrassed about being tough on crime as a prosecutor, and she backtracked on a debate pledge to support universal health care. Did she really support abolishing private health insurance, she was asked afterwards? “No, I do not,” she replied to confusion all round.

Moreover, her presidential campaign team was beset with the same feuding that has now broken out in her VP’s office. Kelly Mehlenbacher, Harris’s state operations director, resigned less than 90 days before the start of the Iowa caucus (the first date in the primary calendar) complaining in a letter that it was “unacceptable…that we still do not have a clear plan to win”.

She continued: “I have never seen an organization treat its staff so poorly…We have refused to confront our mistakes, foster an environment of critical thinking and honest feedback or trust the expertise of talented staff.” Other employees, according to the New York Times, criticised the lack of clear leadership in her campaign and for “going on the offensive against rivals, only to retreat”. In the event, Harris — initially one of the most starry candidates — was forced to abandon her campaign before the Iowa vote.

Given this past muddled form, it is not surprising she upset the Left by telling potential migrants “Do not come,” on a trip to Guatemala, while annoying the Right with her lack of urgency about the problem. Nor that she was ill-prepared to respond to an obvious question from a television presenter about when she would visit the border. “And I haven’t been to Europe either,” she griped, leading to further sighs from exasperated aides in the White House.

Nobody knows Harris’s faults better than Team Biden. The truth is they thought they needed her to win, but not to govern. Now looks like they didn’t consider the competence of the team once they made it to the White House. Biden is too frail to shoulder the burden by himself and Harris has become too weak to help him.

As the VP wanders haplessly around the White House — and country — it looks very much like the Biden camp has overdone the sabotage. Throwing the most diverse Vice President in history to the wolves doesn’t reflect well on the Democrats, and it  has left them dangerously dependent on a geriatric president.


Sarah Baxter is the former Deputy Editor of The Sunday Times. She is now based in the US.

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Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
2 years ago

I apologise if saying the following is letting down the female side but both Kamala Harris and Ursula von der Leyen are prime examples of women put into jobs because they are women and not because they have the right skills and qualifications to do the job. These decisions end up being detrimental to the feminist cause I think, as, if the women hauled up into a prominent position then flounder, there is nowhere to hide and they end up being a gift to those who would say women aren’t made for leadership.

Hugh Marcus
Hugh Marcus
2 years ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

Wow. Interesting comment, that I as a man could never make. I’m always intrigued by such thoughts. Can you elaborate on your observations Katharine?

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
2 years ago
Reply to  Hugh Marcus

There’s not much to elaborate. I just think jobs should be awarded based on skills and competence (or, in vdL’s case, pursuant to the rules stated to apply) rather than on characteristics such as sex, race etc. This kind of positive discrimination is mostly well-intentioned but it can backfire and make everything worse.

Stephanie Surface
Stephanie Surface
2 years ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

Biden wanted a coloured woman, to hit both PC buttons


Cathy Carron
Cathy Carron
2 years ago

When Amy Klobuchar dropped out of the Democrat race she announced (from the goodness of her heart ) that she did so, because Joe Biden “should really hire a woman of color.” Boom! A Democrat could not be more self-sacrificing – a grand virtue-signaling gesture. Ironically, women have done more damage to feminism than any other group.

Last edited 2 years ago by Cathy Carron
Don Holden
Don Holden
2 years ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

Add Cressida d**k and Dido Harding to your list of incompetents.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago
Reply to  Don Holden

And Alison Saunders.

Ann Marie
Ann Marie
2 years ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

No, Katharine you are not letting the female side down, what you say is absolutely correct. As a seventies feminist I can only add that original feminism was mostly about choice not about positive discrimination and all of the rubbish that seems to pass for the feminist movement today! Nor was it about the demonisation and feminisation of men which is also happening now. In every way merit has completely gone and been replaced with virulent box-ticking. No wonder the world is in such a darn mess!
Sorry about the rant.

Last edited 2 years ago by Ann Marie
Cathy Carron
Cathy Carron
2 years ago
Reply to  Ann Marie

One could even say with great certainty, that it’s downright embarrassing to declare oneself a ‘feminist’ today

Cheryl Jones
Cheryl Jones
2 years ago
Reply to  Ann Marie

I feel exactly the same way, to the point I no longer self describe as a feminist because of the modern connotations.

JP Martin
JP Martin
2 years ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

It’s remarkable that she’s held out as some sort of feminist role model given how she started her political career. If not for Willie Brown’s high libido and low standards, we could have been spared the indignity of receiving lectures from this cackling moron.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
2 years ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

What skills and qualifications exactly are needed to be Vice President? Almost entirely political ones, such as balancing the party ticket etc (as with, famously, Lyndon Johnson, a Texan Southerner and John F Kennedy, an East Coast liberal ‘brahmin’). Not much difference here to the Harris case, except she’s been given some rather hard to solve projects as well.

It has up to now at least, largely been a non job, until the unfortunate moment when for unpleasant reasons it becomes the big one.

Last edited 2 years ago by Andrew Fisher
Dianne Bean
Dianne Bean
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Fisher

Except in this case, it has been obvious that Biden was slipping, not expected to make it full term and a given that the VP would be taking over. Thins the VP choice was critical this time.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago

By God, if the Dems did not totally own the MSM and Social Media the approval ratings of these two out to destroy America would be limited to the few they pay a lot of money to.

“With her presidential hopes torpedoed, the path has been cleared for Biden to stand for a second term, if he can possibly do so.”
For that to happen they will have to get the Taxidermist who does Pelosi on the team, at the very least.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago

Can I rewrite the first sentence of the last paragraph: ‘As the POTUS and VP wander haplessly around the White House – and country
’
I also feel this piece is too forgiving of Biden. It even cautiously mentions a second term – while the world watches with fascination as they wonder whether he will make the end of each day.

sarahalbaxter
sarahalbaxter
2 years ago

There’s no doubt that Biden would like a second term… his schedule is being carefully managed to keep him going

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago
Reply to  sarahalbaxter

I can concede that today – briefly – he might like it if he remembers to like it. Tomorrow he might not remember which flavour ice cream he likes. Unless he can find the flash card in his pocket.

Dianne Bean
Dianne Bean
2 years ago

Or the earpiece in his ear

Christopher Gelber
Christopher Gelber
2 years ago

It is widely thought that the machinations behind the very public slicing and dicing of support for Harris are being led by Jill Biden. Which sure makes sense. And from everything I have seen of Kamala to date, it couldn’t happen to a nicer gal.

Cathy Carron
Cathy Carron
2 years ago

The Left eating their own. #MEOW

Joe Donovan
Joe Donovan
2 years ago

I wish it were possible for us all to experience the Kamala Harris “decision tree” at the moment when she was first approached “romantically” by Willie Brown. (I assume that she was not the aggressor.) A fateful moment for her. She liked the man, and did not consider him physically repulsive, one supposes. Sure he was married, but let’s get practical here. This move could blast me off into the big time politically! (Although at that time the presidency of the United States may have seemed just a bit out of reach for her.) OR she could have rebuffed him, carried on as usual for a time, and then revealed that his uninvited physical approach to her had devastated her psychologically, an event from which she would never fully recover, even if she were able to parlay it into a great career at Brandeis and on the speaking circuit, like Anita Hill. It’s not entirely true that young, attractive women have no power in these circumstances.

Mikey Mike
Mikey Mike
2 years ago

I appreciate this piece. It’s nice to read something that makes an honest attempt to be fair; to treat the subject as a human in a human dynamic dealing with human problems, albeit the problems of a politician-human. I have to admit to recoiling at the suggestion that Harris is the most “diverse Vice President in history.” Never mind that it’s clunky construction. She is just like everyone else in the administration. There is nothing unique about her except that she’s not white. Beyond that she is the same kind of creature: a politician governed not by guiding principles but guiding ambitions.

Earl King
Earl King
2 years ago

In a nutshell she is unlikeable. She sounds like she is manufactured politician….She doesn’t seem to have a core beyond parroting whatever is the latest Progressive Talking point. You’d think she could be a big help in discussing race and that in America regardless of race you can be successful…After all isn’t she the product of such success?

Tom Krehbiel
Tom Krehbiel
2 years ago
Reply to  Earl King

To me, she doesn’t have a core beyond the promotion beyond the advancement of Kamala Harris. As the article shows, she uses the Progressive Talking point when it suits that self-promotion, a more moderate or even conservative position when that seems most appropriate. Her lack of non-selfish principles was shown quite clearly – to me at least – when she laughed off her earlier criticism of Biden as “just” a debate.

Cathy Carron
Cathy Carron
2 years ago
Reply to  Earl King

Harris couldn’t get traction from the get-go – she had to bow out of the Democrat primaries really early.

Chris Eaton
Chris Eaton
2 years ago

That’s kind of how it is in this Country: VP’s get a lot of press at election time and then just fade away afterwards, mainly because they have no real power. Although Harris does provide the tie breaking vote in the Senate. But since the Democrats all vote in virtual lockstep anyway, she is going to vote their way anyway, so even that is not a true leadership position.

David D'Andrea
David D'Andrea
2 years ago
Reply to  Chris Eaton

Joe Biden would not be president now if he had not served as VP under Obama

Cathy Carron
Cathy Carron
2 years ago
Reply to  David D'Andrea

Kamala would not be VP if not for Obama (who also publicly announced he thought she was hot too #tackytacky).

Last edited 2 years ago by Cathy Carron
Hardee Hodges
Hardee Hodges
2 years ago
Reply to  Cathy Carron

Somehow this article seems to miss the apparent close connections between Obama behind the scenes and the Biden administration. Perhaps Obama wanted someone else but couldn’t find any other controllable but electable person. I suspect Harris was an Obama pick because she can be controlled. Her party fully understood her unprincipled ambition and rejected her. Biden may have played the rope-a-dope act perfectly to get the spot but he goes off script too often but has Jill as a backbone. A real test if figureheads can work.

Natasha Felicia
Natasha Felicia
2 years ago
Reply to  Hardee Hodges

Biden was chosen to give experience and gravitas to the ticket as Obama was young and inexperienced. He had only served one term as a Senate before he ran for president. Of course that was 13 years ago when Biden was 65 instead of 78.

Dustin Needle
Dustin Needle
2 years ago
Reply to  Chris Eaton

Tom Paxton – “I’ll sing you a song of Spiro Agnew and all the things he’s done.”

Martin Smith
Martin Smith
2 years ago

Am I the only person on here who finds the new use of ‘optics’ to replace ‘look’ or ‘appearances’ jarring and clumsy? Until recently I never came across the word outside its technical application except in relation to the transparent measuring devices attached to the upside down bottles of spirits on the glass shelves behind the bar.

Last edited 2 years ago by Martin Smith
Francis MacGabhann
Francis MacGabhann
2 years ago

Harris hasn’t “become” too weak to help Biden. She was always a career maniac whose ambition was massively in advance of her abilities. She’s an idiot, and an amoral idiot to boot. If she were a white guy, she’d be Alan Partridge.

Cathy Carron
Cathy Carron
2 years ago

Whatever Joe Biden has or will do to her, Harris, in the end, is her own worst enemy

Ray Zacek
Ray Zacek
2 years ago

Does Doctor Jill Biden, the Multiplier of Joy and virtually a White House Athena according to Vogue, harbor Eva Peron or Edith Wilson aspirations? In contemplating the slobbery Vogue writeup simultaneous with leaks from the VP’s nasty little nest, I can’t help but recall a line of dialog from Cormc McCarthy: They believe coincidences exist, they’ve just never seen one.

Jim Farnsworth
Jim Farnsworth
2 years ago

As Biden has tried to cover the entire spectrum of “historic firsts” with nearly every appointment based on race, gender, or what not, he’s nearly nailed them all. Perhaps going forward we can return to appointments based on competence instead?

Dustin Needle
Dustin Needle
2 years ago

Sarah, it will take more than a hit piece on an irrelevant over-ambitious, over-promoted politician to distract me from the main problem here; the disgusting political class of the past 30 years and their terrible impact on the world. And Biden is their living (just about) embodiment. A man who has come to prominence undeservedly simply by not being Hilary Clinton, and is now in office to deliver Obama’s 3rd term.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
2 years ago

Politics is a rough business. Harris had some excoriating things to say about Biden in the election, so he owes her no particular personal loyalty. The VP role has up to now been pretty much a non job, she’s been given a couple of tough challenges. I know what the majority of Unherd commentators think of her, but she must be a capable individual so she shouldn’t whinge about that.

Biden was elected, not Harris, and enjoys a lot of popularity. It’s quite likely that she would not have been elected in his place. He is a wily operator and despite the accusations and doubts about his mental fitness, he could go on to a second term, as did Reagan, about whom there were similar concerns. He doesn’t have to be an intellectual genius to be President, or even possibly a good one.

Last edited 2 years ago by Andrew Fisher
David D'Andrea
David D'Andrea
2 years ago

I don’t think she’s been particularly sabotaged. Biden gave her the immigration file, which is indeed a tough one. Obama gave that file to Biden when they served together. At a certain point Harris has to prove herself on her own merits, and not just as puffed up by the press.
In passing, Biden seems more competent and in control than I expected. It’s true he’s wobbly in front of the microphones. However, where it counts he’s made significant policy decisions moving away from the “neoliberalism on autopilot” that many people feared from his administration. In particular, I’ve been encouraged by the withdrawal from Afghanistan, stepped up anti-trust measures, and moves to coordinate global policies against corporate tax evasion.

Natasha Felicia
Natasha Felicia
2 years ago
Reply to  David D'Andrea

This comment did not age well.

David D'Andrea
David D'Andrea
2 years ago

Yes yes, twenty more years in Afghanistan is just what’s needed

Ess Arr
Ess Arr
2 years ago

Biden has sharp elbows. Who fell for his doddery uncle shtick? Donald Trump that’s who.

Kevin Carroll
Kevin Carroll
2 years ago
Reply to  Ess Arr

Wrong. People voted for Biden because they were sick of MSM banging on about Trump. Hopeing that the noise would go away.

David D'Andrea
David D'Andrea
2 years ago
Reply to  Ess Arr

You’re quite right. Look up Biden vs. Warren sparring on the bankruptcy bill back when he was known as the Senator from MBNA. He’s a got a goofy grin but he can be cold-blooded when he wants.

Ray Zacek
Ray Zacek
2 years ago
Reply to  David D'Andrea

He is a corrupt, lying, gladhanding, plagiarizing old hack with the morals of a reptile. American electoral politics is a lurid circus.