July 12, 2021

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.