The confidant put the defining ethos inside the vice president’s office as follows: “Make sure everyone in that White House complex knows I have only one priority and that is covering Joe Biden’s back.”
Harris’ efforts to earn Biden’s trust are, to an extent, a byproduct of the role that the VP has enjoyed in American governance. The influence that comes with the post is largely determined by how much the president chooses to grant it. But it also is tied to how Harris — the first Black, Asian and female vice-president — is still trying to define her own place as a leader in the Democratic party, having burst onto the national scene five years ago as a U.S. senator and failing to catch fire in her own run for president.
In many ways, the dynamic at play between Biden and Harris began months before they took office together, when she was being interviewed to become his vice president. At the time, close Biden advisers and allies worried that Harris would outshine him or put her own priorities ahead of his, and their belief was reinforced by some of her critics in California, who urged his campaign to go in another direction.
Harris, at the time, told people close to her that she knew she had to win Biden-world’s trust. She went about trying to do so in private, eschewing the public lobbying efforts that others competing for the post engaged in. After running a leaky campaign, she closed ranks around a small circle of aides. And as VP, she has opted to keep just a few people around her in the know. As a result, insidery kernels that reveal the depths of her trust with Biden have been scarce or closely managed by staff.
But for Harris, even that is by design. Going out of her way to publicly telegraph debates where she’s had influence in Biden’s final decision would defeat the purpose of her trying to burnish her image as a behind-the-scenes confidante and adviser. Her aides stress Harris and Biden have developed a “genuine like” for each other, with one comparing them to “Barney and Fred driving up to the factory.”
“Because of Covid there was very little travel, particularly in the first part,” Tina Flournoy, Harris’ chief of staff, told POLITICO. “[So] they spend a lot of time together, more than her public schedule probably reveals or indicates. Both coming to the same place every day and spending hours together, which would not have happened in a normal hundred days.”
Flournoy said the relationship and trust is constantly growing and that “in just about every meeting,” the president looks to Harris for guidance and advice, “He will turn to the vice president and say, ‘What do you think? Does that sound right to you? Am I missing something here?’”
Yet even as Harris’ aides talk up her involvement and focus, others in her orbit worry about her longer-term political standing. Some allies insist she needs to do more to engage needy donors, with one pointing to the fact that former Vice President Mike Pence was staffed by sharp-elbowed political operatives and was able to maintain a political committee to raise money. Harris has no comparable committee.
“Pence tended to his garden of political support. She is doing a lot of that herself,” another close ally said. “How extensive her political team is in broadening a universe beyond the Hamptons and the Vineyard, I can’t tell you.”
The ally also wondered whether the center of the party itself will have passed Harris by come 2024 or 2028, as a new generation of leaders lays down track while she works to build a brand for herself that’s at least somewhat distinct from her boss.
But while Harris might lose a step with the ideological left, having national stature and proximity to Biden carries political advantages too. Should she run for president, she’d also still be a historical candidate in her own right. Her race and gender continue to create a massive media frenzy and have dramatically raised expectations for her to carve out a lane for a presidential future. But aides push back, saying Harris has been keeping her head down, focusing on being “Joe Biden’s Joe Biden,” hearkening back to the relationship that the current president had with his former boss, Barack Obama.
“Everything that Joe Biden has asked her to do, she has and will do. And people should understand that’s not always public. You aren’t always going to see Joe Biden point to her and shout ‘Kamala, that’s yours!’” another Harris aide said in an interview.
While it may not always be announced, aides and allies see Harris’ hand in several White House developments, including a recent call with Biden and Harris and the family of George Floyd, the Minneapolis man murdered by a police officer. Biden discussed the case extensively with Harris, who spent decades as a prosecutor, and they said his remarks to the family rung familiar to anyone who has heard her talk about victims and their families.
Harris also accepted a politically fraught assignment dealing with Northern Triangle countries on the root causes of migration — one that has made her a target on the right.
“That’s part of the game: Let somebody like the vice president handle a very sensitive challenge,” said Leon Panetta, a former Defense Secretary, CIA Director and White House chief of staff. “In some ways, it’s how you prove yourself.”
Republicans and right wing media have worked to tie Harris to the issues at the southern border, which the White House is quick to point out isn’t her job. On Facebook, the GOP Senate’s fundraising arm ran ads specifically elevating Harris and leaving out Biden — “The Fake News wants you to believe Kamala Harris has more support than President Trump,” one of the ads read — while House Republicans affixed Harris’ picture and the word “missing” to a prop milk carton to signify her lack of presence at the border.
Aides admit the administration’s rollout of her assignment could have been “smoother,” but they point out that Harris has started to do more on the issue, including meetings with a host of people and groups, from the presidents of Mexican and Guatemalan, to Cabinet secretaries, foundations and faith leaders, before a planned trip to the region in June.
“She understands the level of the challenge and furthermore [the] incredible amount of pressure to deliver given the numbers” of migrants coming from Central America, said an adviser familiar with her thinking on the issue. “What is different about what she is doing is that she has been asking a lot about Biden’s approach. So she would say, ‘What did he do well that we can take on? What was incomplete? What are some of the challenges that we faced? What can we do better?’”
Harris’ portfolio, the “dreaded ‘P’ word” as a senior administration official put it (likely because there was so much focus on the portfolio early in the first 100 days), has expanded over time. It’s come to include a focus on Covid-19 vaccine hesitancy efforts, the impact of the recession on Black-owned businesses, getting women back into the workforce and chairing the recently announced pro-union task force. On Wednesday, during his joint session to Congress, Biden added another thing to her plate: leading the push to increase broadband internet across the country.
She’s paired her public involvement with relentlessly on-message news hits. The notable exception may be an interview she did with West Virginia media that upset Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.), a key swing vote, who thought he was being targeted. But that hiccup had to do more with back-channeling and scheduling, than with Harris’ actual performance.
It’s all part of a win-Biden’s-faith-and-trust approach to the job. And it’s one that historians say could pay off for Harris in the long run.
“There’s a tension between wanting to become president and serving as vice president,” said Joel Goldstein, the author of “The White House Vice Presidency.” “If everything that you do as vice president is seen through the lens of ‘he or she is doing this because of concern with their own political future, that tends to undermine the relationship with the others in the president’s inner circle and maybe even with the president himself.”