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Witcover: The vice-presidential woes of Kamala Harris

By Jules Witcover - | Dec 1, 2021


WASHINGTON — For 85 minutes on Nov. 19, the Vice President of the United States held the power of the presidency, as Joe Biden underwent his first physical exam in office. He was anesthetized for a colonoscopy for that time, requiring the temporary transfer of power until he recovered consciousness and was judged “fit for duty” to resume the obligations of his office.

Until then Kamala Harris, a former junior senator from California, was best known as the first woman to hold the second office. Biden chose her in what appeared to be a conspicuous political decision to boost his standing among women voters. He occasionally had been accused of being too personally familiar with women, but he vowed to amend his ways in that regard and appeared to have done so.

But rumors from the White House of tensions between its staff and that of Harris were circulating that she was somehow being downplayed in the Biden camp. The new president, however, took efforts to give her visibility, inviting her to stand by on camera at most televised events.

Some early news media criticism surfaced when one of her first assignments was to visit Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, which Biden already had visited. It was judged in some quarters as downplaying Harris. Also, Biden’s selection of Harris invited particular criticism in light of his own age of 79. Speculation grew of whether he would seek a second term in 2024 or retire, leaving her on the list of possible successors after less than five years in the Senate.

Biden himself came to the vice presidency after 36 years in the Senate, where he served for a time as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. In choosing Biden as his running mate, Obama cited his own lack of foreign policy experience.

The fact that Biden this week observed his 79th birthday, making him our oldest president, and has hinted at seeking a second term in 2024, inevitably will bring more attention to Harris as a potential successor. She offers a relatively thin portfolio for presidential consideration. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, at age 81, is far and away the most popular woman in the Democratic Party.

As the author of a history of American vice presidents for Smithsonian Books, I have examined all of Biden’s predecessors and found him to have more experience for national office than most of them. The first one, John Adams, memorably wrote to his very political wife Abigail: “I am Vice President. In this I am nothing, but I may be everything.”

Later he wrote her again: “My country in its wisdom has contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the imagination of man contrived or his imagination conceived.” Yet he could console himself in the thought finally of going from nothing to everything, in a forerunner of the eventual two-party system of Republicans and Democrats.

So the American vice presidency has been a mixed blessing for the occupant from the start. It has awarded only modest distinction over the years and limited prestige and real influence in governance most of the time. But as Adams himself found, and Biden is learning, the office is what one makes of it. But Biden is reaching high with his Build Back Better agenda, with still a tough climb ahead.

Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books. You can respond to this column at juleswitcover@comcast.net.


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