Harris has told people close to her that she wants to shape her vice presidency after the way Biden worked with President Barack Obama over eight years: testing and pushing the administration in private, while in public remaining a dedicated and loyal lieutenant.
Harris, in effect, wants to be Biden’s Biden and has spent the past several weeks playing a key role in the formation of the next administration, interviewing each eventual Cabinet nominee and spending considerable time talking to Biden about the process, sources said. She has also worked to get to know the President-elect by talking on the phone nearly every day, something Harris believes will help her better understand the kind of partner Biden wants her to be.
“She’s trying to prove that she is capable of being a second,” one source said. “For her, there is as much learning and watching as there is participation.”
While she may not be the first vice president to play an active role in shaping a new government, Harris’ vantage point is particularly noteworthy. Not only will she be the first Black, first South Asian American and first female vice president in history, she also will be learning how to be vice president from someone who she believes did the job well.
That dynamic was clear this week when Harris was asked on ABC what the “definition of success” would be when she looks back on her four years as vice president.
“Joe Biden’s success,” Harris quickly said.
While sources tell CNN there have been few, if any, disagreements between the two Democrats, so far nothing has veered out in public, which is exactly the way both Biden and Harris want it. Biden has said publicly that he welcomes being pushed, telling CNN earlier this month that “when we disagree it will be just like … when Barack and I did … in private.”
Beyond loyalty, there will also be another unmistakable dynamic at play between Biden and Harris: succession. Those close to Harris know that almost anything she does over the next four years will be viewed as possible positioning for another presidential bid, a fact that could test her relationship with longtime Biden aides if they perceive she is putting her future aspirations ahead of the current administration.
Building the Cabinet
Harris’ first test has come in how she has navigated the tricky business of picking a Cabinet. While she has offered Biden her views on each candidate, she has not raised major opposition to any of his selections, according to a source familiar with Harris’ operation. That’s both because Harris believes that Biden, as president, deserves the team he wants, but also because she had no reason to principally oppose any of the picks.
Groups outside the transition have attempted to lean on Harris to push Cabinet candidates they are backing, but sources said Harris has tried to avoid overstepping by advocating specifically for any one person in the cabinet deliberations.
Biden and Harris have grown closer over the last two months, speaking almost every day by phone and working specifically to develop their relationship as they prepare to step into office. Biden, during a conversation with reporters on Wednesday, said that he called Harris to thank her for not getting on the highway during the incoming winter storm Gail, a mark of that deepening relationship.
Being second-in-command will be a new role for Harris, who ever since she was district attorney of San Francisco in 2004 has been the top person in all offices she’s held.
Those tracking the transition are less concerned about the Biden-Harris relationship than they are about the relationship that Harris will have with veteran Biden aides who are more focused on protecting their longtime boss than elevating the vice president.
A key aspect of these concerns is the specter of Biden not running for reelection in 2024, thereby opening up a Democratic free-for-all in the final years of his first term. Biden, looking to avoid becoming a lame duck before he takes office, has said nothing about running for reelection in four years.
But by picking Harris, Biden has elevated his onetime rival to a remarkably powerful position should he not run in four years. And aside from his decision to nominate Pete Buttigieg as transportation secretary, Biden’s Cabinet picks have not elevated any potential competitors to a prospective Harris campaign.
Biden loyalists are expected to be defensive of the suggestion that Harris is positioning herself for a run in four years.
“I think their relationship will be great,” said someone who has worked with Harris. “I think it remains to be seen whether top staff will want her to be a top adviser.”
A Prosecutor’s eye
Harris has spent her waning days as a senator shuttling between her Washington, DC apartment, her Senate office on Capitol Hill, the transition office in the Commerce Department building and the occasional trip up to Wilmington for an event with the President-elect.
She’s studied up on the host of issues that will face the incoming Biden administration, including the ongoing fight against the coronavirus. She’s also served as a liaison between factions of the party, calling into the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus to relay the incoming administration’s desire for a strong relationship.
Harris’ portfolio remains undefined, sources said, in part because Biden hasn’t decided on what his priorities will be. Like the rest of the administration, Harris will initially focus on getting the coronavirus pandemic under control, sources said. Beyond that is an open question.
One skill she will bring to the administration is a keen ability to read people in group settings, and a penchant to ask probing questions.
Harris, according to people who have worked closely with her in the past, is someone who revels in challenging assumptions in meetings and works to perfect plans by refusing to accept conventional wisdom and regularly asking “why” when something is proposed.
“One of the very first things I noticed about Kamala Harris was how perceptive she was about people and situations,” said someone who has worked with Harris. “I always thought of myself of being really good at reading rooms and reading people – and then I realized after spending a few months around her that I am a rank amateur.”
These prosecutorial skills, which this person attributed to Harris routinely picking juries, will come in handy as vice president, and allow Harris to just “observe” what Biden wants and quickly understand “what works for him and what doesn’t.”
Training to be Biden’s Biden
The relationship between Obama and Biden, while sometimes overhyped, was genuine. The two didn’t know each other that well before they stepped into the White House in 2009, but over their eight years in office, they grew remarkably close, both as governing partners and friends.
Historians who track the vice presidency marveled at the way Obama made Biden central to the day-to-day operations of the White House.
“In my view, Obama and Biden really took it to the highest level,” said Joel Goldstein, vice presidential historian at St. Louis University. “They were able to develop an arrangement whereby Biden was heavily involved in important matters and to sustain it for the entire eight years.”
Biden has said he wants a similar relationship with Harris.
“When I agreed to serve as President Obama’s running mate, he asked me a number of questions most important, he said to me, he asked me what I wanted most … I told him I wanted to be the last person in the room before he made important decisions,” Biden said after picking Harris. “That’s what I asked Kamala. I asked Kamala to be the last voice in the room.”
Assuming that arrangement holds, Harris will have the chance to have tremendous influence, as well as prove to Biden that she can save disagreements for private conversations.
“She’s part of the team,” Goldstein concluded. “And part of the deal is that when the President makes a decision, you can argue about it beforehand, but then you try and implement it, and you try and make the decision work.”
One thing Harris will have total decision-making power over is the vice president’s residence and her new kitchen. A well-known cook, Harris has said she and her husband Doug Emhoff were often eating meals she made in bulk then froze during the general election.
“One of the things I’m looking forward to is cooking,” Harris recently told a donor while laughing, when asked what she’ll do for fun in office. “And my husband Doug is looking forward to the same.”