The headlines have been brutal.
“Exasperation and dysfunction: Inside Kamala Harris’ frustrating start as vice president,” read one from CNN.
“Biden-successor chatter grows and Harris isn’t scaring off anyone,” read another from Politico.
And this from the New York Post: “Kamala Harris sidelined amid growing tensions with Biden, insiders say.”
The general gist of all of these pieces is similar if not exactly the same: The Vice President is struggling in her role. She’s frustrated. And some people in President Joe Biden’s orbit are just as frustrated with her.
“Worn out by what they see as entrenched dysfunction and lack of focus, key West Wing aides have largely thrown up their hands at Vice President Kamala Harris and her staff – deciding there simply isn’t time to deal with them right now, especially at a moment when President Joe Biden faces quickly multiplying legislative and political concerns.”
Bad headlines are part and parcel for any administration. And the role of vice president – particularly for someone, like Harris, who is widely seen as eying the top job – is notoriously fraught.
But, these series of stories have quite clearly struck a nerve in the White House – as evidenced by the decision to issue a statement from press secretary Jen Psaki Sunday night expressing confidence in Harris.
“For anyone who needs to hear it. @VP is not only a vital partner to @POTUS but a bold leader who has taken on key, important challenges facing the country—from voting rights to addressing root causes of migration to expanding broadband,” tweeted Psaki.
Consider that Psaki sent this tweet on Sunday at 9:20 pm – not exactly normal business hours.
Then consider that needing to put out a tweet insisting that everything is totally fine between the president and the vice president suggests that things are not, well, totally fine. Smart people don’t need to tell you how smart they are. Athletic people don’t need to brag about their achievements on the field. And solid relationships don’t need to be publicly asserted as solid.
So, why did the White House feel the need to respond? Was it Biden or someone close to him wanting to shore up Harris? Or was it the Harris team, concerned at what these headlines meant for her – both in the moment and in 2024/2028 – that asked for a vote of confidence?
Either way, the fact that the White House felt the need to respond to Harris’ recent run of negative press speaks to the fact that they, too, are a) aware of it and b) worried about it. If they weren’t, no statement would be necessary.
Remember that when Biden ran for president, he purposely cast himself as a sort of bridge candidate for Democrats – holding the office until some of the party’s younger stars, several of whom ran against him, were ready to take on the mantle of leadership.
“Look, I view myself as a bridge, not as anything else,” Biden said in March 2020 as he campaigned with Harris, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. “There’s an entire generation of leaders you saw stand behind me. They are the future of this country.”
When Biden picked Harris as his vice president, the message was clear: She was the future of the party.
Two things have happened since then.
1) Biden has said publicly and privately that he plans to run for a 2nd term in 2024 when he is in his early 80s
2) Harris has stumbled – whether through the tough assignments given to her by Biden or by her own struggles to serve as second in command.
That bridge that Biden envisioned then is shaky. And, as Psaki’s tweet makes clear, the White House knows it.