Editor’s Note: Lincoln Mitchell (@LincolnMitchell) teaches in the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University. His most recent book is “The Giants and Their City: Major League Baseball in San Francisco, 1976-1992.” (Kent State University Press, 2020) The opinions expressed here are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
Since taking office in January, Vice President Kamala Harris has struggled to find her role in the administration and win the approval of the American people. These problems have only gotten worse in recent weeks as stories about clashes between her staff and that of the President’s have made the depth of the problem clear.
Harris cannot be blamed for all of this. The last three Democratic presidents before Biden were relative newcomers to Washington who chose running mates with much more Washington, DC, experience – specifically with Congress – the reverse of the situation Harris finds herself in. That experience allowed Vice Presidents Walter Mondale, Al Gore and Joe Biden to become indispensable advisers on navigating Congress to Presidents Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, respectively. No such dynamic could ever exist between Harris and Biden because the President has almost half a century of experience in Washington.
While attacks on Harris because she bought a piece of cake in Chicago or because of how she pronounced the word “the” on a recent trip to France are standard partisan attacks against a politician who has a good chance of being the future Democratic nominee for president, as the highest-ranking woman of color in American political history, Harris also faces a different kind of scrutiny and criticism. Nonetheless, Harris is not entirely blameless. She has flubbed interviews on important issues such as immigration and has clearly failed to emerge as a major player in the administration.
Harris’s struggles create a significant dilemma for the Democratic Party as the 2024 election looms three years away. There is a lot that can, and will, change between now and 2024, but there also some certainties. Biden will be old enough that, at the very least, his health and age will be a major campaign issue even if his opponent is former President Donald Trump, who is only a few years younger.
If, for whatever reason, Biden does not run again in 2024, as the sitting Vice President, Harris will be the frontrunner for the nomination. Even if her poll numbers are low, a competitive primary could be particularly divisive as whoever ran against Harris would have to aggressively go after a high profile African American woman, a move of dubious political wisdom or benefit for a party that relies on African-American women as their backbone. That is a primary fight that most Democrats would like to avoid.
None of this is new – Biden’s age was an issue in the 2020 primary, and many understood that in nominating Harris to be his running mate, he was choosing the face of the future of the Democratic Party. That may or may not have been the right decision, but the cost of revisiting it is high.
Fortunately, there is a way forward for Harris and the administration that could help solve this problem by bolstering Harris and putting her in a position to succeed and generate positive media coverage: Rather than give Harris a vague portfolio that includes tough issues such as immigration, Biden should make the Vice President the face of the administration’s biggest success to date – the infrastructure bill, which he signed into law on Monday.
The bill will lead to many new projects that will bring investment and jobs all over the country. Every time ground is broken on a new project, such as on bridges and highways in Michigan, rural broadband in Texas or Georgia, or faster Amtrak trains in the Northeast corridor, Harris should be present and explain why it will benefit the community in question. The American people will begin to associate her not with the border or her lack of influence within the White House, but with important accomplishments for their community.
Trips to the locations of these infrastructure projects would also give Harris exposure in local media outlets, which are still important in various parts of the country. The interviews and media availabilities during these trips would provide her an opportunity to flesh out and explain the projects in question and why it is good for the community or state she is visiting.
Traveling around the country this way would also give Harris the opportunity to build relationships with local Democratic Party organizations and the people in those organizations who, at the state level, are extremely important in primaries. Some of these visits would be linked to fundraising for state parties which would further strengthen the bond between Harris and local Democratic Party organizations.
Despite her rough start, Harris is potentially a very strong candidate. Her progressive record in the US Senate is tempered by her years as a prosecutor. She has an impressive personal story and resume. And Harris has a natural base – African American women – without whom the Democratic Party has no chance of winning anything. She may not be the perfect nominee if Biden is not up to running again in 2024, but the cost of replacing her is too high and it is still early enough to redefine her vice presidential role.