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.
The exasperation runs both ways. Interviews with nearly three dozen former and current Harris aides, administration officials, Democratic operatives, donors and outside advisers — who spoke extensively to CNN — reveal a complex reality inside the White House. Many in the vice president’s circle fume that she’s not being adequately prepared or positioned, and instead is being sidelined. The vice president herself has told several confidants she feels constrained in what she’s able to do politically. And those around her remain wary of even hinting at future political ambitions, with Biden’s team highly attuned to signs of disloyalty, particularly from the vice president.
She’s a heartbeat away from the presidency now. She could be just a year away from launching a presidential campaign of her own, given doubts throughout the political world that Biden will actually go through with a reelection bid in 2024, something he’s pledged to do publicly and privately. Or she’ll be a critical validator in three years for a President trying to get the country to reelect him to serve until he’s 86.
Few of the insiders who spoke with CNN think she’s being well-prepared for whichever role it will be. Harris is struggling with a rocky relationship with some parts of the White House, while long-time supporters feel abandoned and see no coherent public sense of what she’s done or been trying to do as vice president. Being the first woman, and first woman of color, in national elected office is historic but has also come with outsized scrutiny and no forgiveness for even small errors, as she’ll often point out.
Defenders and people who care for Harris are getting frantic. When they’re annoyed, some pass around a recent Onion story mocking her lack of more substantive work, one with the headline, “White House Urges Kamala Harris To Sit At Computer All Day In Case Emails Come Through.” When they’re depressed, they bat down the Aaron Sorkin-style rumor that Biden might try to replace her by nominating her to a Supreme Court vacancy. That chatter has already reached top levels of the Biden orbit, according to one person who’s heard it.
She’s perceived to be in such a weak position that top Democrats in and outside of Washington have begun to speculate privately, asking each other why the White House has allowed her to become so hobbled in the public consciousness, at least as they see it.
“She’s very honored and very proud to be vice president of the United States. Her job as the No. 2 is to be helpful and supportive to the President and to take on work that he asks her to take on,” said Eleni Kounalakis, the lieutenant governor of California and a longtime friend. Kounalakis spoke with the vice president last Monday morning before Harris departed for a diplomatic mission to France.
“It is natural that those of us who know her know how much more helpful she can be than she is currently being asked to be,” Kounalakis said. “That’s where the frustration is coming from.”
An incumbent vice president should be a shoo-in the next time the party’s presidential nomination is open. But guessing who might launch a theoretical primary challenge to Harris has become an ongoing insider parlor game. Other politicians with their own presidential ambitions have started privately acknowledging that they are trying to figure out how to quietly lay the groundwork to run if and when Harris falters, as they think she might.
The reality is more complex and looks different to people more familiar with how any White House actually works. Harris is the first vice president in decades to come into office with less Washington experience than the president, and finding her footing was always going to be hard. Presidents and vice presidents and their staffs often clash. Barack Obama’s West Wing tended to be dismissive of Biden’s staffers (a number of whom are now with him in the West Wing), and Biden himself had a number of stumbles early in that job. Republicans and right-wing media turned Harris into a political target from the moment she was picked for the ticket. And implicit racism and sexism have been constant.
It’s a conundrum unique to her. People are expecting their historic vice president to make history every day when in fact she’s trying to carry the duties of a secondary role. Harris is being judged not just by how she’s doing in the traditional duties of a vice president, said Minyon Moore, a longtime Democratic operative who has become Harris’ most important outside adviser. “It’s a little more subliminal, but it’s real,” Moore said. “‘What is her playbook in history?'”
Harris has emerged as a “quiet force” in the administration, Moore said, and she focuses attention on different issues sometimes just by her very presence in the room.
Moore said Harris’ approach is to be constantly asking, “Should we be doing more on an issue? Are we communicating with the people whose lives are impacted? Are we missing any key constituency groups?”
But, with many sources speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the situation more frankly, they all tell roughly the same story: Harris’ staff has repeatedly failed her and left her exposed, and family members have often had an informal say within her office. Even some who have been asked for advice lament Harris’ overly cautious tendencies and staff problems, which have been a feature of every office she’s held, from San Francisco district attorney to US Senate.
‘A central component’ sometimes forgotten
Biden aimed to model his relationship with Harris on his own vice presidency and directed aides early in his presidency to employ her in a similar fashion. He arranged weekly lunches, just as he’d held with Obama, and invited Harris to join him for his morning classified intelligence briefing. Harris, meanwhile, threw herself into proving her commitment to the President and the administration, using his relationship with Obama as her guide.
Even then, some White House aides questioned whether Biden’s experience as vice president would easily translate to someone with far different qualifications and skills — and to a much different moment.
After Harris became known in the first few months for often standing by Biden’s side in the frame as he made big speeches, even after she’d introduced him herself, the West Wing appears to have overcorrected so she has been with the President noticeably less.
Not just in public. A week and a half ago, as Biden and his aides and multiple outside allies rattled through calls all day trying to lock down wavering lawmakers ahead of the House infrastructure vote, Harris spent the afternoon touring a NASA space flight center in suburban Maryland. “We weren’t going to cancel her schedule just because of the House’s foolishness,” a Harris aide explained.
That night, Harris was part of the small group Biden invited upstairs to the White House residence for the war room making the last hours of calls. The next morning, celebrating the bill’s passage, Biden singled her out, saying, “A lot of this has to do with this lady right here, the vice president.”
But that’s not exactly how things had played out. While she had attended some meetings Biden hosted with key lawmakers, there were many more that she didn’t attend — to the point that it was noteworthy that she made an unscheduled drop-by one session in the final stretch. Harris had only been in Washington four years, and to the White House just one time before being sworn in as vice president. Missing out on those main meetings deprived her of an important aspect of presidential apprenticeship from a self-styled master of how to actually get deals through Congress.