Kamala Harris Isn’t Joe Biden’s Real Problem

President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris are officially running for reelection but this time there may be even closer scrutiny of Biden’s running mate as the president becomes the oldest person ever to seek a second term.

Harris has long been the target of criticism from Republicans over her role in dealing with the U.S.-Mexico border—she had been tasked early on with addressing the “root causes” of migration into the U.S. from Mexico and the so-called Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

In 2021, the vice president faced an exodus of staff from her office amid reports that she was difficult to work with, and that there existed a rift between her and Biden due to a number of apparent errors in the vice president’s messaging and rumors of dysfunction in her office.

Harris’ approval rating remains low, like the president’s. According to analysis from poll tracker FiveThirtyEight, her approval rating stood at 42.1 percent as of April 28, while disapproval of the vice president was at 53.9 percent.

In the same analysis, Biden’s approval rating stood at 43 percent, while disapproval of the president was at 52.5 percent.

Political scientists who spoke to Newsweek suggested that while vice presidential candidates don’t normally have a major impact on presidential races, Biden’s advanced age is likely to place more focus on Harris. The president has always indicated that Harris would run with him again and experts suggested she may be looking forward to her own potential White House run.

Harris may not be a problem for Biden in 2024, according to the experts, yet the president might have a more pressing concern: himself.

A Heartbeat Away From the Presidency

Vice presidents are traditionally described as a “heartbeat” away from the presidency—meaning that if the president dies, the vice president will take their place. The situation has arisen several times in U.S. history and last occurred due to assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. In 1974, President Richard Nixon resigned from office, and his vice president assumed office.

“Normally, the vice presidential candidates have no detectable effect on the presidential election outcome,” Paul Quirk, a political scientist at the University of British Columbia in Canada, told Newsweek.

“We know this because election poll questions that mention both the presidential and vice-presidential candidates—Trump and Pence versus Biden and Harris in 2020, for example—almost always get exactly the same result as those that only mention the presidential candidates,” he said.

“It takes a severely deficient candidate in the second spot—think Sarah Palin, Senator John McCain’s running mate on the Republican ticket in 2008—to move the needle a point or two downward,” Quirk said.

“Normally, however, a presidential candidate is not going on 82 years old, as Joe Biden will be on election day in 2024,” he added.

Vice President Kamala Harris and US President Joe Biden arrive to deliver remarks during National Small Business Week, in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, DC, on May 1, 2023. Harris’ approval rating remains low, like the president’s.

“Presidential candidates always tout their running mate’s ability to serve as president in the event of their own disability or death,” he said. “But Biden’s claims about his running mate will have exceptionally obvious possible relevance. His running mate will receive unusual scrutiny with respect to the ‘heartbeat-away-from-the-presidency’ role.”

Biden’s Long Shadow

In his reelection campaign, Biden will surely drum up his administration’s achievements—from falling inflation to the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill to efforts at student debt relief—and Harris may not get an equal share of the praise.

“In any president/vice president relationship, the White House incumbent invariably casts a long shadow,” said Mark Shanahan, an associate professor in politics at the University of Surrey in the U.K. and co-editor of The Trump Presidency: From Campaign Trail to World Stage.

“Despite Biden’s travails in his first term so far, he has consistently had a higher approval rating than his Veep,” Shanahan told Newsweek. “But this is hardly a surprise: the number 1 executive never wants to be upstaged by their number 2, so Biden has largely taken the credit for the administration’s successes, while Harris has taken the fall for less successful policies, such as immigration on the southern border.”

However, in a second term “where the vice president is seen as a likely or possible successor, they tend to be given a higher profile and become more a feature of public thinking,” Shanahan said.

“In the upcoming reelection campaign, Harris will never be more than an add-on—useful in shoring up the younger, female and minority vote, but always the warm-up act before the main event,” he went on.

“Her polling now will have little impact, and she has the advantage in a reelection campaign of being a known face and experienced on the presidential campaign trail,” Shanahan said.

Vote Biden, Get Harris?

Republicans have long been critical of the vice president, in particular over her role as Biden’s border “czar,” while the issue of the president’s age is likely to resurface during the campaign. He’ll turn 82 shortly after Election Day in 2024.

“Republicans clearly think that repeating the line ‘a vote for Biden is a vote for Harris’ is a political winner for them, ” Thomas Gift, founding director of University College London’s Centre on U.S. Politics (CUSP), told Newsweek.

“Yet while they may be right, there’s only so far that can take that strategy. In the end, evidence suggests that Americans primarily cast their ballot for the top of the ticket,” he said.

Gift acknowledged that while Biden’s age “could make the VP more relevant in 2024 than in past cycles, it’s still unlikely to dwarf the names of the presidential candidates. Especially if that choice is Biden vs. Trump, Harris’ popularity (or lack thereof) is likely to fade into the backdrop as a key factor driving voter decisions.”

Harris’ Difficult Portfolio

The vice president may not have done herself any favors with reports that she’s difficult to work with or some high-profile verbal gaffes, such as talking about a U.S. alliance with North Korea—the dictatorship ruled by Kim Jong Un—when she meant South Korea, a key U.S. ally, at the Demilitarized Zone.

“As vice president, Harris has not made a strong positive impression on many observers,” Paul Quirk told Newsweek. “She has been criticized for poor management of her vice presidential staff and belittled as making rambling, incoherent remarks in public appearances.”

President Joe Biden, joined by Vice President Kamala Harris, takes a reporter’s question after delivering remarks on the Senate’s bipartisan infrastructure deal at the White House on June 24, 2021 in Washington, D.C. There is little prospect that the Democratic Party will make any serious move to replace Harris on the ticket.
Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

“She has not figured prominently in accounts of major presidential decisions. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg has been far more effective than Harris as a spokesperson for the administration,” he said.

“At the same time, Harris has had a difficult portfolio,” Quirk said, adding that it “naturally fell to her to take on leading roles on voting rights and immigration—two issues where the administration’s efforts have had disappointing results, due mainly to obstacles not of Harris’ making.”

A ‘Vague’ Role

The vice presidency was once described by Vice President John Nance Garner as “not worth a bucket of warm p***” and he may have been thinking of the fact that the vice president has little real power—and often little influence on elections.

“I think concerns about Harris are overblown, at least so far as having an impact on the presidential race is concerned,” David A. Bateman, an associate professor of government at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, told Newsweek.

“Vice presidents tend to not be very significant for a president’s election bid, especially in an era of intense partisanship,” he said. “And the position itself is vague, undefined, and often structurally inconsequential.”

Bateman said that while some presidents give their VPs greater roles than others “their influence is more often marginal and ultimately subsidiary to the president.”

“They are chosen to placate or appeal to specific organized constituencies at the conclusion of the primary, and their job is more or less done at that point: think of Pence, who as best I can tell was an unpopular non-entity for four years, having served his one purpose of helping solidify organized Christian nationalist support for Trump,” he said.

“Still, VPs are almost always running for president,” Bateman said. “They want to be involved and seen as consequential, and so I expect are often frustrated at the fact that they rarely are. But that’s the job.”

“The flip side of this is that their lack of influence is usually weighted accordingly by voters. Voters might like or dislike a VP—but this isn’t going to matter very much, if at all, for most of them when they make their decisions,” he added.

No Incentive to Defend Harris

Bateman told Newsweek that Harris’ approval ratings should be taken “with a grain of salt” but also suggested that there was little incentive for anyone other than the vice president’s own supporters to defend her.

“Maybe things are different with Biden, since his age increases the possibility that Harris will be president,” Bateman said. “Certainly Republicans would like it if voters gave more weight to their disapproval of her than of Biden in their votes, though Biden’s low approval numbers make the advantage there less compelling. But death or incapacity is always a risk, and hasn’t led the VP to be highly weighted before.”

Bateman said it was important to keep in mind that “the VP’s approval ratings are at least partly endogenous to the low expectations about their electoral importance.”

“If it were well-established that the VP contributed meaningfully to a reelection campaign, beyond non-visible things such as fundraising, then you would have Democrats defending Harris and celebrating whatever are her accomplishments, and her numbers might be better,” he said.

“As it is, no one has an incentive to defend her other than herself and her allies and prospective members of a future Harris administration—and their ability to do so is limited by the relatively low standing and influence of the VP in the U.S. constitutional system,” Bateman said.

An Effective Advocate

There is little prospect that the Democratic Party will make any serious move to replace Harris on the ticket and Paul Quirk told Newsweek that the vice president could have an effective role to play,

“Her public approval ratings, although generally low, have consistently been very similar to Biden’s,” Quirk said.

“Right now, they are essentially identical to his—suggesting that few Americans have genuinely distinct opinions about her,” he said.

“In the post-Dobbs period, she has emerged as an effective advocate for, and campaigner on, abortion rights. She will be effective with the suburban women who will be crucial to the Democrats’ prospects in 2024,” Quirk went on.

He was referring to the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, where the conservative justices found that the U.S. Constitution did not guarantee the right to abortion.

Abortion could be a major issue in the 2024 election, as many Republican-led states have moved to impose stringent restrictions on access to the procedure.

“For Biden’s campaign, replacing Harris on the ticket might anger her supporters and do little to strengthen his chances for reelection,” Quirk added.

Newsweek has reached out to the Biden campaign via email for comment.

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