The Reintroduction of Kamala Harris

Vice President Kamala Harris walks to board Air Force Two for a trip to New Orleans at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland on July 5, 2024. (Erin Schaff/The New York Times)
Vice President Kamala Harris walks to board Air Force Two for a trip to New Orleans at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland on July 5, 2024. (Erin Schaff/The New York Times)

SELMA, Ala. — By early this year, around the time a prosecutor called President Joe Biden a “well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory,” Vice President Kamala Harris already knew something had to change.

It was up to her, she had told allies, to finally distinguish herself in her job — something she had been struggling to do for more than two years — and reassure American voters that the Biden-Harris ticket was still a safe bet. She had been feeling sidelined in the early stages of the campaign, one adviser said, and she wanted a bigger role.

She fled the Washington bubble and embarked on an ambitious travel schedule, making more than 60 trips this year alone. She tossed talking points to speak out more forcefully on abortion rights, the war in the Gaza Strip and race. She invoked her personal story more often, from her mother’s influence on her life to her inspiration for becoming a prosecutor.

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Her allies emphasize that she has been taking on a bigger role for some time, notably after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade two years ago and during high-profile foreign assignments. But even before the questions about Biden’s age and acuity burst into the open, people close to her say, she was looking for more powerful ways to support the ticket.

Now, the effort to reintroduce herself has reached its most critical moment, with Biden’s candidacy plunged into crisis after a devastating debate performance in Atlanta and Democrats seriously weighing the prospect that she could become the nominee.

And while Harris, 59, has shown steadfast support for Biden in the frenzied week since the debate, her allies insist she is the only logical choice to lead the ticket if he steps aside.

Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., who is widely credited for reviving Biden’s 2020 campaign, said in an interview this week that he would support Harris should the president bow out. He threw cold water on any alternative.

“This party should not, in any way, do anything to work around Ms. Harris,” he said.

Harris declined to be interviewed for this article.

But many Democrats acknowledge that having her at the top of the ticket comes with substantial risks. Her 2020 presidential campaign unraveled swiftly, raising questions about her strength as a candidate. Even Biden, early in his presidency, described her as a “work in progress.” And Democrats have expressed concerns at times that she struggled to convey publicly that she was in command of the issues.

“Things have gotten better for her,” longtime Democratic political strategist Robert M. Shrum said. “And she’ll get a second look. She has to live up to that second look.”

Although a CNN poll found that Harris was 2 percentage points ahead of Biden in a hypothetical contest against former President Donald Trump, she still lost to Trump in the survey.

In recent days, the Trump campaign and Republican critics have amped up their attacks on her, hinting at how a Harris candidacy could lead to even more of the kinds of racist and sexist assaults that she has been fending off during her time as vice president.

Yet Democratic leaders say choosing any other candidate could alienate vital constituencies, including Black women, who helped carry Biden to the White House in 2020. Uniting quickly behind one person would also avoid a wide-open convention in Chicago next month.

One major Democratic donor, Steve Phillips, a San Francisco lawyer, said that downplaying Harris as a possible replacement for Biden was “implicit bias and racism and sexism.”

“She’s the vice president of the United States, which for the past 50 years of this country has been heir apparent,” he said in an interview. “So it’s unseemly at best that now that we have a woman and a person of color as the vice president, that there’s this discussion about all these other people, most of whom are white and men.”

In interviews over several months, more than two dozen current and former aides, administration officials, advisers, close friends and people who have met privately with Harris said her main goal was to support Biden — and prove she could step into the role of president should she have to.

‘Who Is This Kamala?’

Sen. Laphonza Butler, D-Calif., a close friend of Harris’, said she noticed a change in her this year.

“I think that she’s got to a point where most Black women get to when the criticism is unrelenting, the expectations continue to mount,” Butler said. “And she just said, ‘I’m not going to make everybody happy. I’m not going to please everybody all the time. But what I am here to do is be the very best vice president for this country that I can be, and I’m just going to focus on doing that.’”

During a meeting with Black pastors in South Carolina in February, Christopher Richardson, one of the attendees, noticed a difference. The son of one of the pastors in the room, Richardson had seen Harris at other events, and to him it seemed as if she was “singing somebody else’s song.”

But at this event, he said he saw Harris engage with the group more authentically. She “really connected with the audience,” he said, speaking about the need to bring a polarized country back together. She even gave his niece a hug.

“I turned to my fiancee and was like: ‘Who is this Kamala?’” Richardson recalled.

At the time, Harris was in the process of trying to change the narrative about her vice presidency. She had been so caricatured by critics that she had become too guarded and fearful of making a mistake that would provide more fodder, aides and allies said.

And while she realized she could reach critical constituencies in ways that Biden could not, one of her advisers said she felt she was being sent out to talk about only Black and women’s issues, and she was not satisfied with that.

She turned to old friends, who told her she had a power that members of Biden’s tight inner circle — predominantly made up of white men — did not. One friend recalled telling her that she was the only one in the room with Biden who could not be fired.

Friends say she started to let her guard down, invoking her personal story and the fact that she had made history as the first woman, the first African American and the first Asian American to serve as vice president.

On March 3, as Harris headed to Selma, Alabama, to give a speech for the 59th anniversary of the Bloody Sunday attacks on civil rights marchers, she wanted to voice to the world what was weighing on her mind.

There were reports that weekend of families in Gaza eating leaves and animal feed, and the description of families who were shot by Israeli soldiers as they rushed a food convoy as “looters” had her stirring. She spent the flight making edits to her remarks, swiping her blue pen through page after page.

Harris had given a speech two years earlier at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, considered hallowed ground for the civil rights movement. Back then, she rallied a crowd around the message that the Biden administration was steadfast in championing civil and human rights.

This year, aides said, she believed that case would be harder to make. Biden’s support for Israel in its war in Gaza was causing outrage on the left, particularly in the crowd at Selma that empathized with Palestinians.

Her speech that day did not go beyond White House policy, but it was confrontational and an explicit acknowledgment of the human suffering the war had caused. Her speech made news for its focus on Palestinians and its implicit criticism of Israel.

“Our hearts break for the victims of that horrific tragedy and for all the innocent people in Gaza who are suffering from what is clearly a humanitarian catastrophe,” she said to resounding applause. “People in Gaza are starving. The conditions are inhumane. And our common humanity compels us to act.”

She also demanded an “immediate cease-fire,” drawing cheers from the crowd. She directed those remarks at Hamas, not Israel’s leadership, and repeated that she and the president remained “unwavering in our commitment to Israel’s security.”

“When she showed up in Selma, she was the Kamala we saw when she was a district attorney in the Bay Area,” said Maya Wiley, the CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, who was in Selma. “We saw the Kamala who was an attorney general, we saw the Kamala who was cross-examining people as a senator.

“She was all her human self,” Wiley said.

The vice president has also become the White House’s leading voice on abortion rights, a topic that Biden has never been comfortable talking about publicly.

At an event in April, when Harris spoke of state bans on abortions that make no exception for rape or incest, she revealed that when she was in high school, a friend confided that she was being sexually abused by her stepfather.

That friend, Wanda Kagan, recalled in an interview that a 16-year-old Harris said, “Oh no, you’re going to come live with us,” before she had even asked her mother.

“I often reflect on where I would be had she not intervened in the most crucial time of my life,” Kagan said.

In May, the vice president was leaning more into how she has navigated a lifetime of often being the only woman of color in a room.

“When you walk in those rooms being the only one that looks like you, the only one with your background, you walk in those rooms chin up, shoulders back,” Harris said at a gathering of Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander groups.

“We have to know that sometimes people will open the door for you and leave it open. Sometimes they won’t. And then you need to kick that door down,” she added, using an expletive to make her point.

The Road to November

Soon after Harris appeared on CNN and defended the president’s debate performance last Thursday — “I’m not going to spend all night with you talking about the last 90 minutes when I’ve been watching the last 3 1/2 years of performance,” she said — the cable network’s chief national correspondent, John King, weighed in.

In one indication of how the political conversation about Harris has shifted, he called it “political malpractice” that the White House had not made better use of her in the past few years.

She is hardly the first vice president whose readiness to become president has been questioned. But none of her predecessors served under a president as old as Biden or faced the kind of scrutiny that she has in recent days amid his stumbles.

After a campaign fundraiser in California on Tuesday, Harris made clear that she stood by the president. When asked about the calls for him to drop out, she said: “Joe Biden is our nominee. We beat Trump once. And we’re going to beat him again, period.”

Asked whether she was ready to step in if need be, Harris said, “I am proud to be Joe Biden’s running mate.”

Still, there are deep reservations among many in the Democratic Party about her strength as a candidate. Republicans are already moving fast to discredit her.

“Kamala Harris is incompetent,” said Karoline Leavitt, a spokesperson for the Trump campaign. “She’s proven to be the weakest, worst vice president in history, and she has 100% supported Joe Biden in every single disastrous policy that he has implemented over the last four years.”

Harris has also faced harsh criticism over immigration, a top concern of voters.

Although Biden assigned her with addressing the root causes of migration — not specifically “securing the border” — she has become a favorite target for one of the administration’s biggest liabilities.

“VP Kamala Harris’s chief responsibility was securing the border,” Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., wrote on social media last month. “What a disaster. Harris is — by far — the most unqualified, uninformed, and incompetent vice president in history.”

The White House has gone out of its way to express its confidence in Harris.

“The president’s trust in her, his reliance on the vice president, his respect for her judgment — that has only deepened and increased,” Jeff Zients, Biden’s chief of staff, said in an interview this year. “I think he really relies on her ability to get to the root of a problem,” he added. “And so often, she’s right.”

As for Biden, he suggests she is no longer “a work in progress.”

“My name is Joe Biden — I work for Kamala Harris,” Biden told a group in the Rose Garden in May. “I asked her to be my vice president because I knew I needed somebody smarter than me.”

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