|Dear Readers: Just like President Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris has had a challenging first year in office. Her approval rating, as calculated by FiveThirtyEight’s polling average, is in the low 40s, just like Biden’s, and she has attracted negative headlines for both some uninspiring public performances as well as staff turnover — let alone having to deal with a challenging portfolio of policy priorities.
With Biden already 79 and not necessarily a lock to run for a second term, Harris could be leading the Democratic Party as its presidential nominee as soon as 2024 — or at least could get the opportunity to try to lead the party. Her ability to win the nomination, either in a couple of years or sometime down the road, will depend at least in part on how she performs in her current job.
In the following piece, Thurgood Marshall Jr. and Steven Okun — past contributors to the Crystal Ball who worked with then-Vice President Al Gore — take stock of Harris’s problems and suggest some ways Harris can improve going forward, using Gore as a model.
— The Editors
KEY POINTS FROM THIS ARTICLE
— Vice President Kamala Harris’s struggles could complicate her ability to lead the Democratic Party in a future election, be it in 2024 or later.
— Harris has been hurt by being entrusted with huge issues, such as immigration and voting law changes, that are beyond the ability of a vice president to fix.
— Al Gore’s vice presidency provides a roadmap for Harris. She should focus on executive achievement, overseas accomplishments, and building political alliances at home.
Kamala Harris’s difficult first year
When Kamala Harris became vice president, uncertainty abounded about whether President Biden would seek a second term. This alone would complicate anyone’s thought process on how to best serve as second-in-command, given she would be judged as a potential successor from day one.
Further, it has been decades since a vice president assumed office with less Washington experience than their boss. This eliminates a value many of her predecessors brought to the office.
Layering this with the misogyny and racism underpinning certain attacks against her, Kamala Harris started her tenure at a clear disadvantage to her predecessors.
Key staff departures have fed critics who argue that the Harris team has not helped her own cause. Her office has been described as being “dysfunctional,” “frustrated,” and “without focus.” She has total control to address her office’s management and communications challenges and needs to do so — which fortunately seems to be happening.
Her and the administration’s choices about her portfolio have further impacted her year-one performance, which also needs to improve to boost her approval ratings.
Take voting rights and immigration as examples: these 2 issues do not afford themselves to comprehensive solutions given the country’s hyper-partisanship, dysfunctional Congress, and lack of unanimity to change Senate rules on the filibuster.
Yet, President Biden announced in March 2021 that he had tapped the vice president to lead the administration’s efforts to stem migration at the southern border, and then in June that she would lead Democrats in a sweeping legislative effort to protect voting rights.
No one person could achieve success in either of these assignments, let alone both. Here, marginal improvements can only be made beyond the Capitol Hill morass.
However, if the vice president had been charged with making progress on them in the administration’s first year, she would have been judged to have hit that target.
Indeed, a first step on deterring immigration occurred with her announcement of over $1 billion in US private-sector investments in Central America to spur economic development.
Furthermore, working across multiple states and stakeholder groups, she built a broad coalition to argue for the passage of the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act.
Instead of being credited for moving the needle as far as it could realistically go, she gets judged ineffective at best, a failure at worst — no wonder her latest approval ratings mire in the 40s or even the 30s in some polls.
Still, Harris has the time necessary to retool and energize her tenure.
During our time in the Clinton Administration, we witnessed how Al Gore transformed the office of the vice president. One of us participated in the initial strategy sessions on which issues to seek to own through his first term in office, while the other served at the Department of Transportation and worked with the White House Commission on Aviation Safety and Security, which was chaired by the vice president.
Al Gore’s 2 terms can serve as a roadmap for Harris to advance the political fortunes of the Biden Administration and her vice presidency.
By cleaning up what’s been placed in her portfolio and using what worked for Gore, Harris can reverse the narrative around her performance and set herself up as a formidable contender to succeed Joe Biden in 2024 or 2028.
The Gore roadmap
Even before being sworn-in, Al Gore held strategy meetings to determine how he could bring value to the president’s agenda as an advisor internally and an advocate externally.
From the very start of the sessions, everyone recognized the elephant in the room about a potential presidential run down the road: Gore had already run in 1988. No need existed to explicitly discuss that because we knew that Gore’s future viability would be largely dependent on the success of the president and his agenda.
Where opportunities to lead arose, by choice or necessity, they were invariably undertaken with a focus on producing the best possible outcome for the president. Issues that reach the White House rarely have easy solutions, but the vice president can offer great value by taking on challenges that are more susceptible to resolution than others. In the end, the president gets all the credit anyway.
The lens Gore used to build an agenda to help President Clinton contains the same filter Vice President Harris can adopt and adjust to the present and enable her to leave her own mark.
First, the vice president should stay away from lead roles on Capitol Hill where gridlock prevails — such as voting rights and immigration, where Harris has been given such a public role. Her unique position in the congressional leadership ensures she will contribute on legislation at a high level even without ownership.
Instead, she should pursue domestic, foreign policy, and national security issues that lend themselves to executive branch solutions or bilateral negotiations where hard work produces results, ideally with measurable positive impacts on the economy.
She would do well to keep the following in mind: achieve in the executive; accomplish going abroad; and attract allies at Home.
Achieving in the executive
Vice President Harris can take the lead in shepherding executive branch solutions that can be announced on a rolling basis over the coming months and years.
Cybersecurity — where Harris has already been a positive leader — artificial intelligence, and supply chain resilience jump to mind. Harris has also championed issues that resonate with younger populations, such as broadband access. The vice president can play a key role in this by driving the implementation of the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.
Solutions to these challenging issues require extensive day-to-day work where tangible results can be achieved with the full weight of the federal bureaucracy behind them. After all, White House involvement invariably accelerates bureaucratic policy development.
Similarly, with the global push in board rooms for advances in Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) initiatives, the vice president’s position affords her the unique opportunity to drive progress on a government-wide effort to align the Executive Branch with lasting impact.
Opportunities abound across the federal agencies that beg for White House leadership.
The National Partnership for Reinventing Government, known in the Clinton Administration as “ReGo,” became one of Gore’s lasting legacies as vice president, and can serve as a model for Harris.
ReGo identified waste, fraud, and other abuse in the federal government and enabled the Clinton Administration to cut spending and shrink the federal workforce to the smallest size since the Eisenhower era.
Gore’s efforts with ReGo produced lasting positive improvements across the federal government and prompted many states to follow suit with similar cost-cutting measures. It also garnered a steady drumbeat of positive press: the forklifts of reduced government regulations made national news, and even led to Gore making an appearance on David Letterman’s late-night show.
Vice President Harris’s office could consider a deep dive into the more than 300 labs in the national laboratory system. The Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, for example, announced a key achievement in fusion research last August described as a “Wright Brothers moment” on the path to commercializing fusion as a clean energy source. By cherry-picking some projects in key areas of research, such as fusion energy, bringing them to the public’s attention, and getting them across the goal line, she would become associated with scientific, tangible achievements.
Vice President Gore traveled extensively and led bilateral commissions that produced tangible results with leaders in multiple strategic locations, including Russia, Ukraine, Egypt, South Africa, and Kazakhstan, and positioned himself as a leader on arms control issues in Congress.
Vice President Harris has already started down this path and should further lean into it.
In the wake of the diplomatic fallout after the launching of the trilateral Australia-U.K.-U.S. security pact (AUKUS) last fall, she traveled to France, where she successfully shored up bilateral ties after meeting with President Macron.
Meanwhile, in August 2021, she became the most senior U.S. official to visit the Biden Administration’s new foreign policy region of focus: Southeast Asia.
Harris’s visit to Singapore coincided with the White House’s launch of several new and relevant initiatives, including a U.S.-Singapore Climate Partnership, 3 agency-level MOUs on cybersecurity cooperation, and a U.S.-Singapore Dialogue on Supply Chains.
The supply chain dialogue can lead to agreements with provisions on transparency, trade facilitation, and joint actions during emergencies and shortages. While re-shoring supply chains to the U.S. carries significant operational limitations, “friend shoring” would yield significant gains as the U.S. looks to diversify sourcing from China.
Other countries in the region, such as Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam, are also looking for a U.S. counterweight to China, and would welcome a leadership role from the vice president as economic achievements will more likely succeed if led by the White House.
Alliances at home
Concurrently, the VP needs to be a presence on the political hustings with state and local leaders.
It is better to ignore mindless criticism about any presidential ambitions she may have and campaign tirelessly for Democratic candidates, thereby strengthening her own political future by forging deep political bonds with donors and fellow Democratic leaders.
Al Gore methodically built alliances across the country that helped Democrats in the 1994, 1996, and 1998 elections and then his own successful run for the nomination.
Sen. Bill Bradley’s run for the 2000 nomination had no chance given all Gore had done substantively and politically for 8 years, and Gore swept every single state. This was a singular achievement by a non-incumbent from either party.
At the start of the second year of the Biden-Harris Administration, the more points the vice president puts on the proverbial scoreboard, the criticism she now faces will carry less impact, and eventually dissipate.
As Prof. Sabato proffered when it comes to the vice president’s standing, “The repairs must be done a bit at a time, day after day, not by some dramatic ‘reset’.”
Garnering wins in the agencies and abroad will be a grind but can lead to a successful and memorable vice presidency — and a political journey that need not end there.
|Thurgood Marshall Jr. served in the Office of Vice President Gore as Director of Congressional Affairs and Counsel, later becoming White House Cabinet Secretary. Steven Okun served as Deputy General Counsel at the US Department of Transportation and has lived in Singapore since 2003. Karen Lee and Patrick Clifford of McLarty Associates’ Southeast Asia team contributed to the commentary.