Harris prepares for central role in Biden’s White House

WASHINGTON (AP) – Kamala Harris will make history tomorrow when she becomes the nation’s first female vice president – and the first Black woman and the first woman of South Asian descent to hold that office. But that’s only where her boundary-breaking role begins.

With the confluence of crises confronting Joe Biden’s administration – and an evenly divided Senate in which she would deliver the tie-breaking vote – Harris is shaping up to be a central player in addressing everything from the coronavirus pandemic to criminal justice reform.

Symone Sanders, Harris’ chief spokeswoman, said that while the vice president-elect’s portfolio hasn’t been fully defined yet, she has a hand in all aspects of Biden’s agenda.

“There are pieces that Biden may specifically ask her to champion, but outside of that she is at the table for everything, involved in everything, and giving input and feedback and being a supportive partner to him on all pieces,” she said.

People working closely with Harris on the transition resist the idea of siloing her into any specific issue early on, because the sheer number of challenges the Biden administration faces means it will be “all hands on deck” during their early months. They say she’ll be involved in all four of the major priorities they’ve set out: turning around the economy, tackling COVID-19, and addressing climate change and racial justice.

Vice President-elect Kamala Harris speaks in Delaware. PHOTO: AP

“She has a voice in all of those. She has an opinion in all those areas. And it will probably get to a point where she is concentrating on some of the areas more specifically,” Sanders said. “But right now, I think what we’re faced with in this country is so big, it’s all hands on deck.”

Harris has been closely involved with all of Biden’s biggest decisions since winning the election in November, joining him for every one of his key meetings focussed on Cabinet picks, the COVID-19 relief bill, security issues and more. The two talk over the phone nearly every day, and she travels to Delaware sometimes multiple times a week for transition events and meetings.

Those involved in the transition say both have taken seriously Biden’s insistence that he wants Harris to be the “last voice in the room” on key decisions. Biden is known to turn to Harris first during meetings to ask for her opinion or perspective on the matter at hand.

Biden and Harris knew each other prior to the 2020 presidential campaign in part through Harris’ friendship with Biden’s deceased son, Beau. But they never worked closely together.

Since joining the ticket, and particularly since the election, Harris has made efforts to deepen their relationship and is in frequent contact with the president-elect, people close to Harris said. That personal relationship, according to presidential historian Joel Goldstein, will be key to their success as working partners.

“The relationship of the vice president to the president is the most important relationship. Establishing mutual understanding and trust is really a key to a successful vice presidency,” Goldstein said.

Goldstein pointed to Biden and President Barack Obama’s relationship as a potential model for the incoming team.

Biden and Obama were from similarly different backgrounds and generations and also entered the White House with a relatively fresh working relationship. But their relationship and mutual understanding grew throughout the presidency, and Obama trusted Biden with some of his administration’s biggest endeavours, like the implementation of the 2009 Recovery Act and the troop withdrawal from Iraq.

Harris is said to be looking at Biden’s vice presidency as a guide for her own. But unlike Biden during his first term, Harris will face constant questions about her political future. While Biden has skirted questions about whether he plans to run for reelection, at 78 he’ll be the oldest president in history, leaving questions about whether he’ll retire at the end of his term. That would make Harris the immediate frontrunner in any 2024 Democratic presidential primary.

Early in the vice presidential vetting process, her potential presidential ambitions gave some Biden allies pause. But since her selection, Harris has proven a loyal partner to Biden, rarely if ever contradicting him publicly.

Still, California Rep Barbara Lee, who was the first Congressional Black Caucus member to endorse in the primary when she backed Harris, said the vice president-elect isn’t afraid to speak her mind.