WASHINGTON — It ought to have been a simple query.
In Guatemala this week, Vice President Kamala Harris sat with NBC anchor Lester Holt, who grilled her about why she had not visited the U.S.-Mexico border as a part of her work inspecting the basis causes of migration. After the third border-related query, the vp appeared to have had sufficient.
“I’ve by no means been to Europe,” Ms. Harris stated. “I don’t perceive the purpose you’re making.”
That response perplexed a number of administration officers who knew she had ready at size for the query. By veering away from the script, Ms. Harris gave Republicans grist for a information cycle that lasted longer than her two-day journey. In one other look, her blunt message to migrants on behalf of President Biden — “don’t come” — was criticized by lawmakers within the progressive wing of her personal social gathering.
The journey crystallized one thing essential about Ms. Harris’s vice presidency: Whether or not she stays on message — as she did by telling migrants to not come — or goes off script, she will be unable to fulfill everybody. With two of probably the most polarizing points, migration and voting rights, now in her portfolio, the threat of missteps is so excessive and the issues so intractable that even her allies say she is in a no-win scenario.
A politician who has at all times struggled to outline herself, Ms. Harris is now attempting to take action in actual time, with two points that might complicate her personal political future and doubtlessly upend a few of Mr. Biden’s central ambitions for his legacy.
“They’ve simply been flat-footed on immigration and so they’ve opened up a big political vulnerability for themselves,” Richard N. Haass, the president of the Council on Overseas Relations, whom Ms. Harris turned to for international coverage recommendation through the common election, stated of the Biden administration’s strategy to responding to a surge of migrants on the border. “It was her unhealthy luck that that is her task. She will’t succeed given these circumstances.”
(As for her “Europe” remark, Mr. Haass had one phrase: “Inartful..”)
Her aides say the criticism mustn’t overshadow a visit that, from a coverage perspective, delivered on its diplomatic and financial targets. Officers on the Nationwide Safety Council are nonetheless flooding her with requests for extra international journey, viewing her presence within the Northern Triangle international locations of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala as a plus for the administration.
Ms. Harris is conscious of the stakes concerned.
In response to interviews with 20 White Home aides, allies and former advisers, Ms. Harris is attempting to form her vice presidency by tackling unwieldy coverage points, creating relationships she was not identified for nurturing as a senator and adhering to the president’s targets, even when a few of what she is saying now contradicts what she stated she used to imagine.
“That’s the position she signed up for,” Gil Duran, a Democratic strategist and former aide to Ms. Harris, stated in an interview. As a senator, Ms. Harris signed a letter criticizing the Trump administration’s use of a public well being rule to show away asylum-seekers on the border, a place at odds with the Biden administration’s present coverage.
However Mr. Duran identified that the reception by Democrats to the Biden administration’s warnings to migrants “would possibly look very completely different in a common election sooner or later, and that’s the viewers she’s taking part in to now.”
A charismatic senator who entered the 2020 presidential election eliciting comparisons to Barack Obama, Ms. Harris didn’t make it to the Iowa caucuses largely as a result of she by no means knew which points to emphasise. As vp, Ms. Harris started her tenure as a generalist, largely to be taught the rhythms of a president she was nonetheless attending to know.
At first, she had two choices, drawn up by Ron Klain, Mr. Biden’s chief of employees. She may develop a slim portfolio, diving deep into a number of specialised points. Or she may spend most of her time with Mr. Biden. Ms. Harris, who since becoming a member of Mr. Biden on the ticket has been wanting to show herself a group participant, eagerly selected the primary choice.
When Mr. Biden determined to assign her the Northern Triangle — a job he had accepted throughout his eight years as vp to Mr. Obama — it was seen as “taking one for the group,” stated certainly one of her former aides, who spoke on the situation of anonymity to protect relationships.
Over a month in the past, Ms. Harris started having conversations with each the president and Mr. Klain about one other space the place she felt she might be efficient. She had labored on voting rights laws within the Senate, and had co-sponsored two of the expansive payments that have been foundering within the chamber. And, as the primary Black lady and lady of Asian descent to carry her workplace, the subject was personally vital to her.
She instructed Mr. Biden she can be pleased to take the lead on the problem. Mr. Biden agreed.
“I’m glad she is just not ready for somebody to placed on her plate what needs to be on her menu,” stated Donna Brazile, who managed Vice President Al Gore’s 2000 presidential marketing campaign. “I can’t consider a greater subject for her.”
The challenges of Ms. Harris’s new position offered themselves nearly instantly: Senator Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, who’s perceived as a pivotal average holdout who may assist his fellow Democrats cross an expansive voting rights regulation, publicly stated final week that he couldn’t help it.
He additionally stated he was towards eliminating the legislative filibuster, a promise that imperils a lot of the Biden administration’s agenda, together with voting rights.
June 11, 2021, 12:31 a.m. ET
Mr. Manchin’s determination laid naked for Ms. Harris one other political actuality: She didn’t have sturdy sufficient relationships with key lawmakers to barter on that subject, or on a number of others going through the administration.
Ms. Harris, who spent a piece of her 4 years within the Senate operating for president, was not identified for constructing particularly shut relationships together with her colleagues, and Mr. Manchin was no exception. She has not acted as one of many administration’s lead negotiators on the American Rescue Plan that Mr. Biden signed into regulation in March or the American Jobs Plan, his infrastructure proposal.
Lately, she has tried to do extra outreach to her former colleagues. Subsequent week, she is going to host a bipartisan dinner for all 24 girls senators at her official residence on the grounds of the Naval Observatory, her first social occasion since shifting in.
With the passage of any laws on voting rights trying much less probably, many Democrats count on Ms. Harris will play a task in marshaling civil rights teams, non-public firms and group leaders to beat again a whole lot of restrictive legal guidelines launched in Republican-led state homes throughout the nation. Subsequent week, she is going to host a bunch of Texas Democrats who final month blocked the passage of laws that might have made it more durable for Texans to vote.
“You’re going to want a high-profile surrogate saying, ‘They did this on function and you should end up to vote.’ Which may be what she finally ends up doing,” stated Jennifer Palmieri, who served as White Home communications director beneath President Barack Obama.
A lot of her predecessors struggled with the restrictions of the vice presidency, however Ms. Harris, the primary lady of shade in her place, encounters a special type of scrutiny. She has change into a goal of assaults from conservative media shops, which to date haven’t found out a approach to assault Mr. Biden head-on. And each motion of hers is being seen by means of the lens of her personal political future. In selecting her as his operating mate, Mr. Biden basically anointed her the main Democratic candidate to succeed him.
For now, although, Ms. Harris remains to be studying to play a task that her boss is aware of higher than nearly anybody.
Conscious that he made a giant funding in Ms. Harris by selecting her as his vp, Mr. Biden has made certain she receives the identical briefing supplies he does, and folds her into most of his conferences, as a result of, as one White Home official put it, he desires her to soak up his mind-set. They each obtain their day by day briefings and media clips on iPads.
Ms. Harris has a weekly one-on-one assembly with Mr. Klain as effectively, a degree of inclusion within the day-to-day work of the White Home that Biden aides level out was by no means supplied to Mr. Biden when he served as vp.
“The vp’s job is such a tough one as a result of the recommendation you give is unseen and the duties you carry out are completely on the discretion of the president and his employees,” stated David Axelrod, a former prime adviser to Mr. Obama. “For politicians accustomed to main roles, it may be very irritating.”
As vp, Mr. Biden was identified for stepping outdoors of the boundaries of his workplace, generally getting forward of Mr. Obama on hot-button points, together with homosexual marriage. Ms. Harris has made no such missteps, however does pay attention to the criticism she receives.
Ms. Harris is fast to chuckle in interviews, a bent that has earned her unflattering headlines. In March, a misleadingly edited video that appeared to indicate her laughing in regards to the plight of youngsters on the Southern border gained consideration on-line, irritating Ms. Harris and folks near her. It occurred once more this week, when she was requested in regards to the border by Mr. Holt, and a wave of criticism adopted.
“That message was despatched loud and clear that she actually doesn’t care,” stated Brandon Judd, the president of the Nationwide Border Patrol Council, referring to the NBC interview.
As a result of she pays shut consideration to her personal media protection, Ms. Harris has gone to her allies with some model of the identical query, in keeping with a number of individuals briefed on inner exchanges: Ought to I by no means chuckle?
“Girls, particularly girls in govt positions, get judged much more harshly, and that may be a actuality,” stated Anita Dunn, a senior adviser to President Biden. “In fact she’s conscious of that.”
The president’s advisers say he’s happy with how Ms. Harris’s journey went. Ms. Dunn identified that Mr. Biden known as the vp on Friday, whereas he was overseas on his personal first international journey, to congratulate her on her work.
“She’s by no means going to get a simple subject,” Ms. Dunn stated, “and neither is the president of the USA.”
Zolan Kanno-Youngs contributed reporting.