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In Historic Vice Presidency, Harris Starts Off With A Traditional Approach

Vice President Harris listens as President Biden speaks on racial equity before signing executive orders at the White House on Jan. 26, part of a largely traditional public role she has played since taking office two weeks ago.
Vice President Harris listens as President Biden speaks on racial equity before signing executive orders at the White House on Jan. 26, part of a largely traditional public role she has played since taking office two weeks ago.

It's very early in Kamala Harris' vice presidency. So early, in fact, that she still has not yet moved into the official vice presidential residence at Washington, D.C.'s Naval Observatory as it undergoes maintenance work, according to a White House official.

But in her first two weeks on the job, the barrier-breaking first woman and first woman of color to serve in a job first held by John Adams has, so far at least, operated a lot like many of the vice presidents who came before her.

Harris has mostly been seen standing at President Biden's side as he delivers remarks and signs executive orders. She's sworn in members of Biden's Cabinet.

All standard fare for vice presidents — at least when it comes to what happens in front of the cameras.

But both Harris and Biden are prioritizing the work the vice president is doing away from the cameras. "Let me tell you something," Harris told NPR shortly before taking office, "on every decision that we have made as an incoming administration, we are in the room together: Joe and I, the president-elect and I."

That's the promise Biden made to Harris when he offered her the job last summer. It stems from Biden's eight years as vice president to Barack Obama, and reflects a blunt reality he often repeated during his time in the office.

"There is no inherent power in the vice presidency," Biden said on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert in 2015.

But, as Biden explained, there's a flip side to that fact.

"It is directly a reflection of your relationship with the president," he said. "If you have a relationship with the president, then it is — and everyone knows if they do, if it's real — that you have his back, and you also have his confidence, then you can really do something worthwhile."

Biden made it clear from the beginning that he planned on having as close a working relationship with Harris as he had with Obama.

A White House official says over their first two weeks in office, Harris has been in most meetings with Biden.

Harris is most likely bringing two key viewpoints to those meetings, according to a longtime aide: preparation and an empathetic mindset.

"No one has ever accused Kamala Harris of being unprepared," said Nathan Barankin, who worked as Harris' chief of staff when she was both a U.S. senator and California attorney general.

One thing Harris has always prided herself on, Barankin said, is thinking through — and representing — the viewpoint of the type of person who's not sitting in a high-profile meeting.

Barankin pointed to one of her most high-profile decisions as attorney general: walking away from a nearly completed multibillion-dollar settlement several states had negotiated with major banks accused of mortgage fraud.

While many of the attorneys general in discussions were focused on the size of the settlement, Barankin said Harris took a different view. "Something like, how does this affect that homeowner in Stockton, California — who just lost their job, has x thousands of dollars in school debt, bought their first home a few years ago, it is their only major asset, is living in a community that's now blighted."

The mindset led Harris to break off from the talks, and then renegotiate a new settlement.

Developing a public role

Still, given Harris' barrier-breaking place in the Biden administration — not to mention the open question of whether the 78-year-old Biden would run for a second term in 2024 — there's a lot of focus on, and questions about, what Harris will do in public.

Jessica Byrd, a Democratic strategist and the co-founder of The Front Line, told NPR she views it all with what she calls "a nervous optimism."

"I just know how complicated of a position she's in," she said, referring to the outsized demands often placed on women of color who are elevated to high positions, and the historic demands on Harris in particular.

Byrd hopes to see Harris taking a public lead on more issues going forward: "If they are smart they will not utilize her to quietly do a lot of his outreach work, but really loudly and powerfully use her to tell the stories of all of the reasons this policy has to progress."

Much of the public speculation about Harris' role within the Biden administration has centered around what specific policy areas, if any, she will serve as a point person on. Biden, for example, led the Obama administration's push to sell and implement its 2009 stimulus package, as well as foreign policy efforts like winding down the Iraq War.

Harris has repeatedly declined to name specific policies she'd head, though a White House official points to the COVID-19 pandemic and the administration's relief legislation as her current priorities.

Harris traveled to the National Institutes of Health last week to receive her second coronavirus vaccine shot, using the moment to boost public confidence in vaccine efforts. "I want to urge everyone to take the vaccine when it is your turn," she said, after being injected in front of reporters. "It is really pretty painless, and it will save your life."

Vice President Harris receives her second dose of the Moderna vaccine at the National Institutes of Health on Jan. 26, an appearance Harris used to promote trust in coronavirus vaccines.
Brendan Smialowski / AFP via Getty Images
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Vice President Harris receives her second dose of the Moderna vaccine at the National Institutes of Health on Jan. 26, an appearance Harris used to promote trust in coronavirus vaccines.

According to a White House official, Harris has spent time calling lawmakers and mayors from both parties to drum up support for the administration's pandemic relief plan.

But Harris' first attempt to publicly boost the legislation hit some speed bumps.

Last week, she granted interviews to news outlets in Arizona and West Virginia — two states that just happen to be home to Democratic senators who have been more hesitant than the rest of their caucus about the overall price tag of the $1.9 trillion proposal, as well as some of the items within it.

In Huntington, W.Va., a local news anchor on WSAZ drew attention to that fact after the station's interview with Harris ran, noting, "Interesting that the White House actually reached out to us for the interview."

Manchin, who holds significant leverage in a Senate where partisan control is evenly divided, didn't appreciate the subtle public pressure. "I saw it. I couldn't believe it," he told the same station after the Harris interview ran. "No one called me. We're going to try to find a bipartisan pathway forward. I think we need to. But we need to work together. That's not a way of working together, what was done."

Manchin's response led to a cleanup effort from White House press secretary Jen Psaki. "We've been in touch with Senator Manchin, as we have been for many weeks, and will continue to be moving forward," she said at Monday's press briefing. "Not only is he a key partner to the president and to the White House on this package, but on his agenda. And we will remain in close touch with him."

In recent days, Manchin has sounded more supportive of the stimulus — though the episode made it clear how much attention will be placed on every public move Harris makes.

Since then, Biden has held two Oval Office meetings with senators to discuss the bill. Both times, Harris was right next to him.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.