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She's been Vice President for a year – so where exactly has Kamala Harris gone?

The Telegraph logo The Telegraph 05/11/2021 Rosa Prince
Kamala Harris - Yuri Gripas/POOL/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock © Yuri Gripas/POOL/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock Kamala Harris - Yuri Gripas/POOL/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

The historic nature of Kamala Harris’s election as the first female vice president of the United States seemed to creep up quietly, around election day last November; when the inauguration followed a few weeks later, the new Veep was to have her day in the sun. Resplendent in suffragette purple, Harris drew every eye at the ceremony, Biden relegated to the role of supporting actor. 

If this woman, the child of immigrants, the first black and south-Asian vice president elect, could go all the way to the top of US politics so could any little girl, anywhere. And, as the second in command to a near-octogenarian, it seemed not just a possibility but almost a probability that America would soon have its first female Commander-in-Chief – and that her name would be Kamala.

But come September, when comedian Maya Rudolph won an Emmy Award for portraying the new Veep on screen as a badass diva, that characterisation was already strikingly off-the-mark. In the 10 months since the inauguration, the vice president has been all but invisible, perhaps the most low-profile individual to hold the post since the gaffe-prone Dan Quayle was kept out of the limelight to spare the first George Bush’s blushes. Given Harris is without doubt the most important vice president since Franklin D. Roosevelt because Biden is so old – and the likelihood of him standing for a second term as a result so remote – is her vanishing act by choice or at the behest of Biden’s advisers?

When Biden was choosing a running mate in summer 2020, Harris seemed to tick every box – her centrism chimed with his, and her ethnicity and gender appealed to voters an old white bloke could not reach. She had even been close friends with his late son, Beau, who died of brain cancer in 2015.

But the Biden-Harris relationship began to show its first cracks during the bruising primary process, with a jibe from then California Senator Harris that nearly derailed his run. Harris raised Biden’s previous opposition to busing – a federal policy under which children were driven to public schools in further-away districts to improve racial integration in education. “There was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools, and she was bused to school every day. And that little girl was me,” she said, leaving Biden stricken.

It had all seemed so promising for the Biden-Harris administration during the inauguration - REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/Pool © Provided by The Telegraph It had all seemed so promising for the Biden-Harris administration during the inauguration - REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/Pool

According to reports, the notoriously thin-skinned president was initially reluctant to invite her on to his ticket. Having been persuaded of the electoral sense of the move, some now see an element of revenge in the task the new president gave her once they were in office: immigration, one of the most intractable crises facing the States today.  

Months passed with the vice president failing to materialise at the border, or do or say anything of substance: newspapers mocked her apparent inaction. Finally, more than halfway through the year, she unveiled an immigration strategy so insubstantial it barely caused a ripple.

Misstepping on an issue as controversial as this would be catastrophic. Yet her track record to date has been both patchy and poor: in April, she revealed she was the “last voice in the room” as the president took the decision to stick to Trump’s timetable to withdraw from Afghanistan – a boast which rather lost its lustre following the disastrous repercussions of America’s Saigon-style scramble to flee the advancing Taliban. Then, in June, her first foreign foray to Mexico and Guatamala resulted in a public plea to would-be migrants to the States: “I want to be clear to folks in the region who are thinking about making that dangerous trek to the United States-Mexico border: Do not come. Do not come.”

In the 10 months since the inauguration, the vice president has been all but invisible © Yuri Gripas/POOL/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock In the 10 months since the inauguration, the vice president has been all but invisible

Last month, it was announced that a record 1.6 million migrants had been apprehended at the border. A tour to Asia followed and, while observers suggested the visit was a sign of renewed US focus on the region, critics pointed out it appeared low on ambitions, and hopes for a new trade strategy for the relationship did not materialise.

That's about it from Harris. Once the “obvious choice” for White House victory is proving decidingly underwhelming; the Veep is so afraid of becoming a Hillary Clinton hate figure, she’s become a blah figure instead. Where once the spin was that the presidency was a “joint Biden-Harris administration”, in the last two months she and President Biden have appeared together at just two events; at ceremonies marking the anniversaries of 9/11 and the Martin Luther King Jr memorial on the Mall in Washington DC.

Last month, as questions began to be asked about her lack of profile, a former adviser complained to the LA Times “she hasn’t been given any all-star portfolio,” suggesting that immigration and voting rights – the other task assigned to her by Mr Biden, and where progress is being blocked by Republicans in Congress – were unlikely to bring much in the way of glory.

There have been unflattering comparisons, too, with Selina Meyer – the protagonist in hit TV show Veep, an American iteration of The Thick of It, In the series, Meyer finds herself chafing under an older president, while lending herself to a series of cringe-worthy interactions on her travels. Last month, Harris was mocked after what her team must have hoped would be an innocuous, voter-friendly YouTube video promoting space exploration instead produced nine toe-curling minutes yelping at a group of alarmed-looking children who, it later emerged, were paid actors.

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In Veep too Meyer finds herself assuming the Oval Office mantle once the president resigns. Has the sotto voce nature of Harris’s first year been in anticipation of the same? During those running mate negotiations, Team Biden is said to have raised concerns that Harris was more focused on a potential 2024 run than supporting his presidency – having assured them otherwise, she may well be paralysed by the desire to prove it. To run and win in three or even seven years’ time, the vice president knows an endorsement from Mr Biden is crucial; were he to back another candidate, the blow would likely be existential.

She is also alive to the threat from the right; a resurgent Mr Trump, or whoever replaces him as the Republicans’ standard bearer. She can little afford to further alienate the middle classes across states that swung to President Biden 12 months ago, but the resultant stasis from a Veep so afraid of alienating the White House and voters she needs to make her his successor are unlikely to yield victory. With her elder superior out of the way, Meyer runs for the top job – and loses. It’s not too hard to imagine in Harris’s case, either. Or what if Biden dies in office, leaving her a lame duck president serving only a few months before losing to Trump?

The Veep must feel she can’t win. Selina Meyer might empathise, but for those around the world who believed the vice president was a beacon of hope for the future – the woman who could – her absence over the past year has spoken the volumes her actions should have.

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