Kamala Harris Subtly Emerges as Powerful White House Asset

50th commemoration of the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision in Tallahassee
50th commemoration of the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision in Tallahassee
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Vice President Kamala Harris poses for photos with participants at the 50th commemoration of the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision in Tallahassee Fla., on January 22, 2023. Credit - Peter Zay—Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

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As she started her closing cadence in front of an enthusiastic crowd, it was clear Vice President Kamala Harris was in her element—and remains both a misunderstood and potentially potent force in Democratic politics.

​​”Know this: President Biden and I agree, and we will never back down,” Harris said to applause in Tallahassee on Sunday, the 50th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision that once guaranteed the federal right to abortion. “We will not back down. We know this fight will not be won until we secure this right for every American.”

As Harris thundered through her remarks, with American flags behind her and supporters before her, she enjoyed that quality that has become all too rare in politics: credibility. Despite all of the political headwinds against her on the issue, Harris convinced many in the crowd that her promises were not only plausible, but within reach. “Congress must pass a bill that protects freedom and liberty,” she said.

The scheduled speech on a sleepy Sunday far from Washington—but in the backyard of both Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Donald Trump—would do little to move the national debate on federal abortion rights, which fell in June with a crash emanating from the Supreme Court. But Harris’ remarks and the reception—including 32 applause interruptions by the White House transcript’s count—served as a reminder that, even with plenty of bumps and detours during her first two years as a history-making Vice President, she still can bring the heat. And, in that, her fellow Democrats might slow their seemingly endless criticism of the first woman to hold the job, as well as the first person of Black or South Asian descent to earn it.

Harris, by all accounts, didn’t exactly launch her time as President Joe Biden’s understudy with ease. It seemed every quarter brought with it a new Harris Resets story in the political pages. In the administration’s early days, she largely filled her offices with veterans of the campaign—Biden’s, not hers. In fact, most of her high-profile aides from her Senate office and short-lived presidential bid scattered throughout the administration, landing perfectly admirable posts but not in her inner circle. The result was high turnover on her team, as well as a series of embarrassing stories about her treatment of aides.

Then, there was the scheduling challenge. Few Vice Presidents have had to contend with an evenly split Senate. Because of her ability to break tie votes in that chamber, Harris had to often make sure she was a quick motorcade from the Capitol. She has so far cast 26 such tied votes—or roughly 9% of all tie-breaking votes cast in the Senate since 1789. As such, she spent a ton of time in her office just off the Senate floor, often doubling as a deciding vote and informal congressional liaison to her former colleagues.

But, with Republicans now stuck at 49 votes, Harris’ 101st vote won’t be needed as often. (Of course, errant Democrats like Sen. Joe Manchin or Democrat-turned-independent Sen. Kyrsten Sinema can still gum up the math.) Now less encumbered by the Senate vote schedule, Harris is looking forward to getting back on the road, helping to sell the Biden team’s record and leading the charge on goals like securing voting rights and abortion rights—neither of which are likely to advance much under a Republican House—and selling the merits of legislation passed over the last two years, such as an infrastructure package and a climate change agenda.

Then there are questions of her future ambitions—always a fraught discussion that in D.C. can easily devolve into coded conversations about race and gender, two factors that simply cannot be ignored when it comes to Harris. Her defenders aren’t wrong to point out that the first woman of color in her role faces the double-whammy that separately dogged Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Harris’ original bid for the presidency ended before Iowa’s lead-off caucuses. By all accounts, she served as a capable and loyal running-mate.

Personally, Biden has great admiration for Harris, who served as state attorney general in California concurrent to the late Beau Biden’s time in the role in Delaware. As a former VP himself, Biden has sought to give Harris a portfolio commensurate with her talents, including the intractable troubles at the U.S.-Mexican border, voting rights, and abortion rights. Harris’ apologists grimly note those are all massive issues, each of them likely impossible for one person to significantly address; yet her boosters say they match Harris’ abilities to untangle knots.

Still, the relationship between Biden and Harris is complicated, made more so when Biden seemed like an uncertain contender in 2024. With Biden seemingly ready to launch his re-election bid, Harris’ dreams for a promotion are on ice. After all, no one challenges a sitting President with any meaningful success, especially not from inside the tent. But it does set up the test for Harris: if she is the party’s heir apparent—and not, say, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg or Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—Harris needs to rack up some successes to point to, whether they come due in 2024 or 2028. Biden may end up professing neutrality, but that gets tricky if he sees any suggestion of disloyalty.

All of which explains why Harris has made abortion rights a central piece of her political identity. Since Roe fell, she has met with leaders from 38 states, including lawmakers from 18 states. She’s been subtly making herself the voice with a megaphone no one can ignore.

During her speech on Sunday, Harris announced the Biden administration would protect access to mifepristone, the abortion pill. The Food and Drug Administration earlier this month finalized a rule that allows women to obtain abortion pills via telehealth consultations. Against this backdrop, Florida lawmakers are considering moving to ban abortions after 12 weeks—down from 15 there.

“Even in states that protect reproductive rights, like New Jersey, Illinois, Oregon, even there people live in fear of what might be next, because Republicans in Congress are now calling for a nationwide abortion ban,” Harris said. “Even from the moment of conception, the right of every woman in every state in this country to make decisions about her own body is on the line.”

“And I said it before and I will say it again,” she added. “How dare they?”

Such outrage over the fall of Roe powered Democratic candidates to unexpectedly strong showings in the midterm elections. Democrats defied history, holding steady in the Senate and only barely losing the majority in the House. Many point to her campaign travel schedule as proof that Harris played no small role in that accomplishment. By the time votes were being tallied, a full 27% of Americans counted abortion as the most important issue for their vote, second only to inflation. It was a surefire winner for Democrats, with those counting abortion as their most important issue breaking by a walloping 53 points. And among the broader public, according to exit polls, 59% of voters last year said abortion should remain legal.

If you’re Harris and seeing these numbers while still considering your next move, such data points are reason to lean-in on abortion rights. It has the added bonus of coming from a place of sincerity.

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