Kamala Harris struggles to define VP role as her victories go unnoticed

Her historic victory has brought great expectations along with some disappointments

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When US Vice President Kamala Harris was sworn into office a year ago, women across the globe were watching, many of them wearing her trademark string of pearls, Converse high-tops and purple, a nod to the suffragette movement.

The first woman, the first black person and the first South Asian to ever take the oath, many saw themselves represented in Ms Harris, who is one heartbeat away from the highest office in the land.

The former senator assumed office alongside her boss, President Joe Biden, weeks after a mob of Donald Trump supporters staged an insurrection at the Capitol building. The country was in the grip of the Covid-19 pandemic and millions were out of work.

“It’s tough for any vice president to shine — even in the best of times. And these aren’t the best of times,” Roy Neel, chief of staff for former vice president Al Gore, told The Associated Press.

“You not only serve at the pleasure of the president … but there’s a limit to how much you can do to take the lead role on the major issue of the day, whatever that is, and to go out and look like you’re killing it.”

Ms Harris's first year has not been an easy one. As Mr Biden’s second in command, she was given the task of pushing for voting rights, immigration reform and women's rights.

Kamala Harris shows off her Converse shoes in Miami Gardens, Florida. Getty Images via AFP

She has also become a go-to for Mr Biden's international diplomacy, particularly in Latin America.

But her lack of international presence makes her an easy target, with her tiebreaking role in the Senate often tethering her to Washington.

Despite enabling diplomatic rapprochement with President Emmanuel Macron following a submarine deal between the US, Australia and the UK that angered France, her international reputation was tarnished following a series of embarrassing incidents in Central America and on the US-Mexico border.

To all this, she was also told to tout elements of Mr Biden's centrepiece “Build Back Better” agenda, which includes ways to address climate change and the country's infrastructure issues.

While Mr Biden did secure a $1.9 trillion economic stimulus bill aimed at hastening the US recovery from the pandemic, the Build Back Better plan appears dead in the water amid infighting in the Democratic Party.

“She’s been given more responsibilities than most vice presidents,” a former White House staffer told The National. “She has plenty of time to accomplish great things, which people tend to forget.”

Compared to an American football game, Ms Harris has three quarters left. A lot can happen, but only if she stops getting tackled.

Yet, Mr Biden has confidence in Ms Harris, saying at a White House press conference on Wednesday that "she's going to be my running mate" in his 2024 presidential run if he chooses to try for re-election.

Voting rights

In the past 20 years, Georgia’s voter population grew by almost two million, 48 per cent of the growth attributed to the state’s black voting population, analysis from Pew Research Centre shows.

Former president Donald Trump lost the reliably red state in the 2020 presidential elections and in a recorded call, asked an election official to find enough votes to overturn the results.

And on January 5, 2021, all eyes were on the Peach State and a Senate run-off, when a special election brought Democrat underdogs Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock into Congress, turning the state blue and also causing the Senate to be split 50/50 — giving Ms Harris the tiebreaking vote.

Two months later, the state’s Republican Governor Brian Kemp signed legislation making it harder to vote by mail and gave his party sweeping controls over state elections.

A Trump loyalist, Mr Kemp said that it was evident that “significant reforms” were needed even though a historic statewide audit proved to the contrary.

In promoting voting rights, Ms Harris faces a growing white-nationalist movement, Mr Trump peddling false claims of voter fraud, Georgia as well as other states enacting voter laws that will make it harder for some people to vote, and a Senate stacked against her.

“Today, our freedom to vote is under assault,” Ms Harris said.

“In Georgia and across our nation, anti-voter laws are being passed that could make it more difficult for as many as 55 million Americans to vote — 55 million Americans. That is one out of six people in our country.”

Though it passed the House, the administration’s voting rights legislation appears to be destined to fail.

Gaffes shade victories

After taking office, Ms Harris’s victory celebration quickly came to a screeching halt, as illegal entries at the US-Mexico border, which began spiking before the Biden-Harris victory, skyrocketed post-inauguration.

The administration decided to take a tough stance.

While visiting President Alejandro Giammattei of Guatemala in June, Ms Harris gave a speech that incorporated many topics, including migration, anti-corruption initiatives and human trafficking. The sound byte heard around the world, however, was: “Do not come here”.

The gaffe overshadowed big wins on securing billions in investments from companies in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

Then came the photo at the Mexico-Texas border of a mounted patrol officer appearing to whip a man along with images of about 14,000 Haitian migrants sleeping under bridges.

This, along with a record number of would-be migrants being turned away over the past year, has infuriated many in the administration’s own base.

The domino effect

A lot of the roles Mr Biden expects Ms Harris to fill are seemingly based on gender, race, ethnic and social background, such as women's issues.

A stacked Supreme Court shows little to no sign of protecting Roe v Wade as states enact abortion bans and otherwise restrictive laws pertaining to women's reproductive health.

A divided Senate refusing to debate voting rights and no movement on the filibuster leaves a lot of room for Republicans to take back the Senate in this year's midterm elections, leading to the possible erosion of everything Ms Harris and Mr Biden have tried to build.

Updated: January 20, 2022, 1:00 PM
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