Kamala Harris keeps a list of reporters who are not writing about her in the way she wishes they would. She believes they ‘don’t fully understand her or appreciate her life experience.” Harris is profiled in The Atlantic and to say it isn’t the usual fan fiction singing the praises of the vice president is an understatement. I know. It’s surprising to see this so soon into the new administration. After all, we’ve been told she is the hero we all need, right?
Remember back when then-Senator Harris announced her run for president? A bunch of female reporters was giddy about covering a black woman running for the Democrat nomination. They even reported on going shopping with Kamala and playing stylist for her. It was completely debasing to their professionalism but they were eager to make her candidacy Hillary 2.0. As we know, Kamala crashed and burned before even the first vote was cast in the primary. No one, as it turned out, wanted a President Kamala. Most people were surprised when she rose to the top of Joe Biden’s list of vice-presidential picks. Now she’s assumed to be running the show in the Oval Office because Biden looks too feeble to handle the job on his own.
Kamala doesn’t like reporters who no longer swoon in her presence. She has a less than warm and chummy relationship with them these days. She is keeping score of who is and isn’t in her corner. The Atlantic piece tells the story – Kamala keeps track of politicians and reporters who aren’t giving her the respect she demands. Even when she participates in the hiring process for her staff, she instructs the applicants on how to think and act, too.
The vice president and her team tend to dismiss reporters. Trying to get her to take a few questions after events is treated as an act of impish aggression. And Harris herself tracks political players and reporters whom she thinks don’t fully understand her or appreciate her life experience. (She often mentions an episode in which a Washington Post reporter mistook the cheer of the historic Black sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha for “screeches,” I was told.) She particularly doesn’t like the word cautious, and aides look out for synonyms too. Careful, guarded, and hesitant don’t go over well. But she continues to retreat behind talking points and platitudes in public, and declines many interview requests and opportunities to speak for herself (including for this article). At times, she comes off as so uninteresting that television producers have started to wonder whether spending thousands of dollars to send people on trips with her is worthwhile, given how little usable material they get out of it. But Kim Foxx, whom Harris mentored after Foxx became the first Black woman elected state’s attorney in Cook County, Illinois, said this is a learned reticence. “There’s a reality of doing this work as a woman and a Black woman—and it often isn’t talked about a lot publicly—that there’s a presumed resilience around people who are first,” Foxx told me. “There is a celebration of what it means to break the ceiling, and not nearly the conversation of what the cuts to your head look like.”
Harris has been an elected official for 18 years straight, but she has only a few senior aides on staff who have worked for her for more than a few months. Turf battles have been a recurring feature of Harris offices over the years, but her newest circle believes it is finally getting her on track after years of past staffers not serving her well. Some have been surprised at how much work there is to be done, whether that’s briefing her on certain policy issues or helping her improve her sparring-with-journalists skills.
Interviewing prospective hires, she asks, “Who are you?” pressing for details of their life story, what makes them want the job they’re chasing. She tries hard to teach new aides about how she thinks. When they sit down for a meeting, she tells them: Take a moment and look for who isn’t at the table, who isn’t represented. Imagine you’re visiting the home of someone whose wedding you attended. You page through the album out on the coffee table. Does their vision of their celebration include you? That’s what policy is like, she tells them: All sorts of Americans are watching the administration’s actions, trying to see if they’re included in its vision.
A large part of the piece is devoted to asking a simple question – what exactly does Vice-President Harris do, anyway? What role does she play? What is she working on for the administration? No one knows. She gave instructions to Biden’s staff at the beginning of the administration that she didn’t want to be assigned to just a single issue. So, she’s alleged to be involved in everything but nothing in particular. Biden keeps passing off the hot button issues to her, like the crisis on the southern border, and then her office denies she’s in charge.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina told me he was “dumbfounded” trying to come up with what Harris’s precise role or impact has been. Bob Casey, the Democratic senator from Pennsylvania who’s been close with Biden for years and is now a Harris fan too, fondly recalled how much he enjoyed being in the Senate until 5:34 a.m. to watch Harris cast the tiebreaking vote to move the COVID-relief bill forward. As for her specific influence, he added, “It’s probably the case that there are a number of things where her imprint or her presence on that team is the reason why there’s a particular emphasis. I can’t say that I can identify one.” Other members of Congress who have sat in Oval Office conversations with the president and vice president struggled to answer this question too. Biden, who has shown a new confidence since he returned to the White House, has been making clear that he’s the one running the meetings, and Harris has been diligently deferential.
Kamala’s office now questions why she should be in charge of the southern border crisis. That question has an easy answer, though. Joe Biden said she is in charge. Her staff say Republicans are criticizing her about the border because she is a woman and a black woman at that. That’s always where this stuff goes, right? She’s criticized by both Republicans and Democrats though and her gender and race have nothing to do with it. She’s shown to be incompetent or unwilling to do the work.
Harris is going to have to step up her game in order to run in 2024. Biden wants to pave the way for her and that is why he gives her important assignments. She actually has to do the work, though. She has to do more than make Zoom calls to world leaders.