VP Kamala Harris’s team looks to change course to reset her political prospects

Vice President Kamala Harris takes her official portrait Thursday, March 4, 2021, in the South Court Auditorium in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building at the White House. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson) @whitehouse.gov

Vice President Kamala Harris’s team is engaged in a series of course changes that aides and supporters hope will boost her public image and reset her political prospects, after a first year in office that even some of her allies say has fallen short of expectations.

She has hired Jamal Simmons, a seasoned political operator and familiar face on cable news, to oversee her communications. She has returned to President Biden’s side for big events. She is mulling a heavier media schedule after months of looking warily at such engagements. She is looking to benefit from an extensive schedule of midterm campaigning that aides hope will revive Democrats’ faith in her political skills and popular appeal.

And after a year during which Biden often seemed to put Harris in charge of intractable, no-win issues, she is suddenly at the center of what, for the moment at least, is the administration’s top priority – voting rights. When Biden recently made two of the highest-profile speeches of his presidency on the subject, at the U.S. Capitol and in Atlanta, Harris spoke first and introduced him.

“Years from now, our children and our grandchildren, they will ask us about this moment,” she said in Atlanta. “And let us tell them we secured the freedom to vote, that we ensured free and fair elections, and we safeguarded our democracy for them and their children.”

The changes large and small come at a pivotal point for the first woman to hold the vice presidency, and the first person of Black and Asian descent, according to White House and vice-presidential aides and supporters inside and outside the Beltway. Many spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive talks.

When she was named Biden’s running mate in August 2020, Harris was immediately seen by many Democrats as his heir apparent. But after a series of stumbles on a heavily scrutinized stage over the past year, Democrats face a question: Does Harris embody the potential of a diverse 21st-century Democratic Party, or will she falter under the weight of unmet expectations and unfulfilled promise?

Simmons declined to comment on any planned changes to communications strategy for this story. Harris has yet to select a chief spokesperson after the departure of Symone Sanders, who advised her at key junctures, including during all three of her international trips. Harris’s communications strategy has so far been marked by a focus on local media with high-profile, often televised, interviews scheduled at big moments – and with mixed results.

As the year (2021) comes to an end, four of Vice President Kamala Harris’s top aides have left her office or announced plans to depart. Rumors have circulated since July claiming that some staffers were frustrated with her leadership style and hinted at dysfunction in her office. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Demetrius Freeman

Harris’s first international trip – to Guatemala and Mexico, as part of an effort to address the root causes of migration in Northern Triangle countries – was colored by an exchange with NBC News’s Lester Holt in which she awkwardly downplayed the urgency of visiting the border, as Republicans and other critics had urged her to do. Later that month, she bowed to the pressure and visited.

That moment sparked a debate among senior members of the vice president’s team about whether such interviews hurt more than they help, supporters say. For months afterward, Harris looked at such interviews warily, and she is still in the process of emerging from that defensive posture.

But this week, Harris granted another such interview to Craig Melvin of NBC’s Today Show. And the appearance showed both the potential and the peril of such exposure.

Harris spoke forcefully about the administration’s stance on voting rights, saying no senator “should be absolved from the responsibility of preserving and protecting our democracy” – the kind of rhetoric that has earned her praise from many Democrats.

But she stumbled when asked when Americans can expect to see the coronavirus tests promised by the administration, seeming uncertain of the answer. “They’ve been ordered,” she told Melvin. “I have to look at the current information. I think it’s going to be by next week. But soon. Absolutely soon. And it is a matter of urgency for us.”

Afterward, White House officials scrambled to clarify the timetable to news outlets, saying the tests would be sent out later this month and a contract would likely be awarded in the next two weeks.

That’s not the only bump that has emerged as Harris tries to regain momentum. Simmons, her new communications director, had to apologize last week for years-old tweets in which he asked why immigration officials did not detain “undocumented folks.”

Harris’s supporters have been frustrated for months that Biden has handed her politically fraught issues – including immigration and voting rights – without giving the vice president enough tools to be successful. Bakari Sellers, a former state representative from South Carolina and a longtime friend and supporter of Harris, declared the portfolio “trash,” saying action on the issues had stalled because Biden had not done enough to support her.

One moment that seemed to capture Harris’s plight came last November, as Biden and his top aides spent an afternoon trying to convince House members to vote for his infrastructure bill, one of his most urgent priorities. Harris was touring a NASA space flight center at the time, which seemed to highlight her distance from the negotiations.

Harris’s aides say she had made calls to lawmakers the night before the vote. Deputy White House press secretary Sabrina Singh said in a statement that the vice president has been involved in almost all the biggest issues facing the Biden administration.

“Over the last year, the vice president worked closely with the president to further the administration’s goals of protecting the freedom to vote, combating covid-19, rebuilding our economy, investing in our nation’s infrastructure, strengthening America’s leadership and rebuilding America’s relationships with our allies,” Singh said.

If that involvement has not always been apparent, Harris is now enjoying a rare moment when one of her big issues, voting rights, is at the top of the agenda for the president and the Democratic Party.

Biden and Harris have showed a united front on voting rights in recent days, appearing side by side at major events on Capitol Hill and in Atlanta, projecting an image of partnership and unity. That contrasts with many of Biden’s appearances in the latter part of last year, when Harris was often elsewhere or engaged in a lower-profile event.

Harris’s staff acknowledges that she has faced strong head winds. She is the most-watched vice president in history, complete with her own press corps that travels internationally with her and tracks her opinion polls, not just the president’s. Articles about Harris have obsessed over her laugh, delved into her distrust of Bluetooth ear buds and criticized her affinity for pricey Parisian cookware.

Aides say it has been difficult for Harris to shake a presidential campaign narrative that she is hard to work for. Several articles criticized her handling of staff amid the departure of high-profile aides in the final days of 2021. Critics scattered over two decades told The Washington Post of an inconsistent and at times degrading boss who burns through seasoned staff members who have found success in other demanding, high-profile positions.

Harris still faces structural challenges. She entered the White House with few longtime, loyal staffers, and now has three major vacancies to fill. Among the senior staff in her vice-presidential office, only two had worked for her before last year: Rohini Kosoglu, Harris’s top domestic policy adviser and her former Senate chief of staff, and Josh Hsu, counsel to the vice president and former Senate deputy chief of staff.

Defenders say many of the attacks on Harris are rooted in racism and sexism, reflecting the bias of people unaccustomed to seeing a woman in power.

Others say Harris is confronting issues that cannot be fixed by any one person, even a vice president. Immigration reform, for example, has flummoxed a generation of politicians, and the challenge of ensuring the equal right to vote has bedeviled American society since the 15th Amendment passed in 1870.

“She can’t own voting rights. No one can own a century-long struggle that has defined the country,” said Donna Brazile, a Democratic strategist who ran Al Gore’s 2000 campaign. “This is a huge assignment. It took a civil war, and then later a civil rights movement, to get us to where we stood prior to 2020. And it’s going to take a lot more to get us further.”

But such assurances have not satisfied activists, who express frustration that Harris asked to be put in charge of voting rights, but has made little progress. Several voting rights groups boycotted the Harris and Biden speeches on voting rights in Atlanta Tuesday, saying the gilded words were meaningless if Biden did not present a plan for hurdling congressional obstacles and passing effective voting rights laws.

For the moment, Congress does not appear any closer to that goal. In a floor speech Thursday, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., reiterated that she would not vote to amend the filibuster, dealing a nearly fatal blow to any chance of passing voting rights legislation this year. “While I continue to support these bills, I will not support separate actions that worsen the underlying disease of division infecting our country,” she said.




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