Sunday, January 29, 2023
Jan. 29, 2023

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Estrich: But what about Harris?


By any conventional measure, President Joe Biden has won the right to seek a second term in office.

Compared with his predecessors, the midterm election was a triumph and the trip to the G-20 a victory lap. Add that to the solid accomplishments in Congress, especially on climate change, and the expected passage of marriage equality legislation, and you might even conclude that the president, despite lagging popularity ratings, is on a roll.

To state the obvious, the only reason Biden wouldn’t seek reelection is his age. He’s old, and in two years, he’ll be even older. Does it matter? How much?

It is one of the great frustrations of many a presidential campaign that few people vote for vice president. They vote the top of the ticket, and trying to convince them to do otherwise is usually a sign of a campaign in trouble.

But in this case, because his age is the issue, thinking about a second Biden term means thinking about who would succeed him should he be unable to complete that term.

Kamala Harris’ numbers are worse than her boss’s — at least according to RealClearPolitics and the Los Angeles Times, which found his approval-disapproval rating to be six points more favorable than hers. The interesting question is why.

One answer is that Harris was given the most impossible issue on the agenda, which is immigration, and her numbers started heading south with that initial assignment and never recovered.

Another piece of the puzzle is the nature of the vice presidency, which, despite feints at functionality, is a somewhat soulless sinecure, even when it involves, as Harris’ has, important tie-breaking votes.

“She hasn’t done anything,” more than one person told me, in trying to explain away her lopsided numbers (54 percent unfavorable versus 40 percent favorable).

Of course, she does things every day. I have no doubt her schedule is full of meetings and appearances, speeches and fundraising. It’s just that so long as they’re going according to plan, and she’s not making a fool of herself in the way some prior incumbents of her office occasionally did, it’s just not news. It isn’t really nothing, but it translates that way and leaves her ratings where they are.

Which raises that other question: How much of Harris’ unfavorable rating owes to issues of identity, of race and gender, understanding that her white male predecessors all started out higher than she is, and how much to the increasing partisanship in this country?

This much is clear. Strengthening Harris’ numbers is in the administration’s best political interest. The more comfortable people are with Vice President Kamala Harris, the more comfortable they will be supporting a second term for the president. Improving her standing improves his. Convincing people that she is indeed ready goes a long way to convincing them that he deserves four more years.

That means giving Harris the kind of central role that will show Americans that Biden has the same deep-seated confidence in her that he will be asking us to have in her. It means important moments, important assignments, participating in critical meetings and decisions, and forging successes that can be shared and built upon by the administration. For now and for four more years.