Patrick Crowder and Christopher Jackson look at the woman a heartbeat away from the presidency of the most powerful nation on earth – and asks what lies ahead
If Kamala Harris’ people are worried about the perception that she has been sidelined in Joe Biden’s White House, then they’ve chosen a curious room in which to conduct an interview.
It’s a shadowy out-of-the-way chamber which looks like it’s seldom used. Kamala Harris sits on a chair in a maroon pantsuit; beyond her, are two ship models in glass cases which are difficult to make out in the shadows. On the other side of the room, also behind her, is the obligatory but casual display of patriotism: an American flag peeping out of the dark.
“Everyone has to get vaccinated. The vaccines are free,” she says. “They are safe and they’ll save your life. Get the booster shot. Against Omicron it almost guarantees that you are unlikely to have to go to the hospital much less – God forbid – that you die because of this virus.”
It’s a sombre setting – appropriate perhaps for what is increasingly proving to be an unhappy historical moment. That’s the case both in respect of the current state of America with its high proportion of unvaccinated peoples and looming inflation, and in relation to Harris’ own approval ratings. At time of writing, according to an average on RealClearPolitics, these stand at 39 per cent, though they have been quite a bit lower than that.
When Margaret Brennan, the CBS interviewer, asks her about the economy, Harris does a typical politician’s trick and reels off statistics which show the Biden administration to good advantage: “First of all, as an administration, as we look at the end of the year, there are specific facts that we are proud of on the issue of the economy.” And what are those? “We have reduced unemployment down to 4.2 per cent. The economists predicted that we wouldn’t get there for another couple of years, but here we are.” And the deficit? “We have reduced that by over $300 billion. We have created over six million jobs, so there are good things that happened – have happened – as it relates to the strength of the economy.”
The interview continues. Is Senator Joe Manchin, who torpedoed the administration’s $3 trillion Build Back Better Plan, playing fair with Biden and Harris? “This is too big to be about any specific individual.”
It’s a tense encounter; in everyone’s minds – and especially, you suspect, in Harris’ – is the fact that Harris has been criticised for her media performances, especially on account of her nervous laughter when she gets a difficult question. According to Freddy Gray, writing in The Spectator, “Harris’s laugh, which she deploys a lot, is widely recognised as the most irritating noise in America.”
To Harris’ supporters there is a note of misogyny here which is both regrettable and to be expected for a political “trailblazer” who is serving not just as the first female Vice-President, but as the first Asian-American to reach that office. But to her critics, Harris does embody much that is irritating about the left: a self-righteousness allied to a thin understanding of basic economics, and even a certain ‘wokeness’.
Which is she then? In reality, everything about the interview makes you long for more depth. We want to go back in time to learn more about her, since everything about Harris – telegenic, prepped, responsive to the zeitgeist – is suggestive of meme, a person entirely tethered to the present.
But also we long to know what really motivates her – who she is, and above all what the administration she serves really signifies for the virus, the economy, for civil rights, and for the US-UK ‘special relationship’. Above all we want to know if we’re looking at the 47th President of the United States. For this cover story, Finito World spoke to everyone from leading opinion formers in the UK, to political insiders, and working Californians, to discover just that.
Born in Oakland in 1964, Harris was the daughter of Shyamala Gopalan, a biomedical scientist and Donald Harris, an economics professor. Having experienced segregation during her childhood, it was a formative moment to attend Howard University, from which she would graduate in 1986 with a degree in political science and economics. Reading her memoir The Truths We Hold, you sense it gave her confidence.
Howard University is a historically Black college in Washington D.C. which was founded in 1867 following the American Civil War. Pertinently for Harris, who would seek an initial career in the law, its former alumni include Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, in addition to Nobel Prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison, civil rights activist Vernon Jordan, and the late actor Chadwick Boseman.
It would prove a formative experience for the future Vice-President. Harris writes of feeling that she was in heaven when she first walked in there: “Every signal told students that we could be anything – that we were young, gifted, and black, and we shouldn’t let anything get in the way of our success.”
Mentoring also came into her life at this point, when she took on a role working as a tour guide at the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing. Harris recalls: “Once I emerged from my shift to find Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis [both famous actors] in the main area, waiting for a VIP tour after hours. They projected an aura like the luminaries they were, yet they made a special point of engaging me in conversation and telling me that it made them proud to see me as a young woman working in public service.”
This is the Harris tone, as agreeable as it is anodyne. We can see immediately that it doesn’t seem particularly likely to bridge the divide in America which has grown over the last decade or so: her language lacks the complexity of Obama’s, the persuasiveness of Bill Clinton’s, the folksiness of George W. Bush and Joe Biden, and the sheer oddity and punch of Donald Trump’s.
If you talk to Californians today you’ll find that Harris’ innate assumptions – that Harris’ journey is de facto good and virtuous – are echoed, showing that she at least has some support there. Talk to people in her home state, and sometimes one finds a patriotism on display difficult to distinguish from a certain piety. Kevin Buckby, a partner of Carbon Partners, tells us: “She’s our local lass from Oakland and I live about five miles from there, so I’m happy to see her success. You need a Kamala equivalent over there as an antidote to Boris.” In such remarks, one finds the validity of the Democratic project unquestioned. To her critics, these plaudits will feel all-too-easy and insufficiently earned.
Amee Parekh has recently been promoted to head of HR for Uber Freight and Finance from her previous role as head of HR for UberEats US. She, too, is not in doubt of the need for Harris, or someone Harris-like at the top of American politics: “Kamala Harris is absolutely leading the change in the political arena, because we haven’t had a female Vice-President or President ever, and she’s the first woman to make it into office.” So she sees Kamala Harris as a role model? Parekh is effusive: “Kamala Harris is a good role model. I think that change absolutely needed to happen. It needed to happen 20 years sooner, but here we are, and we’ll work with that.”
This might be called the Kamala-Harris-as-role-model narrative. There is something to it. When Barack Obama ran for the presidency in 2008, he noted how much harder the process was for rival Hillary Clinton: “She was doing everything I was doing, but just like Ginger Rogers, it was backwards in heels.”
The same is true for Harris. What she has achieved has been done to some extent against the grain. Harris, in this telling, is a pioneer. Her admirers would add that she’s a welcome voice calling for social justice, greater help from the federal government, fewer wars in the Middle East of an essentially unwinnable nature, a kindly border policy, and improvement in voting rights for African Americans.
For such people, Harris comes readymade as both politician and symbol. Dana Williams, Ph.D., dean of the Graduate School at Howard and professor of English says: “It wasn’t just a situation where it’s good to have a Kamala Harris elected; it’s a situation where we absolutely needed a Kamala Harris to be elected.”
Despite this, even her champions would probably stop short of seriously comparing her to Barack Obama, whose talents under any fair reading seem to outstrip hers. Even so, the argument runs that she is in that mould.
The trouble is it can seem a fairly short step from there to saying, or implying, that her faults must be overlooked. Her low approval ratings as Vice-President under such a view are either unfair, and a result of sexism or racism, or they might be put down to the inherently tricky nature of the vice-presidency, an office once described by John Nance Garner, FDR’s Vice-President from 1933-1941 as “not worth a bucket of warm piss.”
For Harris’ critics, it’s not racist to criticise her, it’s racist not to. Besides, her detractors would argue that she raises the question of racism all too readily as a rebuttal to criticism that isn’t racist at all, but entirely justified in a free country.
A representative statement might be that of former Harris staffer Sean Clegg, as reported by The Washington Post: “I’ve never had an experience in my long history with Kamala, where I felt like she was unfair. Has she called bulls—? Yes. And does that make people uncomfortable sometimes? Yes. But if she were a man with her management style, she would have a TV show called The Apprentice.” Clegg seems to imply that Harris is taking necessary blows for all those African American women who will follow her path.
But nobody seriously doubts that Harris is in a difficult and sometimes frustrating job. The LBC radio presenter Iain Dale has just finished editing a marvellous collection of essays The Presidents about each occupant of the White House from Washington to Biden, and has been deeply immersed in the American political system.
“The office of VP is quite a difficult one,” he tells me. “As most people who have been Vice-President will tell you, it has no power but it has influence, but that influence is entirely at the discretion of the president.”
Which brings us onto the question of Harris’ relationship with President Joe Biden. Dale notes that Harris and Biden seem rather distant. He deems that a puzzling trend.
“Some presidents really bring their Veeps in,” Dale explains. “Others seem to ignore them – which is weird when you think of it, because the job of president is all-consuming, and you get to choose your Veep – they’re not elected. You’d think if you get someone you trust you’d want them to take over some of the functions of the presidency. That happens rarely. From Eisenhower onwards, can you find a president who really trusted their Veep?”
In the Brennan interview there’s an awkward attempt to dispel the feeling that Biden and Harris don’t get on: “In fact, the president and I joke and when I leave one of our meetings to go break a tie, he says, ‘Well, that’s going to be a winning vote.’ Whenever I vote, we win. It’s a – it’s a joke we have, but – the stakes are so high.”
For others, she’s just not up to the job. This view is best encapsulated by Dr. Randall Heather, who has been involved in British, American and Canadian politics for over 40 years. He pulls no punches whatsoever.
First up, he wants to put Harris’ Vice-Presidency into context for a UK audience: “If you weren’t in America in 2016 during that presidential campaign, you missed two things,” he explains. “One was a matter of intensity rather than knowledge: it was how deeply upset working class white Americans were about everything. And you can’t understand the pull of Trump, unless you understand that intensity. On the other side, it’s hard to gauge how intensely disliked Hillary Clinton was.”
The implication is that Clinton may have deserved some of this opprobrium – and that Harris does too. This, Heather explains, is something the UK just doesn’t understand. “Brits love Democratic presidents because they don’t have to live with the outcome of the decisions which are made on a lot of domestic issues.”
But this is only the beginning. Heather continues: “There are two numbers about Kamala Harris. One is one per cent. The other is 28 per cent. The 28 per cent is her current approval rating [Harris’ approval rating has recovered a bit since we spoke with Heather]. One per cent was the support she got running when she launched her 2020 campaign when she was considered one of the top two or three potential people. She ran an awful campaign. Her team was from California, and the thing to know about California is that it’s really a different planet. It was a shambolic campaign and she crashed before she even made the primary.”
When I ask if Harris has any positive attributes, Heather is frank: “She has none.”
This has the virtue of clarity, but something in me wants to push against it. It seems inconceivable, even in today’s fractured America, that someone could rise so high without talent or any personal qualities.
The harsh assessments you hear about Harris seem to emanate out of an America so bifurcated that no nuance is possible. All the main players – Trump, Biden, Harris, Obama – are either good or evil, geniuses or idiots, heroes or villains. America is a place no longer permitted shades of grey. This seems to go against one’s day-to-day observations of human nature where human complexity comes at us from every quarter; it can’t be, surely, that the United States has successfully disinvented our right to hold more than one opinion about a person.
This Manichean view of the world also seems unhelpful since the problems which America faces – from Afghanistan to inflation, to infrastructure, voting rights, and urban crime – are complex and probably can’t be solved if the atmosphere in which they’re discussed is reductive, and in some areas of the media, puerile.
But equally, Heather surely has a point that Harris is struggling hugely in the office.
Even so, the only way to see past this somewhat Manichean argument is to delve further – and especially into what actually happens when Kamala Harris has been in charge of something.
Orders from the DA
By 1989, Harris had graduated from University of California, Hastings College of Law, where she earned her Juris Doctor degree. During that time, the future Vice-President was the President of the Black Law Students Association. Her decision to work in the DA’s office, which by this time she had come to deem her ‘calling’, was met with incredulity by friends and family. “I had to defend my choice as one would a thesis,” she recalls in The Truths We Hold.
Why might Harris have had such a difficult time in defending her choice of career? She herself gives the answer: “America has a deep and dark history of people using the power of the prosecutor as an instrument of injustice.”
But Harris had found her matier. In 1990 she began working in the Alameda County District Attorney’s office. She initially specialised in child sexual assault cases, before becoming Deputy District Attorney. Then, she prosecuted various cases including sexual assault, robbery, and homicide.
At this time, Harris was moving in exalted circles. By 1993, Willie Brown, a noted lawyer and civil rights leader, was the speaker of the California assembly and regarded as one of the State’s most influential legislators. By 1996, he had become Mayor of San Francisco, the first African-American to hold that office. Though he was still married at the time (though separated), he was known to be going out with Harris, which has incurred negative comment in some quarters, with Harris accused of sleeping her way to the top. The accusation may be a sensitive one; Brown isn’t mentioned at all in Harris’ memoir.
By 2004, was the District Attorney in California, a post she would hold until 2011. In time it would prove a sound basis from which to launch her political career. How did she do?
Seth Chazin has been a criminal defence lawyer in San Francisco for 35 years and serves on the board of directors of the National Association of Criminal Defence Lawyers. What are his memories of Harris’ stint as DA? “When she was District Attorney, I didn’t find her to be overly progressive in terms of policies towards criminal defendants. I didn’t see much change from prior District Attorneys.” In the context of Californian politics then, Harris has always seemed moderate – and it was partly this which informed her struggles in the 2020 primary. “She found it hard to raise money in California – that should tell you something,” says Heather. “It’s the most moneyed state in the country, and she was out-raised by Pete Buttigeig, the Mayor of the fourth largest city in Indiana.”
So what would Chazin hope Harris could do now? Chazin is unequivocal: “She needs to push for abolition of the death penalty at the Federal level. What happened at the end of the Trump administration was horrific, they were killing one person after another.” Chazin continues: “There is a moratorium on the death penalty in California, but we need abolition. Another governor could come in with a different opinion, and the moratorium could end in a heartbeat.”
No less a figure than Sir Richard Branson is prepared to agree with Chazin on this: “The death penalty is inhumane and barbaric, fails to deter or reduce crime and is disproportionately used against minorities and other vulnerable and marginalised groups,” he tells Finito World.
Harris also disappointed Chazin on another front: “In terms of racial disparities, I saw no affirmative effort to handle the disparity in sentencing in drug cases, and I was dealing with a lot of drug cases at the time. Most people being prosecuted for drug offences in San Francisco were black and brown people during her tenure as District Attorney.”
Dr Randall Heather adds: “Kamala Harris was considered overly authoritarian as Attorney-General, and this upset a lot of people on the more progressive side of the party – the group called The Squad. They do not particularly like Kamala Harris.”
This is part of the difficulty Harris faces: she has set considerable expectations on account of the ‘historic’ nature of her election, but, like Barack Obama, she must govern -co-govern – in prose. It’s a reminder that the first generation of Black leaders had something profound to convey about equality and racial disparity which will always echo through history, and rightly so.
After that, it was up to Barack Obama to prove that African-Americans could serve at the top of government. Harris has proven that too. But of course, there are diminishing returns here, as each glass ceiling is broken. It becomes harder to identify a moral imperative of similar force once a gigantic moral ill has been remedied. As a case in point, Kamala Harris’ portfolio of voting rights in the Biden administration has met with the intractable fact that the Democrats have neither the votes for the legislation, nor the votes to remove the Senate filibuster in order to navigate that fact.
Harris is defiant in interview: “I think we have to continue to elevate the conversation about voting rights,” she tells Brennan. “Given the daily grind that people are facing, this may not feel like an immediate or urgent matter when in fact it is.” And yet, as important as the issue undoubtedly is, barring some sort of carve-out of the filibuster, Harris looks to be struggling to deliver.
Allied to these problems is the enormous question of whether the fundamental economic principles which Democrats espouse – spending, essentially – really work. This brings us onto the gigantic question of inflation in relation both to the pandemic and to Biden and Harris’s flagship legislation.
The Economy, Stupid
Biden and Harris have so far passed two large spending bills. First up was the American Rescue Plan Act, a $1.9 trillion stimulus bill, which saw the government mailing cheques of $1,400 dollars to families affected by the virus. This was followed by the vast Infrastructure and Investment Act which came with a similar price tag of £2 trillion. This development might have been specifically designed to annoy former President Donald Trump who had wanted to sign a similar bill into law but had failed.
These are big numbers, but the bills found controversy when leading economists, including Larry Summers, the former Secretary of State to the Treasury under Obama, wondered whether such high spending would prove inflationary. In short will this legislation work?
If you want to know what’s actually going on in the global economy during the Biden-Harris era, you need to talk to one of the masters of it. Formerly of WPP, Sir Martin Sorrell is the longest-serving FTSE 250 CEO. He now heads up S4 Capital, his fast-growing venture which is securing impressive market share, and employs some 5,500 people across 33 countries.
Sorrell is clear that inflation will be the main discussion in 2022: “It will be big,” he tells us. “Clients will look for price increases to cover commodity increases. But the real question is whether inflation is endemic.” And is it? “We clearly have shortages in the labour supply and supply chain disruption. A lot of companies will be looking to cover that up with price increases, and I expect inflation to be well above trend.”
That certainly sounds like more than a bump in the road. So what does Sorrell think will happen in the crucial mid-term elections towards the end of 2022? “Biden and Harris say the mid-terms will go well for Democrats,” says Sorrell. “I don’t think that will happen. We’ll get deadlock after the midterms so all significant legislation will need to have been passed before that point.”
That doesn’t bode well for serious action in Harris’ portfolio, especially in respect of voting rights, and it’s a reminder that there’s limited time for Biden and Harris to pass their massive spending plan Build Back Better – originally mooted as having an impossible $3 trillion figure attached to it – which so far has been held by up by conservative Democrat Senator Joe Manchin from Virginia.
Despite the likelihood of a tough road ahead, Sorrell isn’t critical of every move that Biden and Harris have made. “The infrastructure spending was needed,” says Sorrell. “If you look at infrastructure spending as a portion of GDP, the US doesn’t feature well.”
So does Sorrell think that inflation as a problem is one of the administration’s own creation? “If you look at these bills, they are by their nature inflationary,” Sorrell replies, adding: “Inflation is not transitory. I hesitate to say it’s endemic as that’s a bad analogy with Covid-19, but I don’t think it will soften this year. I just get the feeling from clients that where they can get price increases they will go for it.”
That doesn’t bode well for the global economy in 2022. In addition, other commentators are prepared to add their voices to the criticisms of Bidenomics. The macroeconomist Robert Barro, the Paul M. Warburg Professor of Economics at Harvard University, is concerned about the trend of governments printing money: “Biden and Harris’ monetary policy is remarkably expansionary. It involves short term nominal interest rates of essentially zero, while continuing with the Quantitative Easing (QE) policy of buying $120 billion a month.” So what is the administration buying? “Mostly Treasury securities, but they’ve also bought some mortgage-backed securities. Corresponding to that, they’ve accumulated about $8 trillion dollars on the balance sheet of the Federal Reserve. You’re talking about a GDP of $20-21 trillion, so $8 trillion is a serious number, even though we’ve had inflation now for over 12 months they haven’t cut back on this. They should have moved a long time ago towards tapering their purchases and raising interest rates, and of course they haven’t done either of those.”
For Barro this is out of control stuff: “Basically, the Treasury is issuing bonds to finance a lot of the expenditure – that’s the fiscal deficit part – then the Federal Reserve is turning around and buying a lot of those bonds and accumulating those on its balance sheet.” And on other side of the Fed’s balance sheet? “That’s where you would find something that looks like money, and that’s a combination of currency and reserves held by financial institutions. So those have correspondingly gone up to close to $8 trillion dollars. It’s classic inflationary finance.”
By this reading, government policy has created a genuinely inflationary economy that can’t be attributed solely to the circumstances of the pandemic. If you want to curtail that, the only honest response is to raise interests and stop spending – two things the Biden administration seems reluctant to do.
All of which makes Joe Manchin’s refusal to commit to Build Back Better look wise. When asked about this, Harris digs in: “Goldman Sachs just today said that actually, we know that Build Back Better will strengthen the economy,” she tells Brennan. “Not only is it morally right to say parents shouldn’t have to struggle to take care of their basic needs like caring for their children and their parents – and their parents and their elder relatives. But it actually makes economic sense to do that and it brings down the cost of living.”
Yet there are no real signs that Biden or Harris take inflation seriously. Barro is particularly unconvinced by Biden’s decision to reappoint Jay Powell to be Head of the Federal Reserve: “What he really needed was a tough person oriented towards the banking system and to the idea that keeping inflation low is a major mission of the central bank. A figure like Jamie Dimon from JP Morgan would have been a remarkable signal that they’re finally getting serious. Even Larry Summers, who I disagree with on many things, we’re in agreement on this inflation problem and how it interacts with the monetary authority, so Larry Summers could have been named head of the Federal Reserve. Something like that could have been a great signal.”
Dr Randall Heather agrees with all this, pointing out that the Producer Price Index (PPI) is now at a thirty year high. He also notes that in November, the Consumer Price Index (CPI) had risen by 6.8 per cent from the year earlier, the biggest 12-month jump in 39 years. “Despite that, the Biden administration is acting as though Covid is still going full blast and we need trillions more. The infrastructure bill you can get Republicans to support. But Build Back Better is pork-laden. There’s $400 billion for child tax credits which won’t have a lasting impact – it’s money you’ll burn through.”
For Heather there’s a difference between government spending for a road, and government spending for a child going to nursery for a day: the day will pass; the road, if it’s built well, should still be there for future generations. Likewise, plenty of Covid cheques from both Trump and Biden simply went into people’s savings accounts: the problem is one of corporate and government debt, not personal debt. “The trouble is you can’t deal with inflation too strictly or else you crash the stock market. So they’ll have to let it run,” he explains.
The Special Relationship
So what does the situation in the US mean for the UK economy? In the first place, inflation seems to be catching: for instance, some energy economists argue that Biden’s climate change policies are being felt at the pump in prices in the UK.
But in other respects, the broader outlook is one of continuity when it comes to US-UK relations. Iain Dale says: “If you look at presidencies, there’s a surprising degree of continuity between them. There are a lot of similarities, for instance, between Barack Obama’s foreign policy and Donald Trump’s – and between Donald Trump’s and Biden’s.”
Duncan Edwards, the CEO of BritishAmerican Business, argues that there’s an inherent stability in the US-UK relationship, which neither a good nor a bad president can easily unpick. “In general, the US-UK relationship is in good shape,” Edwards tells me. “There are always bumps in the road under any administration, but there are things which connect the US and the UK – such as security and intelligence co-operation – and these things underpin the Special Relationship. The Pentagon and the Department for Defence work incredibly closely together.”
Or as Kamala Harris said in a joint press conference with Prime Minister Boris Johnson on 21st September 2021: “The relationship between our two countries is a long and enduring one, based on shared priorities.” But since the FDR presidency, it would be difficult to find a single president or vice-president who hasn’t felt it necessary to trot out similar platitudes at some point in their tenure.
Even so, that doesn’t stop Harris’ assessment being true. Edwards also explains the economic ties between the two nations are greater than any presidency. “The economic relationship is very strong because of the sheer scale of the trade in goods services and, of course, the huge capital that has been committed by American companies in the UK – and UK companies into the US.”
So far, so good. But not all that’s happened under Biden and Harris has been good for UK business. For instance, Trump’s willingness to strike a trade deal – the 45th President’s Anglophilia has often been underplayed by a critical UK media – has now been replaced by Biden’s reluctance. Edwards explains: “The UK made significant progress on a trade agreement before the 2020 election, but trade agreements are not a priority of this administration, since they’re aiming for a heavy agenda domestically.”
That’s a major shift. Edwards adds that, living in New York, he’s seen UK ministers come and go during the Biden-Harris administration – and to little avail. “We’ve had Anne-Marie Trevelyan, Penny Mordaunt and Nadine Dorries, and all these visits are about trying to move the ball on trade, and I don’t think they’re going to make much progress.”
This reminds us of how a simplistic view of Trump – whose Scottish ancestry, and his Scottish golf courses, made him an eager partner with Britain – can lead to a simplistic view of Biden and Harris.
Edwards continues: “Trump was much more pro-trade than Biden, but unfortunately most of the commentary on this is pretty surface. The reason why Trump was seen as anti-trade was because he condemned the behaviour of China, which doesn’t behave according to the rules – a belief which Biden shares. Trump was also critical of the EU, which is a highly protectionist organisation. If you don’t like Trump for other reasons, that was way too simplistic an analysis.”
So for all Trump’s talk of Making America Great Again, he was far less protectionist than Biden and Harris. Edwards adds: “One of the first things Biden did was sign an Executive Order, making IT difficult for foreign companies to win government contracts in the US. By nature, the left tends to be more protectionist than the right. Their emphasis is on protecting jobs, and that’s why with the Biden administration it’s America first.”
None of this is necessarily Kamala Harris’ fault since many have noted her own powerlessness in the Biden administration. As against this, it must be said that Biden’s policies are echoed throughout Harris’ The Truths We Hold so it seems unlikely that economically she’d prove much different from Biden.
But it will matter hugely to her personally, since by 2024, it’s likely – barring any further ‘variants of concern’ – that the state of the economy will decide her political fate at some stage.
Some of the people we spoke with held out hope that Harris might improve if she were to make it all the way to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue: “I don’t have any reason to predict that she would be massively different from Biden in policy,” says Robert Barro. “She hasn’t excelled as Vice-President, but I can’t tell if that’s because she’s been given opportunities and blown them or if she hasn’t been given those opportunities.” That at least seems to give her some wiggle room.
So how will this all play out? I ask Iain Dale whether he thinks Harris will assume the presidency. “There are three ways this is going to go,” he tells me. “Either she becomes president because Biden dies or is incapacitated in some way which is entirely possible. That’s one possibility. The other is that they make it to 2024 and she runs; and then either she wins or she doesn’t. I cannot conceive Biden can run for a second term. He’d be 82. I just can’t see it.”
And so she’ll have to fight for the nomination? “There’s no way the Democrats will let her walk into it. I suspect she wouldn’t – which would be a bit of a disaster in terms of people thinking, ‘Ah well, America’s not ready for a woman, and not ready for a black woman’. So she needs to up her game a bit over the next year – well, a lot.”
For Sir Martin Sorrell, Harris’ weakness and the lack of ready alternatives, is a clear opening for Donald Trump to return: “I think we’ll see a Trump in 2024 – either Trump himself, or personally I wouldn’t underestimate Ivanka. Of course, it’s a puzzle. Things can change. It’s still very early on, Kamala’s ratings can change over time, but people are negative at the moment.” As a man who understands the online world extremely well, Sorrell is especially interested in the launch of Trump’s platform TRUTH which is scheduled for 24th February 2022. “It’s interesting what he’s doing – he’s creating an echo chamber. Those who wrote Trump off are going to be surprised. The trouble is we talk to one another in our own echo chamber – people on the East or the West coast. But I was talking the other day to a CEO of a leading packages company who’d just gone through the South on his motorbike. He’d been through Alabama, Kentucky and Mississippi, and everywhere there were Trump signs.”
Former Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation Sam Gyimah puts her chances a little higher: “She’s vice president which means if Biden isn’t running she will seek the nomination. That’s how Hillary ended up being the candidate. She will have a strong claim. But if her poll numbers are bad she might not make it through the primaries.”
So in a sense, though she mightn’t like it, everything will depend on her own performance as vice-president – her showing, if you will, in the famous bucket of warm piss.
Dale is among those who argue that Harris needs to grasp the nettle if she’s to stand a chance: “If you judge by the poll ratings so far, she’s performed pretty disastrously. That might be partly her fault; it might be Biden’s fault for not carving out a role for her. But if you’re VP without a job description, it’s up to you to carve out your job description yourself and I’m not sure she’s done a very good job of that.”
So is her position salvageable? Dale thinks that she must learn not to air grievances that she has been given difficult portfolios especially when compared to Pete Buttigieg – her likely rival in 2024 – who is perceived to be having a better time as Transportation Secretary than Harris is as Veep. “If you’re seen as a whinger that’s not a good place to be,” continues Dale. “You’re there as a politician to solve difficult issues. Pete Buttigieg is the Transportation Secretary and therefore that does come within his remit. What she needs to do is knuckle down to the jobs she has been given because nobody’s going to have any sympathy for him.”
For Heather, the signs for Harris are bad. He argues that the 44th President Barack Obama still effectively controls the party, since he is by far the best at raising money. He adds that Harris’ difficult portfolio is a reflection of the fact that the powers-that-be – all of them Obama-ites – don’t view her as presidential material. “You have to ask why she was given these things. Immigration is hard – because it’s fricking hard. Voting rights is hard because it’s the states and not the federal government which control the voting rules unless they want to overturn the constitution. She was deliberately given these things – she got two hospital passes they don’t expect her to do well on.”
On the other hand, there are still plenty of people who wish her well, and not just Californians. A profound patriotism still exists in the American soul. John Updike’s character Rabbit Angstrom in the famous Rabbit tetralogy was always inclined to love the person who happened to be President at whatever time. There are plenty of Americans like that today who would wish Harris well were she to assume office – and would like her to do better now.
So the stakes are high and the jury’s out. It’s only a year in from her time in the Vice-Presidency, and the clock is already ticking for her to prove she has what it takes to make it all the way to the Oval Office.