Alison Rowat: Kamala Harris made history, now comes the tough stuff

SHE made waves, she made history, she made the cover of Vogue. Kamala Harris quickly found herself one of the most famous women in the world when she became Joe Biden’s running mate in the race for the White House. Great things were expected of her. And then … what?

It is a measure of the hoopla that surrounded Harris during the campaign that anyone should expect her to have made her mark this early. Simply becoming the first black, Asian, woman Vice-President could be looked at as achievement enough to be going on with.

The holder of the office once famously decried as “not worth a bucket of warm spit” is not meant to be box office, or not much. The modern vice-presidency is considered a trial run at the world’s most powerful job. The holder serves their time, in Joe Biden’s case eight years, after a lifetime in politics.

While Biden had a high profile, he never outshone the boss. The two men were close to the point where jokes were made about their “bromance”. Awarding Biden the Medal of Freedom in 2017, Obama called him the best Vice-President America ever had, and “a lion of American history”.

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Biden was Obama’s fixer, his wise counsel on national and international affairs. The Obama-Biden relationship was always going to be a tough act to follow.

The Harris-Biden pairing hardly started well. During the fight for the nomination, she took a swipe at Biden’s opposition to school bussing, much to his obvious annoyance, and that of his wife, Jill.

Yet he chose the former Attorney General of California to be his Veep, and has been careful not to sideline her in a low profile role since taking office. Quite the opposite. He has given her not one but two tasks of Herculean proportions: sorting out the Mexican border, where record numbers continue to cross illegally into America; and fighting Republican efforts to restrict voting rights in the party’s favour.

It is fair to say that Harris, who had just four years’ experience in the Senate behind her when she became Vice-President, has not had the smoothest of starts. It took her months to actually visit the border, and when she did it was hardly a PR triumph.

The Democrats had fought the campaign on being the opposite of Trump when it came to migration. They were going to be the friendlier faces in the north, more humane.

Yet when Harris arrived in Guatemala her message to anyone thinking of heading to the US was anything but welcoming. “Do not come,” she said. “The United States will continue to enforce our laws and secure our borders. If you come to our border, you will be turned back.”

She has also taken flak for the way her office is run. Her campaign was criticised as tense and riven with rivalries, and according to a report on the Politico website in June, the same atmosphere has followed her into government.

Politico spoke to current and former Harris staffers, some of whom complained about a “dour” office atmosphere in which ideas were ignored and blame shifted around.

One interviewee said: “It is not a healthy environment and people often feel mistreated. It is not a place where people feel supported but a place where people feel treated like ****.”

Since the Politico piece was published, two senior members of her staff have left their jobs.

Supporters of Harris have answers for the criticisms directed at her. Her job is not to directly cut the numbers crossing the border, they say, but to look at the bigger picture and tackle the problems of crime and poverty that make people want to leave their homes in the first place.

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Nor has Biden handed her a set of poisoned chalices, they insist. Symone Sanders, her chief spokesperson, says: “Look, the easy issues do not make it to the President’s or Vice-President’s desk … The President has demonstrated his trust in the Vice-President by having her oversee some of the most complicated issues we face.”

Her supporters add that, as during the campaign, she was always going to be a target for sexists and racists, and that she is tough enough to take them on. And anyway, it is far too early to make any judgment on how Harris is doing. Give her time, they say.

Harris, 56, has been given more time in the understudy role than she might have anticipated. Biden, 78, has said he will run for a second term, so Harris is in for the same eight-year wait that he had. That is a long time to be in the spotlight.

The biggest health crisis in the country’s history aside, Biden has largely succeeded in his aim of making American politics boring again. Gone are the days of Trump and daily, if not hourly, gaffes and scandals.

But the friction between Republicans and Democrats has not gone away. If anything, as the split over the inquiry into the Capitol riot shows, the atmosphere is becoming more toxic.

Can Harris play a peacemaker as Biden once tried to do, or is the former prosecutor a fighter by instinct? And what can she do to tackle a migrant crisis sure to get worse as pandemic sweeps through the continent?

Despite all the publicity Harris attracted, no one, including herself, could know how she would fare in office. The pressure to succeed is on as never before. Such is the burden of history makers.

The Herald Scotland

The Herald Scotland

The Herald is a Scottish broadsheet newspaper founded in 1783. The Herald is the longest running national newspaper in the world and is the eighth oldest daily paper in the world. The title was simplified from The Glasgow Herald in 1992