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Kamala Harris takes heat handling knotty vice-presidential portfolio

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US vice-president Kamala Harris gave a widely panned television interview while visiting Guatemala this week. 

Asked why she hadn’t been to the US-Mexico border, where an influx of migrants is putting a huge strain on local communities, Harris first dismissed the question and said, “We’ve been to the border.” Pressed, she laughed and said: “And I haven’t been to Europe.” 

Her comments drew criticism and underscored the political dangers that the number two official in the White House faces as she juggles a cumbersome, and expanding, policy portfolio.

Harris was in Central America as leader of the Biden administration’s response to the border problem, including the thorny question of how to address migrants fleeing north from the troubled countries of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.

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She has also been handed the nearly intractable task of shepherding contentious voting rights and police reform legislation through a sharply divided Congress. She has hit the road to sell President Joe Biden’s sweeping infrastructure plans. In addition, she has also taken an interest in black maternal mortality and other racial equity issues, including tackling vaccine hesitancy among African-Americans. 

Harris’s first foreign trip as vice-president exposed what detractors and allies alike say are her shortcomings as a politician and vulnerabilities should she run again for president. Harris, a former senator from California, abandoned a floundering primary bid for the White House in late 2019. 

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Her comments earlier in the week to NBC News sparked outrage, particularly from Republicans who are hammering the administration over migrants. Meanwhile, she took flak from fellow Democrats for urging migrants not to come to the border in the first place. 

Mary Anne Marsh, a Democratic strategist, pointed to the vice-president’s failure to effectively convey her message on the trip.

“If this is your debut as vice-president on the international stage, you want to give your best performance, and she certainly can do better,” Marsh said. 

Harris made history at her January swearing in, becoming the first woman, the first black person and first Asian-American to serve as vice-president. She holds outsized power as the tiebreaking vote in a Senate evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans. But the other duties of a vice-president are less clearly defined. 

People close to the administration say that Harris has proven a deft counsellor to the president and a near constant presence at the White House, attending regular briefings, offering Biden advice and appearing at his side for big speeches. 

Biden himself served as vice-president under President Barack Obama from 2009 to 2017. When he announced Harris as his running mate last summer, he said he hoped that she would provide advice as he did to Obama. 

“When I agreed to serve as President Obama’s running mate . . . he asked me what I wanted most . . . I told him I wanted to be the last person in the room before he made important decisions,” Biden said. 

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He added: “That’s what I asked Kamala. I asked Kamala to be the last voice in the room.” 

Harris is hardly the first vice-president with difficult assignments. Most recently, Mike Pence, Donald Trump’s vice-president, headed the White House coronavirus task force. 

“The vice-presidential tasks are such that usually, if you are successful, they become the president’s and the administration’s accomplishments. If you are unsuccessful, they become yours,” said Kenneth Baer, the founder of consultancy Crosscut Strategies. He was a speech writer for vice-president Al Gore in the Clinton administration and Gore’s ill-fated 2000 presidential bid. 

Harris supporters contend that her challenging portfolio only underscores the faith Biden has placed in her.

“Any one of those issues would be a full-time job for most people,” Marsh said.

Many Democrats argue Harris faces undue criticism, from Republicans in particular, given her identity as a woman of colour. But others admit she made missteps in Latin America and say that her refusal to correct course — Harris later had a frosty exchange with a Univision TV anchor about the border crisis — only remind people of her shortcomings as a presidential candidate in 2019.

“What I think you have seen in the past few weeks . . . are some of the issues you saw during the campaign,” Marsh said. “At different points during the campaign, she did not perform particularly well. Other days, she was spectacular.” 

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Looming over Harris’s term is the political future of Biden, who is 78. Her allies say that she is focused on supporting the president as he seeks to push through his legislative agenda ahead of the 2022 midterm elections, when control of both chambers of Congress will be up for grabs. Next week, as part of her voting-rights remit, she will meet state legislators from Texas, where Democrats recently blocked a state bill that would have restricted access to the ballot box. 

“There is a sense . . . that she is focused on her future as opposed to the job, and I just don’t think that is true,” said Dylan Loewe, a former speech writer for then-vice-president Biden who also ghostwrote Harris’s memoir. 

“The last thing that she wants for her future presidential campaign, whenever it is, is for the storyline to be that she was focused on the future and not the president, and that she was not the same kind of vice-president to Joe Biden as Joe Biden was to Barack Obama.”

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