More than 200 years after its creation, the vice presidency remains the least defined, and outright oddest, major political office in the United States. With almost no formal powers but the critical responsibility of needing to be prepared to assume the leadership of the nation at any moment, vice presidents occupy a position that, like the electoral college that selects them, was a clumsy 1787 solution to a practical problem of constitutional mechanics.
Like the presidency, the vice presidency has evolved over time, and no longer resembles the description of its first historical occupant as "the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived." But it can still be an awkward position to hold and a difficult one to evaluate from the outside. How can we judge whether the vice president is doing a good job without a shared set of expectations about what the job actually is?
Joe Biden has explained repeatedly that he wants Kamala Harris to be the "last voice in the room" when major decisions are made. In the early months of the current presidential administration, it wasn't hard to find sympathetic press stories emphasizing the "large role" or "central role" or "integral role" that Harris was expected to play in the Biden White House. The model for her vice presidency, Biden and his aides often said, was Biden's own experience serving under Barack Obama, when he was considered to be an unusually successful and influential vice president by historical standards.
But it's impossible for Biden and Harris to replicate the relationship that existed between Obama and Biden. Harris is simply not situated in the same place that Biden was as VP, and the implications of this difference have already begun to emerge only five months into her term. For one thing, the unique governing contribution that Biden could make was clear from the moment that he was chosen as Obama's running mate. As a six-term senator who had chaired the Foreign Relations and Judiciary committees, he brought extensive national policy-making experience and a collection of valuable personal relationships, both on Capitol Hill and around the world, to an administration whose leader had served only briefly in federal office.
Moreover, Biden was also widely (and, as it turned out, incorrectly) believed to have abandoned his own presidential ambitions after 2008, which was another important asset to his vice presidency. He benefited from the presumption that his judgments and actions were motivated by sincerity and loyalty, rather than by angling to benefit his own future political prospects. And nobody would have thought to argue that Biden as vice president should intentionally distance himself from involvement in this or that thorny issue or crisis in order to protect himself politically for a future campaign.
In contrast, Harris is widely viewed by party leaders and media figures as highly likely to run for president as Biden's heir apparent in 2024 or 2028, but as lacking a clear domain of unique authority to bring to the current administration. She isn't an old Washington hand like Biden, Dick Cheney, or George H. W. Bush; she doesn't have a signature set of policy priorities like Al Gore; she doesn't provide close long-standing personal ties to a key party constituency like Mike Pence. So any substantive responsibility that Harris takes on will inevitably be viewed by other political elites in terms of its strategic implications for her presumed future presidential candidacy, rather than as a reflection of sincere dedication, interest, or expertise.
We're already seeing this happen with Harris's role as the Biden administration's point person on Latin American migration, the subject of her first trip abroad earlier this month. Conventional wisdom in Washington agrees that the situation at the southern border is indeed a serious national problem that deserves urgent attention from the top levels of the executive branch. Conventional wisdom in Washington also seems equally certain that Harris is making a big mistake by getting anywhere near it. I recently spoke with one national reporter who suggested to me that, because of its potentially risky politics, the migration issue must have been assigned to Harris involuntarily. That doesn't seem to me like an act that would be in character for Joe Biden, and at least one media report suggests that Biden and Harris thought taking the lead on addressing the regional conditions causing migration would be an opportunity for her to shoulder an important responsibility and gain international experience. But some of Harris's own sympathizers are openly worried that she is being "set up to fail" by the president, walking into a political "trap" consisting of "the most difficult policy challenges in 21st-century America."
This prevailing sentiment may be right about the strategic calculations here. And it may also be right about Harris's political acumen, which seems to be suffering a declining reputation after her initially positive reception in Washington as a charismatic rising star in the Obama mold. (Note how many people think that someone who was just elected to national executive office could really use some good career advice.)
But Harris's dilemma is not simply a product of her supposed naivete about her own political interests or Biden's supposed insensitivity to them. Rather, it is a natural consequence of her new position—where holding the status of potential president-in-waiting is often seen as more important than whatever the occupant might be expected to accomplish while waiting to be president. If it were otherwise, perhaps a vice president who tackled a difficult national issue would be praised, not second-guessed, for addressing the governing challenges of today rather than merely protecting her personal ambitions for tomorrow.
It seems unsatisfying to judge the success of a vice presidency solely on the grounds of whether the incumbent managed to use the position to elevate herself into a different one. But the lack of independent responsibilities or a consensus job description for the office has prevented the Washington political community, or the American electorate, from forming an alternative widely-accepted set of standards. Harris herself says, both publicly and (apparently) in private, that she views her vice presidential role as being a substantively engaged and personally loyal governing partner to Biden, not just a once-and-future presidential candidate in her own right. To consider how well she seems to be meeting her own stated vision for the office is not the only valid way to evaluate her performance. But it seems like a thoroughly fair one, regardless of whether her further aspirations are satisfied in the years to come.