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Biden looks to elevate Harris' work as core to re-election bid

Vice President Kamala Harris has been the top White House messenger on issues like abortion rights.
Vice President Kamala Harris at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on June 3, 2021, in Washington.
Vice President Kamala Harris at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington on June 3, 2021.Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — As part of the strategy to get President Joe Biden re-elected, West Wing advisers in recent months have developed a plan to better promote the work of Vice President Kamala Harris amid Republican efforts to turn her into a liability, two people familiar with the conversations said.

There is a growing view among White House aides that Harris’ work needs to be more prominently displayed to the public to earn her more recognition for her role in the administration, the sources said.

Biden is trying to tamp down public concerns about his age and whether he could complete another four-year term as Republican increase their attacks against Harris to cast her as the real candidate at the top of the ticket.

“I know that the president sees the vice president as not only a historic leader, but a true partner to him, and she’s really been at the forefront of a lot of the work that we’ve done politically,” said Jaime Harrison, the chair of Democratic National Committee. “I really do believe that she’s going to be at the forefront and a crucial component of the re-election process.”

Asked about the plans to elevate Harris’ work, a senior White House official said: “What would be more accurate is that the vice president’s team and the West Wing have worked collaboratively around her leadership on women’s reproductive health care, her foreign policy leadership and other issues. She was a huge asset in the 2020 campaign, and West Wing advisers see her as a huge asset again.”

The -minute video released Tuesday announcing Biden’s re-election bid features several images of Harris and ends with a pitch for the ticket, different from President Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign video, which did not mention or show Biden, his vice president.

People who have worked closely with Harris say the video represents how Biden has always wanted her to be seen — as a true partner who is ready to step into the job if needed.

“From the time that President Biden selected Vice President Harris, they have made it clear they are a team, and he made it clear that that was what he wanted in his vice president,” said Karen Finney, a Democratic strategist who has worked closely with Harris. “It’s not a surprise that she would be featured, because they have been working together as a team throughout.”

Still, others said the video was part of a concerted effort to include Harris as a critical part of the administration as the campaign gets underway.

Since the beginning of the administration, some Republicans have made her a target and some Democrats have quietly suggested that she is not up to the job and is not visible enough. Those close to Harris say such criticism is baseless and steeped in racism and sexism.

“They need her to be strong,” a person familiar with the conversations inside the White House said. “They know she is a target, and the attacks have always been intense, and the ante is going to be upped. So they want to make sure she is on the best possible footing.”

An undercurrent in the need to up her role is Biden’s age. He would be 86 at the end of his second term if he were to be re-elected, and he is already the oldest president in U.S. history. 

Republicans and some Democrats have openly questioned his ability to continue. On Wednesday, Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley said that Biden, 80, is likely to die within five years and that his supporters would have to count on Harris if he were to win re-election. 

“He announced that he’s running again in 2024, and I think that we can all be very clear and say with a matter of fact that if you vote for Joe Biden you really are counting on a President Harris, because the idea that he would make it until 86 years old is not something that I think is likely,” Haley, 51, said in an interview on Fox News.

Three people familiar with conversations inside the White House say advisers to Biden believe he will be able to effectively answer questions about his age because he did so four years ago. They also said, however, that there is a recognition that Harris, 58, may face more scrutiny and attention because of Biden’s age, although the role of the vice president has always been to be ready to step into the job from Day One.

“Joe Biden knows better than anyone else that the No. 1 qualification for when you select the vice president is ... ‘will this individual be able to ... do the job if I cannot continue,’” a Democratic strategist said. “Joe Biden knew that, he knew that going in, and he is standing by her.”

Harris, who already counted voting rights as among the issues in her portfolio, has more recently become the face of the administration’s efforts to push back against abortion restrictions.

She will play a key role in discussing the campaign’s theme of protecting freedoms that Biden argues are under attack from “MAGA extremists” — not just voting and abortion rights, but also civil rights and the social safety net — three people familiar with conversations inside the White House said.

Harris has already been crisscrossing the country making a case for the administration’s achievements and goals. Since the beginning of the year, she has made 29 trips to at least 17 states speaking about a number of topics, including voting rights, police violence, environmental justice, economic barriers, gun violence and abortion rights, an issue she talked about the day she and Biden announced they were running for election.

On Tuesday at her alma mater, Howard University in Washington, D.C., Harris delivered a fiery speech touching on 2024 politics and the fight for abortion rights.

“Now I stand here, proud to run for re-election with President Joe Biden as vice president of the United States of America, so we can finish the job,” Harris told a cheering crowd. “And I will say to everyone here that we are living, I do believe, in a moment in time where so many of our hard-won freedoms are under attack. And this is a moment for us to stand and fight.”

She described what she called Republican efforts to roll back progress.

“There is a national agenda at play by these extremist so-called leaders. And understand when you look at what they are up to: Their agenda is not only about attacking a woman’s right to make decisions about her own body; this agenda includes attacking your very right and freedom to express your voice through your vote at the ballot box,” Harris said.

Ben Crump, a prominent civil rights attorney, said it is that kind of rousing speech and the ability to connect different struggles for justice that made him urge Biden to pick Harris as his running mate in 2020.

Three years later, Crump, who has been an attorney for the families of victims of police killings, like George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020 and Tyre Nichols in Memphis, Tennessee, this year, remains a vocal supporter of Harris.

He said that her historic role as the first woman and the first Black and Asian vice president “inspires people throughout all communities” and that he has found that she is also open to hearing what he called “constructive criticism” over the years, some of it from him.

In an interview, he recalled that last year around the time that a mass shooter killed 10 Black people at a grocery store in Buffalo, New York, he told Harris that he had been hearing from some people across the country and that she needed to be “more visible.”

“I heard some people saying, you know, well, what is she doing?” Crump said of Harris. “And I told her you have to be seen, because it’s not enough that you’re fighting for legislation and policy changes.”

He added: “There are times where you do need to be more visible, where people can see up front how you all are addressing a situation, because obviously, some of the most important deals are made in closed-door sessions. But as I would tell her, you have to get out and let the people see that you’re fighting for them.”

Those close to Harris say she had been constantly focused on connecting with communities, but they also point out that for a time, she was needed more in Washington to break ties in the Senate and could not travel as often. Now, with Democrats having increased their majority in the Senate, Harris has been out on the road more, including having made a high-profile trip this month to Tennessee, where she met with ​​three Democratic legislators who faced expulsion from their state House posts for protesting gun violence.

A spokesperson for Harris’ office said that while Harris has no immediate plans to launch into 2024 campaign trips, her official travel will include her continued work advocating for abortion rights, as well as work focusing on issues like voting rights, gun violence, climate change and small businesses. 

Former White House chief of staff Ron Klain said Harris will continue to help Biden as the election gets closer.

“She’s a very effective part of the administration and will be a critical part of the campaign once it gets underway,” Klain said. “She is great on the stump. You have a lot of advantages as president running for re-election, but one disadvantage is you have to be president. So he will have to continue to govern and lead the country, and there will be times when he won’t be able to go out and campaign but she will. And she will be a very effective spokesperson and very effective doing a lot of events around the country.”