WASHINGTON — Vice President Kamala Harris is hearing a simple message from advisers amid intense scrutiny and a whisper campaign that she's a drag on President Joe Biden: Stay focused on your job.
For months, Harris has dealt with that swirling speculation about her future — from within the West Wing and in wider Democratic circles — as her approval rating slid to 28 percent in a recent USA Today/Suffolk University poll, lower than Biden's 38 percent.
By now, the knocks on the vice president are familiar: She stumbled in an interview with NBC News's Lester Holt at the end of her first foreign trip in June, she's had trouble managing staff and, depending on the critic, she has either been sidelined or overwhelmed by her portfolio.
These are hardly the missteps of her predecessors, including the two vice presidents who shot fellow Americans while in office — Aaron Burr and Dick Cheney — or Spiro Agnew, who had to resign after he was convicted of taking kickbacks as governor of Maryland.
But the stakes are magnified for Harris because so many Democrats don't believe Biden when he says he is running for a second term. That has fueled shadow jockeying among camps loyal to each of the potential candidates, according to nearly a dozen Democratic officials and operatives who spoke to NBC News for this article.
"Focus on your job and you will be fine," Donna Brazile, who ran then-Vice President Al Gore's 2000 presidential campaign, recounted telling Harris aides. "At the end of the day, the American people are not going to judge the vice president or the president in the first quarter of play."
It's a message for Harris that has been echoed by other advisers who spoke to NBC News on the condition of anonymity.
For now, that means a trip to Columbus, Ohio, this week to promote Biden's just-signed infrastructure law and a series of media interviews on the measure. Amid tension between his aides and hers, Biden credited Harris at the bill-signing ceremony and has praised her for her work in the White House. Earlier this month, he sent her to Paris to smooth over France's frustration with being cut out of a nuclear submarine deal with Australia.
Harris aides, fearful of perpetuating a narrative of division within the White House, declined to speak on the record about friction between their boss and the big boss.
But as familiar as criticism of Harris has become, the constraints on the vice presidency have long been established. It's a political box that prevents Harris from making policy, picking her assignments or campaigning openly for the top job.
What's different about Harris's situation is the possibility that she could be running for president in the first election since she won the No. 2 job — and the natural tension between a sitting president's team and a possible successor's has hit full boil in her first year in office.
"What I don’t quite understand is what’s coming from inside the White House, the jabs that she’s taking," said Elaine Kamarck, a former White House official in President Bill Clinton's administration and a campaign aide to Gore.
"There’s only two possible explanations," Kamarck, who is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a left-of-center think tank, said. "One is that, inside the White House, there are factions that have other candidates in mind and would like to see her weakened. The other possibility is there’s a sort of personal vendetta being waged by some person or some group because of a decision or influence that she had."
Biden's camp has long been fractured over Harris. When he vetted hopefuls for his ticket in the summer of 2020, some of his aides told journalists that he had felt burned by Harris for attacking him over race-based school busing during a 2019 primary debate. For that reason, they suggested, he was unlikely to, and should not, choose her.
White House Communications Director Kate Bedingfield, who served in a similar capacity on the Biden campaign, did not reply to a voice message left by NBC News.
Biden has never publicly betrayed any lingering hostility over that dramatic moment.
While he insists that he will seek a second term, many Democrats are not convinced that he will. Biden will be 86 years old when the next presidential term comes to a close. Harris allies say it's too early for anyone, least of all Biden's vice president, to maneuver for position.
"There's always, in this town, a parlor game around who's going to run in the next election. 'Will the vice president run?' We played that game for eight years under Obama," Karen Finney, a longtime Democratic strategist who is close to the Harris team, said. "Trying to read the tea leaves and read the future in this moment is unconstructive because there's a lot of time and a lot more that needs to be accomplished."
And yet the cracking fault lines within the Democratic Party, and within the current administration, are readily apparent.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has been highly visible, and his political operation is ready to be reignited if he wants to make another bid for the presidency, according to an official who worked on his 2020 campaign.
"He still has his PAC ... donors are still there," the official said. "His biggest challenge right now is to reach out to more communities of color and, ironically, the other person who is queued up to run for president is a woman of color."
Buttigieg has been a point of tension for Harris supporters because the White House was so quick to defend him when he recently came under attack from conservatives for taking family leave to care for newly adopted twins. His son, Gus, had been in the hospital.
Biden aides generally have left Harris to fend for herself, but they were quick to show appreciation after CNN reported on mutual distrust between the camps.
For Harris allies, it's hard to fathom why anyone on Biden's team would air grievances about the vice president.
"I understand the right wing and some of the right wing ghost machine finds something to attack her about every day," Brazile, who was part of a group of Black women who lobbied Biden to put a Black woman on his ticket, said. "What I don’t understand is why people who know her and know how hard she’s working and know how dedicated she is … I don’t understand why she’s constantly being tripped up with these half-baked stories."
But as has been the case for every one of Harris's predecessors, the best thing she can do for herself, for her party and for Biden is to continue loyally promoting his agenda — even if that loyalty isn't reciprocated by Biden's aides.