WASHINGTON — The morning after Walter Mondale died, Vice President Kamala Harris went for a walk around her official residence at the Naval Observatory.
She walked just off the front lawn to a small garden, which the Bidens created in 2012, that features the names of all past occupants of the residence inscribed in stones surrounding a fountain.
Standing in the garden, Harris — who had spoken to Mondale just days before his death — reflected on the legacy of the former vice president, a man whom she has credited with transforming the role into a true partnership and whom she has applauded for paving the way for her own vice presidency when he made "a bold and historic" choice to select Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate in the 1984 election.
Harris lay flowers on the stone bearing Mondale's name before departing the vice president's residence for her office at the White House.
'Bond from the beginning'
While Harris shattered the glass ceiling Mondale's running mate first cracked, she now faces the same tough path that Mondale and other past occupants of the Naval Observatory have failed to navigate successfully: cultivating influence within the administration while carving out her own legacy that could propel her to a successful run for president down the line.
In her first 100 days in office, Harris has cast the tie-breaking vote in the Senate to advance the American Rescue Plan; led efforts to address the root causes of migration in Mexico and the Northern Triangle countries; encouraged vulnerable communities to get the coronavirus vaccination; traveled around the country to build support for the American Jobs Plan; and put a spotlight on issues such as Black maternal health and the racism against Asian Americans.
But most importantly for her success as vice president, Harris has forged a close relationship with Biden, becoming what aides and outside allies describe as a trusted adviser to the president.
"The vice president's power is derivative of their relationship with the president," Joel Goldstein, a vice presidential historian, said. "Developing the relationship early on and then sustaining it is critical to their success and influence in any administration."
Biden and Harris have been able to spend an unusual amount of time together during their first few months, in part because the pandemic has limited their travel.
"At least for the first two months, every single day they were seeing each other," a White House official said. "I think that really formed a strong relationship and bond from the beginning that I think presidents and vice presidents develop over time."
Harris usually begins her day meeting with her chief of staff, Tina Flournoy, then joins Biden in the Oval Office for the Presidential Daily Brief. She mainly works out of her West Wing office, steps away from the president, as opposed to the Eisenhower Executive Office Building across the street from the West Wing. She has weekly lunches with Biden — just the two of them, no staff — usually on Fridays.
Harris often lingers in the Oval Office after meetings, aides say, to huddle one-on-one with Biden, offering the president her perspective on issues. She often peppers experts with questions during meetings, or presses for more details.
Biden has come to view her as a “strong, important adviser to him because she comes to the table with a different world perspective than he does,” according to the White House official. “That perspective is extremely valuable when you're making decisions.”
Drawing from his own experience as vice president, Biden has attempted to showcase his bond with Harris through numerous joint appearances, even as aides work to avoid having the first female vice president appear to be a prop constantly standing by the president’s side. At the president’s instruction, senior White House officials almost always refer to the “Biden-Harris administration,” never just the “Biden administration.”
"[Biden] set the tone that he wanted the vice president to be involved in every decision, in everything that he does. It just became a matter of work habit," said Minyon Moore, a veteran of the Clinton White House who is close to Harris and served as a member of the Biden-Harris transition advisory board.
"You weren't running around the building — or in this instance, running around Zoom — chasing down memos or anything like that, or begging for the vice president to be invited to this meeting or that meeting," said Moore, speaking of her work with Harris during the transition.
The Harris policy role
Harris quickly emerged as a highly visible spokesperson for the administration on legislative priorities, traveling around the country to promote the American Rescue Plan and to build support for the American Jobs Plan and the American Families Plan.
She has also positioned herself as a voice of clarity during moments of national tragedy and racial reckoning, leveraging her historic position to speak more pointedly on matters of race in ways that even Barack Obama did not feel he had the leeway to do as president.
She traced the roots of racism against Asian Americans following the Atlanta-area spa shootings to discriminatory laws from the 1860s that barred Chinese workers building the transcontinental railroad from owning property. And she said after Derek Chauvin’s trial for the killing of George Floyd that one guilty verdict did not absolve the country of its duty to undo “a long history of systemic racism.”
"I carry a great sense of responsibility, if not the seriousness of the responsibility, to be in this position and be a voice for those who have not traditionally been in the room," she said in an interview with CNN the day the verdict was announced.
But Harris has struggled to clearly define her own larger policy role in the administration.
After waiting weeks to give her a specific policy portfolio, Biden abruptly announced in March that he was tasking her with leading diplomatic efforts to address the root causes of migration amid a rising number of people — many of them unaccompanied children — arriving at the nation's southern border seeking asylum.
The assignment thrust Harris into the center of a divisive issue that has vexed lawmakers for decades and the potential for political fallout sent aides close to her scrambling to clarify that the vice president was not directly responsible for the situation at the U.S.-Mexico border.
“The vice president is not doing the border,” Symone Sanders, her senior adviser and spokesperson, told reporters shortly after the role was announced.
The White House again had to clarify the vice president's role after Biden, in his first address to Congress on Wednesday night, appeared to suggest Harris would be spearheading the American Jobs Plan. "The Vice President will work with the Jobs Cabinet, which is in charge of implementing the American Jobs Plan, to lead the effort ensuring broadband access for all," a White House official later clarified by email.
Aides have downplayed the political challenges of Harris' migration role, insisting that she has never expressed any reservations or concerns about the assignment. Those close to her say she was eager to begin holding calls with foreign leaders from the Northern Triangle region, as well as working on plans for a trip to Mexico and Guatemala scheduled for June. She dove into briefing books and hosted meetings in the Situation Room in order to better understand the region and the factors that drive people from their homes.
"At the end of the day, people try to make this a, you know, 'What's her issue,' or find some sense of specificity," Bakari Sellers, a Democratic strategist who is close to Harris, said. "The fact is she's trying to be the best vice president to Joe Biden and stay as close to Joe Biden as possible. That’s her No. 1 priority."
'Her legacy is his legacy'
The traditionally tangential role of vice president began to take on more significance in 1976 when Mondale wrote a letter to Jimmy Carter outlining a new vision for the vice president as a top adviser on all issues. Mondale requested the same access to classified material as Carter, a West Wing office and weekly lunches with the president. His letter has served as the blueprint for a successful vice presidency ever since.
But Mondale’s subsequent political fortunes reveal the perils lurking for even a path-breaking vice presidency; Carter’s shadow hung over him as he suffered a crushing defeat to Ronald Reagan in the 1984 presidential election.
Looming over Harris’ vice presidency is speculation about whether Biden, the oldest man to take the presidential oath of office, will seek a second term, and how Harris will continue to build up her own political brand independent of her boss that could carry her to a potential successful bid for president — whether that be in four or eight years.
At the start of the administration, some allies of the vice president had hoped that Harris' constitutional position as president of the Senate might offer her a chance to get out from under Biden’s shadow. But the power to cast tie-breaking votes in the evenly divided chamber is not a shortcut to legacy building.
"When she breaks a tie, she can put it on her resume and claim credit for it. But practically speaking, she is not really acting based upon her individual discretion," Goldstein, the historian, said.
It is also unclear who is focused on protecting Harris' political fortunes. Unlike Biden who drew on his decades-old network of loyalists to fill his senior staff, very few staffers from Harris' days in California, the U.S. Senate or her presidential campaign have carried over to her vice president's office, leading some to wonder who is shepherding her future.
"It’s really clear that No. 1, they’re creating the entity that’s going to run for president," a former aide to Harris said. "But at the same time, I just worry who’s watching out for her as opposed to who’s trying to carve their next gig."
Aware of the strain that speculation about Harris’ political future can put on the relationship between her office and the West Wing, those close to her have been careful to underscore that she knows she is not in the driver’s seat. When asked how she viewed Harris’ role at an event last week at Georgetown University, Flournoy, her chief of staff, said: "I think you start with this first word, which is 'vice' before 'president.’”
Even privately, Harris allies say talk of a presidential run is off limits.
“I have not had one conversation about her about a political future,” Moore said, adding that Harris should remain focused on helping Biden tackle the pandemic and other pressing issues facing the country. “Her legacy is his legacy,” she said.
But that could present its own problems for Harris.
"The arc of the narrative of the vice president is: Can they emerge from the shadow and stand on their own two feet?" said Carter Eskew, a top adviser to then-Vice President Al Gore in his 2000 run for president. "A lot of them can't."