Is Kamala Harris a liability or a secret weapon? What Biden campaign insiders really think

U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris gestures as she speaks outside the South Carolina State House in Columbia, South Carolina, U.S., January 15, 2024 (REUTERS)
U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris gestures as she speaks outside the South Carolina State House in Columbia, South Carolina, U.S., January 15, 2024 (REUTERS)

Is Kamala Harris a liability or Joe Biden’s secret weapon? It depends who you talk to — but the sentiments in Bidenworld trend toward the latter.

It’s unclear, then, what the campaign’s latest moves mean.

Recent polling shows that support for Mr Biden is slipping among Black voters in key swing states. Clearly, if Ms Harris is needed anywhere, it’s there: Her popularity among Black voters — especially Black women voters — is well-known. Yet she has instead been deployed repeatedly in recent weeks to South Carolina, a state that will have absolutely zero impact on the November election.

Ms Harris took two separate trips there this month alone, for a total of eight since she became vice president in January 2021.

When The Independent accompanied the vice president on one of those excursions — a visit to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina to speak to a Black women’s group on the anniversary of the January 6 attack on the Capitol — the room where she spoke was packed to the rafters. More than 1,200 members were there to hear her. Before she even entered the room, they gave her a standing ovation.

After taking the stage, Ms Harris launched into what has become a standard version of her stump speech, which began with her crediting her audience for Mr Biden’s 2020 election victory.

“It is because of you that Joe Biden is President of the United States and I am the first Black woman to be Vice President of the United States. And so I’m here of course to say thank you for your work and your leadership and your vision for what is possible for our nation,” she said.

On a broad-brush level, she was correct to thank the audience of South Carolinians. It was their votes during their state’s 2020 primary that launched Mr Biden on a path to the Democratic nomination that year after he was soundly beaten in the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary contests. And it was that result, in part, which led the Democratic National Committee to make the Palmetto State’s contest the first official primary on the Democratic calendar this year, though the stated reason was because of the state’s more diverse electorate.

But despite the presence of other candidates in the field this year, Mr Biden is running as an incumbent, making the primary process a formality. And South Carolina’s electoral votes haven’t gone to a Democrat since Jimmy Carter knocked off Gerald Ford in the 1976 general election.

So why isn’t Ms Harris putting the same effort into states that she and Mr Biden have a real chance of winning in November?

The Independent spoke to people close to Ms Harris and Mr Biden about this issue, and received mixed feedback. One such person said the vice president’s repeated sojourns to South Carolina were in part an effort to keep her in front of friendly audiences and away from controversy, citing her penchant for awkward statements when confronted on contentious issues.

Other allies of the administration say Ms Harris is being used in the right way, because she knows how to speak to key constituencies who will need to be kept in the president’s camp if he is to win a second term.

Nevada Representative Steven Horsford, the current chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, told The Independent that he wants to see her spend more time in his state because she is comfortable speaking with people from all walks of life, particularly those in the service industry.

“When you’re meeting with … the culinary workers, she’s relatable. She understands where people are, she knows their story, when she’s talking to the culinary workers. She’s talking about her own experience, being raised by an immigrant mother and the values that that instilled in her and what she and the President are fighting for every day,” he said.

Nikema Williams, a second-term House member from Georgia, said Ms Harris’ recent travel to her Atlanta-area district has sent an important message about the administration’s commitment to democracy.

“My constituents are Ruby Freeman and Shaye Moss … who are continuing to be harassed by Republicans,” she said. “She met with election workers and poll workers … to talk about what the White House is doing to work with Congress to try and get legislation passed to secure voting rights across this country.”

But Ms Williams added that the administration and campaign need to continue to paint a contrast between them and a potential second Trump term for Black voters.

“The Biden-Harris administration has the best transformational opportunities for Americans, period, especially Black Americans. And so we have to continue to tell our story and talk about what we’ve been able to do over the past three years and under the Biden-Harris administration,” she said.

South Carolina Representative James Clyburn, the man whose pre-Super Tuesday endorsement propelled Mr Biden to victory in his state’s 2020 primary, wasn’t concerned that Ms Harris’s time in his state could be better spent in swing states. Mr Clyburn told The Independent last week that he expects the vice president to broaden her travel plans in the coming weeks and months. He added that he believes she will be a real asset to her campaign.

Not everyone agrees.

In their book The Truce, authors Hunter Walker and Luppe Luppen write that former Harris staffers have expressed a dim view of the vice president’s capabilities, citing dysfunction on her aborted 2020 primary campaign and in her Senate office. One ex-Harris aide from her Senate days was blunt in their assessment: “This person should not be president of the United States.”

Another aide told the authors that Ms Harris has failed to advance a theory of why she should be on the ticket beyond her racial and ethnic background. And a White House staffer who worked for the vice president added that the atmosphere in Ms Harris’s office was reminiscent of Game of Thrones.

Even when Mr Biden first selected her as his running-mate, Ms Harris was a controversial choice. She slammed the soon-to-be-president over his record on bussing on the debate stage, in terms that were considered particularly harsh. Mr Biden selected her reportedly over the objections of top aides and his wife, Jill Biden.

Since taking office, Ms Harris’ poll numbers have consistently been lower than Mr Biden’s, which themselves have been alarmingly low for a while. The president’s approval rating started dropping in the wake of the August 2021 US withdrawal from Afghanistan and never fully recovered.

But despite feverish speculation in right-wing media circles over Ms Harris’ future, there is no chance that Mr Biden or his brain trust are even considering replacing the ex-California attorney general turned Golden State senator as the 46th president’s number-two.

Maxwell Frost, the young Florida representative who became the youngest ever House member when he was elected in 2022, told The Independent that Ms Harris’ value is in how she speaks to key constituencies about important subjects, citing her success on a tour of Historically Black Colleges and Universities last year.

“I think she’s doing a good job and I think we’ll see her amping it up more [this year],” he said.

He added that Ms Harris has the ability to have her message “resonate” with younger voters, and in particular Black voters who may not be excited about voting for the 81-year-old Mr Biden in November.

“A lot of folks actually look up to her,” he said.