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Kamala Harris’s visit to an abortion clinic shows she can do what Joe Biden cannot

Ahead of Vice President Kamala Harris’s visit to an abortion clinic in Minnesota, a USA TODAY/Suffolk University poll revealed that a slight majority of voters disapprove of her job performance while only 36 per cent of voters approve of her. That number is lower than the dismal 41 per cent that President Joe Biden has.

Many Democrats fear that Biden is simply too old. That’s a fear he’s openly confronted recently, including during his fiery State of the Union address. But those questions about Biden’s age carry a subtext: Democrats fear Harris is not ready to take the job. If the only issue were that Biden was too old, Democrats could breathe a sigh of relief at the idea that he could hand off the reins to Harris if he either decided not to run again or he was incapacitated or died.

The fact that they sweat Biden’s age means Democrats — no matter how much they may praise her in public — do not think she is up to the job of being at the top of the ticket, given her unpopularity. And they certainly don’t think she’s the right person to face a more emboldened Donald Trump in 2024. Indeed, that USA Today/Suffolk University poll showed 54 per cent of voters did not think she was qualified to be president.

Harris also struggles because Biden fills many of the duties that would usually go to the vice president. She only spent four years in the Senate and lacks the strong ties to the institution that allowed Biden to get Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer to avert a crisis. Biden’s years as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Barack Obama’s vice president mean he also knows most heads of state — most notably, he handled the Ukraine portfolio as vice president and has known Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu since the two were up-and-comers.

That gives Harris very little room to manoeuvre in what is already considered the most stifling job in Washington. And on the issues that Biden has given her to handle, she has notably fallen flat.

In her first year, Biden gave her the job of handling an influx of migrants at the US-Mexico border, wherein she notably told migrants “Do not come” and laughed off a question about why she had not visited the border personally. Ironically, had she done better, then she could have attacked Republicans after they killed the bipartisan immigration bill at Trump’s behest.

Similarly, when Biden put her in charge of voting rights, she presided on the floor when Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema — the conservative contrarians of the Democratic caucus, who are now both leaving — prevented a change to the filibuster.

But Harris has more credibility than Biden on abortion. For his part, abortion rights activists have long looked at Biden with skepticism for the same reasons Democrats elected him: He’s an 81-year-old white Catholic man.

For much of his time in the Senate, Biden supported the Hyde Amendment, which restricts the use of taxpayer dollars for abortion procedures. He only changed his position in 2019 when he ran for the Democratic nomination. In the same way, he has shown discomfort in using the word “abortion,” and did not use it once in his recent address to Congress when he promised to codify Roe v Wade into law.

When he spoke at a fundraiser last month, he said, “I’m a practicing Catholic. I don’t want abortion on demand,” which angered some activists. Even though he added, “I thought Roe v Wade was right,” the damage was done.

While many of Harris’s biggest defenders say she faces additional scrutiny because she is the first Black and South Asian woman to be vice president, that actually might help her communicate better with Democratic voters. Harris is 22 years younger than Biden and more comfortable discussing abortion rights than someone who came up in a time when white men still dominated both parties and many Democrats opposed abortion rights.

Indeed, she recently noted how uncomfortable some words are and how that can impact reproductive rights campaigning. “So, everyone get ready for the language: uterus,” she said, to laugher, before adding, “That part of the body needs a lot of medical care from time to time.” She also did not shy away from using the A-word.

“Issues like fibroids — we can handle this — breast cancer screenings, contraceptive care — that is the kind of work that happens here, in addition, of course, to abortion care,” she said.

The Biden White House and campaign seems to understand that Harris is well-placed to discuss such issues. She has been dispatched to a host of swing states from Minnesota, which has codified abortion rights, to North Carolina, where Republicans overrode Democratic Governor Roy Cooper’s veto to pass a 12-week abortion ban, to Florida, where presidential also-ran Governor Ron DeSantis signed a six-week abortion ban.

Harris’s ascent on abortion rights also comes as many activists in multiple states, including Florida, push to put attempts to codify protections for reproductive rights on the ballot. It also comes as Democrats in red states like Kentucky win fights against abortion rights restrictions.

In fairness, abortion alone probably cannot salvage Harris’s image. But for all the hand-wringing about Harris, she could serve as someone who mobilizes base voters, since 76 per cent of self-identified Democrats in the USA Today/Suffolk poll approved of her. Similarly, 59 per cent of the most devout part of the Democratic base — Black voters — view her favorably.

In turn, Harris might find her niche on the campaign, speaking meaningfully to the newest members of the Democratic coalition — suburban women with degrees — and rallying the most faithful bloc of the party.