WASHINGTON — When a temporary cease-fire in the Israel-Hamas war collapsed, Vice President Kamala Harris found herself in United Arab Emirates city of Dubai, pulling aside sheiks, generals and powerful Middle Eastern leaders.
When she was done, she emphasized the Biden administration’s staunch support for Israel’s right to defend itself after the bloody Oct. 7 Hamas rampage. But she also made clear Washington’s mood had shifted as the civilian death toll surged.
“Frankly, the scale of civilian suffering and the images and videos coming from Gaza are devastating,” Harris said, raising her right index finger as she delivered the sternest U.S. warning yet to Israel about the Gaza offensive.
"As Israel defends itself," she said. "It matters how."
For more than a century, the one cardinal rule for America's vice presidents has been: Don't get in front of the boss. Had Harris? No, instead, this was the moment the White House united behind her, listened to her concerns about Gaza’s body count as the war roiled global opinion and the Democratic base.
Harris’ remarks that day, her command of the room, were a glimpse of the politician whose potential seemed unlimited just four years ago but whose image and presidential prospects have together dimmed under the intense scrutiny that followed her ascent to the second-highest office in the land.
Her supporters chalk it up to sexism, racism and unfair media coverage of the first Black woman to serve as vice president. Harris’ detractors point to her tendency to laugh through uncomfortable situations and sidestep direct questions with rambling answers. Others can’t seem to get a read on who she is.
Whatever the case, on this aspect, much of America seems to agree: Harris has an uneven record and is not ready to claim the mantle of party leader. More worrisome, are the criticisms that she lacks foreign policy experience and isn’t fit to step into the Oval Office if Joe Biden’s presidency takes an unexpected turn.
At her October stop at the College of Charleston in South Carolina, sophomore Andrew Baxley, who chairs the school’s College Democrats of America chapter, asked about steps the administration is taking to secure reproductive rights − low-hanging fruit for the former California attorney general.
Baxley actually wanted to ask Harris about knottier topics such as Biden’s decision to allow construction to move ahead on a section of border wall. That did not fly.
The White House advertised the campus appearances as moderated conversations; it didn’t disclose the extent to which the events were scripted. Students were asked to submit questions on abortion, gun violence, climate change, voting and LGBTQ rights. They held a Zoom prior and rehearsed the rundown.
On the day of the event, Harris answered Baxley’s question. Her response drew applause, but Baxley was unsatisfied as he watched Harris handled, scripted and managed in ways that undercut her image as a leader. It was not the same Harris – the unfettered Harris – that wowed a global audience in the UAE. With the election 11 months away, and the presidency on the line, the deciding factor could be whether voters think Harris could really do Biden's job. Sending Dubai Harris to American swing states could be exactly what the ailing campaign needs.
Backstage at the college event, Baxley tried asking Harris his other question. An aide shooed him along.
Baxley felt shortchanged, unable to walk away with a positive opinion of Harris. “And I feel as though, had I been able to really have a more personal connection with her, and possibly speak more in depth with her, that could have been possible.”
Part of the issue stems from being number two when she was always a number one, used to accumulating a series of firsts as a Black woman and of South Asian descent: district attorney of San Francisco, California attorney general and U.S. senator. Harris blazed trails, forging her own path and making up her own mind.
Early on, she had to get in line with Biden’s agenda, a quirk of the job that has caused her remarks to frequently come across as stilted. Harris’ positions as a candidate were to the left of Biden's on many issues, and she was not helped by White House assignments that were a poor fit for her skill set.
In early December, Beaufort County Democrats gathered for a gala on St. Helena Island. The function’s speaker was Congressional Black Caucus Chair emerita Joyce Beatty, on behalf of the Biden-Harris reelection campaign.
Beatty pushed aside remarks that Biden’s aides had given her to read and began to riff about the duo’s record with gusto. The Ohio congresswoman told attendees she had recently challenged one of Harris' Democratic detractors to name the last 20 people who’d held her job.
“The vice president’s job sucks most of the time,” Beatty told the crowd to laughter.
Vice presidents run the risk of being too good at their jobs and getting accused of trying to outshine their bosses, she explained. “The role of the vice president is to do what the president tells them to do,” Beatty said.
It was not always this way with Harris. Obama complimented her as brilliant, dedicated and tough. She won a U.S. Senate seat in 2016 on the same night the country elected Donald Trump.
Harris’ supporters are still in awe of how she hammered future Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh during his Senate confirmation hearing.
Among Harris’ die-hard fans are John Glover. A retired IT manager from St. Helena Island, he spent nearly five decades in Berkeley, California, where Harris was raised.
Glover, who turns 80 in January, has a photo of himself standing with Harris as his cellphone background. The picture was taken when she was campaigning for president in 2019.
“I fell in love with her the first time I met her,” he said.
Authentic Harris appears behind closed doors
Riding an adrenaline high after three days of meetings with Asian-Pacific leaders, a more authentic version of Harris was on display at a campaign reception in Piedmont, California, in November.
Her comfort was palpable in a room filled with dear friends and top donors. Together they laughed. They clapped. Harris’ amiable husband, Doug Emhoff, introduced her.
Harris turned her gaze to a small group of reporters standing at the back of the room.
“When people want to talk about the polls, on and on about the polls, let me tell you: Everything we have accomplished is highly, highly popular with the American people,” she said.
Biden and Harris had been hit with a wave of negative surveys that showed them losing to Trump and saying that they were in trouble.
Even now, as her vice presidency has stabilized, she has not entirely restored her credibility, although she has done a better job at making the role her own.
In South Carolina, Lynn Lotz, a Hilton Head Island resident, said Harris “was given tasks that she should not have been given early on, because I think that put her a step back instead of moving her forward.”
“I don’t think she had the support behind her that she needed,” said Lotz, who met Harris at a Democratic convention in 2019.
The vice president's political opponents, such as GOP presidential candidate and former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, have turned Harris’ failures into campaign attacks, deriding her more incoherent comments as word salads.
“Sometimes we have to hit rock bottom to know where up is. And we’re there. The one thing I don’t think we can survive is a President Kamala Harris,” Haley told a Bluffton, South Carolina, crowd in late November.
Rep. Dean Phillips, a Democrat from Minnesota who is challenging Biden for president, came under scrutiny last month for repeating critiques he said had been shared with him that Harris is incompetent. He later apologized and suggested that Harris should be running instead of Biden.
Anne Moncure, 67, a retired health care facility administrator from Beaufort County who hoped Democrats would come up with an alternative to Biden this year, doesn’t think Harris is up to the task of commander-in-chief. The role of the vice presidency, she says, should be a mentored one.
“How is Biden preparing her for the role?” she asked.
Harris was unavailable for an interview for this article.
White House spokesman Andrew Bates said in a statement the president views the vice president as a "critical partner" in the successes of the administration including the restoration of America's alliances around the world.
"The President deeply values her counsel, which he seeks often, and her leadership on a wide range of issues from reproductive freedom, to artificial intelligence" Bates said.