Collectively, the group also understood that Harris was about to enter a critical juncture: one where her issues were top of mind for voters and her role on the Democratic ticket was coming into sharper focus and heightened scrutiny. Harris had asked them to put pen to paper to formulate ways she could capitalize on the momentum and meet the coming moment.
Half a year later, the plan is being put into practice. As the Biden campaign begins to rev up, the microscope on Harris is intensifying. Republicans have made clear she will be used as a cudgel to go after the president, making the case that his age effectively makes her the head of the ticket. How she performs over the next few months will determine whether those attacks stick. It also will go a long way in sealing the confidence within Biden world about having her in a more public role.
She is poised to play one. Harris has become a more prominent presence on the fundraising circuit, clocking in the most appearances of the four White House principals. She has continued to step up her travel without the need to frequently break ties in the Senate. And she is continuing to take on the abortion rights debate right amid the one year anniversary of the end of Roe.
The doubts about her haven’t fully dissipated. Harris recently scored the lowest net negative rating of any vice president tested in an NBC News poll.
But her team thinks she is finally cementing her bonafides, having put in place a team she trusts, including Sheila Nix as her campaign chief of staff. They believe that in the next few months, people will reconsider her and come to appreciate her political skills.
“It’s a time to get the objective viewer to take a second look. She needs a pivot to that second look,” Jamal Simmons, Harris’ former communications director told POLITICO. “Most of the bad news about Kamala Harris is old news.”
Inside Harris’ orbit, it’s become part of life to deal with naysayers. The perception of a vice president slightly on the outs of the inner Biden circle has persisted since the campaign. It hasn’t been helped by the decision to hand Harris two of the administration’s early, thorny policy issues: tackling the root causes of migration, and voting rights.
But there’s been a notable shift the past year. Harris took on abortion rights, an issue her aides and allies say she’s particularly well suited for.
On the day the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, Harris was on a plane to Illinois for an event on maternal health. When aides informed her about the decision, she pulled senior staff into her cabin and began revising her remarks. The resulting speech would become the template Harris would follow for the next year. She sought to persuade dejected crowds that the issue required their attention and action, even if the possibility of federal action was moot.
“When [the decision] came down, I remember saying to her, ‘I hope you will continue to fight and use your bully pulpit to help us elevate this issue, because right now we need your voice more and more,’ said longtime Democratic strategist and outside Harris adviser Minyon Moore. “She didn’t skip a beat.”
Since then, Harris has held meetings with state representatives and state attorneys general to talk about protecting and expanding abortion access. Aides say she has leaned into her own background as a state official during these sessions. Often, she will ask attendees what they need from the federal government.
Inside her office, there was a sense of opportunity. Abortion, as one former senior aide who was granted anonymity to discuss internal White House conversations put it, “wasn’t something that the president was [going to lead on].” Harris, by contrast, felt a level of comfort and fluency on the topic. On top of that, she had been lacking a signature issue.
“The stars didn’t align for the American people, but they aligned for our strategy,” the senior aide said.
There was an added benefit as well: Overnight, Harris office no longer had to deal with the single question that had beleaguered aides since her early days in office.
“One of the critiques of the vice president [I] hear[d] a lot is: ‘What [is] she up to? Where is she? We haven’t seen her, what [is] she’s doing?’ But when she started talking about the right to abortion, to freedom, it was so consistent. And people didn’t ask that question as often,” Simmons said.
The reelection campaign has shown the degree to which Biden’s staff feels comfortable with Harris leading on abortion rights. The vice president spent the one year anniversary of Roe falling in North Carolina, the one Trump-carried state that Democrats are truly eyeing in 2024.
Still, speculation remains rampant about how firm Harris’ standing actually is. Cornell Belcher, a Democratic pollster who speaks to the White House, said the situation creates opportunities and pitfalls in the critical months ahead.
“It’s a double edged sword. She gets more attention and she also gets more attacks,” Belcher said. He pointed to the NBC poll as an example of Harris’ predicament.
“Somehow the frame is that she has a worse negative than Biden when it’s the exact same statistical negative,” Belcher said. “The vice president’s going to fall and rise with the top of the ticket. This is politics. It is inherently unfair because what we’re asking of her is what is not something we’ve asked of any other vice president.”
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