Kamala Harris: Vice president and Democratic Party heir apparent?

Harris will make history on Wednesday and will be closely watched as the possible future of the Democratic Party.

Vice President-elect Kamala Harris will be closely watched as a possible successor to President-elect Joe Biden [File: Matt Slocum/The Associated Press]

Kamala Harris will step into the United States vice presidency on Wednesday, making history as the first woman and the first person of colour to assume the role of second-in-command.

Upon being sworn in by Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor on the steps of the US Capitol, Harris will also be entering the next step in her political journey as President-elect Joe Biden’s deputy – and an early contender to be the next US president.

“Harris is a brilliant, dynamic woman and policymaker, who has shown she can gain the trust of a large swath of the Democratic Party,” Derrick Plumber, a Democratic strategist, told Al Jazeera. “That solidifies her in her own right, not only as vice president but into the future.”

But, he added, her fate will now be tied to the Biden administration’s success: “As goes the president, goes the vice president.”

Biden, who at 78 will be the oldest person in history to assume the US presidency, has hedged questions about whether he will run for a second term in 2024.

The next four – or eight – years as vice president will be proving ground for Harris, the daughter of Indian and Jamaican immigrants who sought to split the difference between the party’s centrist and progressive flank during her primary bid.

Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, appearing via video link, listens as President-elect Joe Biden speaks during a news conference at his transition headquarters [File: Kevin Lamarque/AFP]

After proving herself as a dutiful deputy during the campaign, from day one, Harris may experience a different climate than previous vice presidents, said Joel Goldstein, a professor of law emeritus as Saint Louis University and the author of several books on the vice presidency.

“She has symbolic importance, and I think they’re going to be demands on her, and perhaps there will be opportunities for her, that will be different than her predecessors,” he told Al Jazeera.

‘Last person in the room’

One significant benefit Harris, who will be part of an administration that will include fellow primary challenger Pete Buttigieg as transportation secretary, will have going into the next four years is a boss who has had her job.

During eight years as vice president, Biden and President Barack Obama cultivated a close relationship that saw Biden deeply engaged in White House dealings.

“When I agreed to serve as President Obama’s running mate, he asked me a number of questions most important … he asked me what I wanted most,” Biden recounted upon selecting Harris in August. “I told him I wanted to be the last person in the room before he made important decisions.

“That’s what I asked Kamala. I asked Kamala to be the last voice in the room.”

Meanwhile, Harris, when asked during an ABC News interview how she defined success as vice president, responded: “Joe Biden’s success.”

The designation of Harris as the “last person in the room” will give her added cachet not just in Washington, DC, but on the international stage, which could prove helpful in her future ambitions, said Goldstein.

“It not only gives the vice president the opportunity to have her say, but it makes the vice president a lot more important to a lot of other people,” he said.

“Other members of the administration are going to want the vice president to be on their side of debates … Foreign leaders are going to want to develop relations with the vice president,” he said.

“It’s a source of enormous power.”

‘Very effective communicator’

Harris, who under the US Constitution will be preside over the Senate, will also have a prominent role as the deciding vote in the chamber that is currently divided 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans.

As vice president, Biden was tasked with “a lot of legislative closing”, often calling on his decades of experience in the Senate and his deep-relationships across the aisle, said Goldstein.

Harris, in her four years in the chamber, has had a far more combative relationship with Republicans. Instead, Biden is more likely to call upon Harris for her skills as “a very effective communicator”, he said.

Vice President-elect Kamala Harris speaks at a drive-in rally during a campaign stop for Democratic Senate candidates the Reverend Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff [File: Stephen B Morton/AP Photo]

Meanwhile, Biden’s transition team has not yet announced a portfolio for Harris, but transition officials have said she will have a robust voice in shaping the administration.

There had been early speculation that the former prosecutor would spearhead criminal justice reform following a year of unrest surrounding high-profile police killings of Black people in the US.

As district attorney of San Francisco, and later California’s attorney general, Harris had styled herself a progressive working for more equitable justice for minority communities. However, she has faced criticism from the left for some of her policies while in office.

In the Senate, Harris was central to developing a bill to address deadly use of force by police in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in Minnesota in May. Her cross-examination style of questioning also made her a standout during hearings in the chamber.

National crisis

But given the Biden administration is taking control in the middle of a national health and economic crisis spurred by COVID-19 pandemic, Harris will most likely be consumed by the “many, many different fires that need to be put out very quickly”, said Kyle Kopko, an adjunct professor of political science at Elizabethtown College.

“This is, hopefully, a once in a lifetime type of quagmire. If they are able to get us out of that. That’s going to be not only good policy, but a great political win,” said Kopko, the author of, Do Running Mates Matter? The Influence of Vice Presidential Candidate in Presidential Elections.

Vice President-elect Kamala Harris receives a dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine [File: Leah Millis/Reuters]

Harris’s role in helping to turn out Black voters during the election, particularly in Georgia, which flipped Democratic for the first time since 1992 and where dual Democratic Senate victories gave the party control of the Senate, also bodes well for her future ambitions, said Plummer.

Still, following a Democratic primary that saw one of the largest, and most diverse, field of candidates in US history, the future of the party remains unclear.

“The spectrum of the Democratic Party is so significant, and the next couple of years will ultimately determine where a potential candidate will come from to replace Biden – whether that be in four years or eight,” Plummer said.

“That said, history has shown that generally after a successful presidency, the vice president will run,” he said. “So, Harris could find herself very well poised.”

Source: Al Jazeera