The White House is preparing for the massive role Kamala Harris will have to play in the 2024 campaign.
Harris has taken multiple hits as vice president, and her political stock has plummeted following criticism on multiple fronts.
Yet she remains a key player in Biden world, with even more importance in a reelection campaign where the 80-year-old president’s age will be a key issue with voters.
Now the White House is focused on building Harris up as it prepares for what could be a rematch next year with former President Trump.
“There is an effort to re-launch her. I think with the age thing, the VP becomes more important, and it’s not necessarily to improve her, but to make her higher profile,” said a former Democratic campaign official.
Speaking about the Biden team’s prior work to diminish Harris’s profile, the Democrat added, “I don’t think there are any regrets.”
Harris was featured frequently in Biden’s reelection launch video this week. She and second gentleman Doug Emhoff appear just 15 seconds into the three-minute clip, a sign the campaign will not shy away from her as an asset who can connect with key voting blocs.
White House officials believe she has hit her stride as a leading voice in the administration on fighting back against GOP efforts to restrict abortion access. Hours after Biden launched his campaign, Harris spoke at a political event focused on reproductive rights, where she was greeted with chants of “four more years.”
But while Harris’s allies are keen to promote her as a boost to the campaign, Republicans appear just as eager to frame her as a drag on the ticket, especially through the lens of Biden’s age.
“I think we can all be very clear and say with a matter of fact that if you vote for Joe Biden, you really are counting on a President Harris, because the idea that he would make it until 86 years old is not something that I think is likely,” Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley said this week.
“But really, are we willing to say we’re OK with a President Kamala Harris?” Haley asked.
Her comments underscore a looming balancing act for the Biden campaign: How to reassure voters about Harris when she is just a heartbeat away from the presidency without elevating her too much and drawing more attention to the issue of Biden’s age.
“Of course the Biden campaign is not going to make Harris more prominent, because they’re not going to want to send a signal that Harris is more important, because something might happen to Biden in office,” said Danny Hayes, a political science professor at George Washington University.
“Voters are still voting first and foremost for or against Biden, not Harris,” he added.
Harris entered the 2020 presidential race as a top-tier candidate for the nomination. But her campaign was plagued by personnel and messaging issues, and perhaps her most notable moment was a clash with Biden on the debate stage over student busing policy.
In her first year as vice president, Harris faced criticism over frequent staffing turnover and her handling of migration from Central America, a complex issue Biden tasked her with leading. Harris became a punching bag for Republicans who blamed her for problems at the southern border, and she drew criticism from Democrats when she told migrants not to come to the U.S.
Harris’s favorability rating has hovered in the low 40 percent range for much of her time as vice president. A Fox News poll published this week showed her favorability rating at 41 percent, including 73 percent among Democrats. The same poll put Biden’s favorability at 44 percent.
Harris has seemingly found her footing over the past year, leading the administration’s fight against abortion restrictions in the wake of the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade. In recent weeks she made high-profile trips to Africa and Tennessee, the latter coming after three Democratic state lawmakers were targeted for expulsion over gun violence protests.
“There is an effort to lift her up around the apparatus, but the other part of it is people are just now paying attention. She didn’t just start traveling, she didn’t just start lifting up these issues,” a source close to the vice president’s office told The Hill.
Harris has also taken on issues related to foreign policy, climate and small businesses. Over a year ago, she started traveling two to three times a week, including on five overseas trips.
“I’m actually thrilled to see her hitting a good groove, which to me sort of makes sense at this time of the presidential campaign. On abortion rights but also guns, you’ve seen her step up in a way that we haven’t up until this point,” said David Thomas, a partner at Mehlman Consulting and former deputy director of legislative affairs for former Vice President Al Gore.
Taking on those issues, especially reproductive rights, has elevated Harris’s profile and required her to traverse the country and meet with local officials, which can all be an asset to the 2024 ticket.
“Despite what maybe people think of her inside the beltway, she really excites the Democratic base, and that’s why we see her out in the country more often, talking to Democrats,” Thomas said.
After Harris’s challenges with staffing early on in the administration, she has brought on two top aides who her supporters say will be pivotal to her inner circle as the campaign picks up. Kelsey Smith, a longtime aide to former Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), was hired as director of scheduling and advice for the vice president in January, and Lorraine Voles just hit her one-year mark as chief of staff.
There is also a belief Harris will be aided by the presence of Biden’s campaign manager, Julie Chavez Rodriguez, who worked with Harris when she was a California senator and when she ran for president in 2020.
“She’s got this challenge of how many reboots are they going do,” said one Democratic strategist. “For Kamala, it’s always going to come down to can she put a good team together and execute.”