Kamala Harris: A Pioneering Vice President? Looking Beyond the Symbolic Win

Reality is finally setting in that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will be in the White House on January 20, 2021. The weight of the global pandemic, a deteriorating economy, and a deeply divided nation will be placed on their shoulders. President-Elect Biden and Vice President-Elect Harris are already proving they understand the magnitude of this responsibility; “This is the moment where we need to steel our spines, redouble our efforts, and recommit ourselves to the fight” against the coronavirus, Biden said. “Let’s remember, we’re all in this together.” Watching from abroad as Harris and Biden begin to staff up and mask up, it’s comforting to see America being led with competence, compassion and intellect.

Only a month after Election Day, it is evident that Harris will play more than a supporting role in this administration. Harris represents the multiculturalism embedded in the American dream but is often absent in the D.C. power structure. As the highest-ranking woman ever elected in American government, she gives women, particularly women of color, hope for a more equitable future. What she does with her power over the next four years will go far beyond this symbolic win. Smashing glass ceilings is to be celebrated but the fight for gender and racial equality is an excruciating and long American road.

Under the Constitution, the Vice President has a narrowly defined job. If the President dies, leaves office, or becomes incapacitated the VP is next in line. The Vice President also serves as President of the Senate, casting a tie breaking vote. Each Vice President has interpreted the role to their own personality. The last three Vice Presidents (Cheney, Biden & Pence) were so diametrically different in office, that the only thing that binded them was their title. Each man wielded the VP power in various ways. Now we have a woman in the seat, and for the first time in American history, a woman of color. What will that look like? How will she govern? How will Kamala reshape this significant, powerful position and make it her own? 

The vice presidency carries powers both formal and implicit, and Biden is expected to delegate a significant portfolio to Harris. Biden has already signaled she will be a substantial partner and confidant, “When I agreed to serve as President Obama’s running mate, he asked what I wanted. I told him I wanted to be the last person in the room before he made his most important decisions,” Biden said. “That’s what I ask of Kamala — to be the last voice in the room. To always tell me the truth. To ask the hard questions.” In these early days of the transition, Harris has been right there next to Biden during coronavirus briefings, virtual talks with mayors, and staff announcements. It is very clear there is a unified partnership, a mutual respect that will be significant as the VP office begins to take shape.

The most pressing crisis for the incoming administration will be managing the pandemic. The White House Coronavirus Task Force under VP Pence is a failure of historic proportions. The Biden-Harris Transition COVID-19 Advisory Board, announced days after the election, was lauded in the media when top public health officials were appointed. If Harris takes the helm, the new administration may want to highlight her competence as a contrast to the incompetence of her predecessor. Before she was even named to the ticket, Harris was focused on the virus in the Senate, proposing a number of policies aimed at communities of color that have been disproportionately harmed by the pandemic. Covid-19 is affecting people of color at higher rates than the population at large. Additionally, women are bearing the brunt of the economic fallout. Around the world, countries with more women in office tend to spend more on public health, and many female leaders are being praised for how they have responded to the Coronavirus pandemic (New Zealand, Germany, Scotland). VP Harris, taking a leading and empathetic role here, may give Americans some needed confidence in how our country should respond to this public health crisis, and that of our broken healthcare system -- “Each and every vote for Joe Biden was a statement that healthcare in America should be a right and not a privilege” Harris said. “Each and every vote for Joe Biden was a vote to protect and expand the Affordable Care Act, not to tear it away in the midst of a global pandemic.”

Aside from the pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement, coupled with the slogan “Defund the Police,” will also be a contentious issue for the new administration to confront. Systemic racism is deeply rooted in America’s past and present; it will need surgical precision to extract. Harris’s past as California’s District Attorney, as well as Biden’s record on criminal reform, were used against them in the Presidential primaries, including against one another during the infamous bussing debate. However, the Biden-Harris transition site, buildbackbetter.gov, lists racial equity as one of their top four priorities as well as Covid-19, economic recovery, and climate change. Both Biden and Harris have indicated their willingness to pass police reform legislation including a nationwide ban on chokeholds, creating a national police oversight commission, and stopping the transfer of weapons of war to police forces. Harris’s extensive record on criminal justice reform, paired with her knowledge of how it affects Black communities gives her a unique perspective on how to dismantle structural racism and bias. “America’s sidewalks are stained with Black blood,” Harris said this summer when she introduced the Justice of Policing Act 2020. “In the wake of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor’s murders, we must ask ourselves: How many more times must our families and our communities be put through the trauma of an unarmed Black man’s or woman’s killing at the hands of the very police who are sworn to protect them?” Her most critical role may be speaking with President Biden as his most trusted adviser. She will be a perpetual reminder not to neglect the forgotten base, people of color, especially the Black women and men who helped elect them.

Vice President Harris will wear many hats, as all women do. She will be expected to meet the needs and demands of various stakeholders who carry with them ancestral pain, systemic poverty, and gender inequities. She has shared her values with America and they are rooted in her identity as a woman, a Black American, an Asian American, a daughter of immigrants, a divorcee, and a stepmother. Kamala’s policy decisions will intersect with her own story, as she more accurately represents the face of America. Vice President Harris is poised to be one of the most influential women in American history, hopefully leaving a distinctive mark on American society for generations to come.